Entertainment vs. Enlightenment

If your professor stood in front of your class and said “my purpose during the course of this semester is to set your mind on fire,” what would you envision the semester looking like in that moment?  An enlightening and motivational speech every day in the classroom?  A fiery debate in every class?  Or maybe your grades going up in flames?…

Whatever you imagined, it may or may not have been what the professor intended.  What I think Mark Carnes intended when he wrote “Setting Students Minds on Fire” was that he wants his class to be driven by the students and the students to be passionate about the topic.  He began his article by saying that a high percentage (perhaps close to 50%) of students who enroll in college do not finish.  Some attribute the cause to lack of funds, but Carnes argues that it is lack of motivation… basically, classes are boring.  If the experiences that students have in the classroom lead to motivation and passion for their education, then they will likely find a way to finish.

Now please bear with me while I interject a brief comment here on the distinction between classes that are “entertaining” and classes that are “enlightening” or “motivational.”  If you think that college is meant to be 100% entertaining, then you will be sorely disappointed.  College is not meant to be that way.  As with every other thing we commit to in life, even our dream jobs, there is always a bit of drudgery that we have to get through to get to the good stuff we enjoy.

However, I think we can certainly deliver classes that are enlightening and motivational on a regular basis.  As Carnes discusses in his article, we can involve students in quests or games that involve their problem-solving skills.  We can provide context and deep meaning to what they are learning so that they will apply those concepts to their own lives.  Think about what you could do in your own classrooms and in your disciplines that could genuinely interest the students in the material.

While you are doing that: remember to carefully tread the line between entertaining and enlightening.  I think some of you will agree that you have had professors give lectures in which they were obviously trying to merely entertain you and keep you awake during the class.  Did you leave those classes feeling motivated?  Feeling excited about the things you are learning?  Feeling like you couldn’t wait to talk to your roommate about what you were discovering during that class?  Probably not.  But maybe a few of you have been in classes that really got you thinking about the material and how it applied to your life.  How did that class make you feel?  How did it affect the rest of your semester/career/life?  How would you describe your experience?  I know how I might describe a few of those rare experiences:

My mind was set on fire.


  • Chris says:

    Thank you for the brief interjection about entertaining versus enlightening. It is easy to fall into the trap of being an entertaining lecturer, but not be engaging. I feel that sometimes instructors default to that in order to protect their job. If the student’s give them good reviews on the class, then they are good to go. There is probably a semester’s worth of posts about the current culture of higher education.

    To you point about a time that my mind was set on fire, it was when I took my first entomology class. There were so many ways it was such an awesome class. It could have easily been one of those classes that was mindless regurgitation. The instructor was able to connect insects to our lives in a multitude of ways. It kind of got you thinking wow, they are everywhere and do everything. That class was the reason why I went to graduate school to pursue an entomology related career.

    • Kristin says:

      I think you’re right there: the entertainment is often related to the professor’s desire to keep their students awake and to get good reviews so that they keep their job. They are sometimes more concerned about what their students are going to say on RateMyProfessor or on university teaching surveys than they are about making their students work hard for their educational goals. I don’t entirely blame them for this mindset… student surveys can sometimes mean the end of employment for a professor, and that can be scary.

      I love your comments about your entomology professor, that is so cool. And what an impact that professor had on your life!

  • Jyotsana Sharma says:

    You point out a good distinction Kristin. You bring up something important – the difference in perceptions and the way in which our cognitive schema develops and we make meaning of things. Now I think after bringing up this distinction I’d like to take it a step further and ask us as a class to examine how we in our journey as educators hope to transform what may seem entertaining or even boring to some and turn it into something that is enlightening, enriching, and inspiring to our learners.

    • Kristin says:

      Yes, that next step is an important one. I still don’t know HOW to do what I want to do, which is in your words: “to transform what may seem entertaining or even boring to some and turn it into something that is enlightening, enriching, and inspiring to our learners.”

  • A. Nelson says:

    This is definitely a challenge! But one we all need to accept, I think. How you approach this does depend somewhat on the subject, but I think the trick is to focus less on what a teacher “does” and more on engaging students — having them take an active role in the learning / discovery process. Also, I love the title of this post because it was a major theme in the debates I studied about the purpose of music in the early Soviet period. Thanks!

    • Kristin says:

      I agree, it’s perhaps more about student engagement than about a new trick that the teacher tries. And what a funny coincidence about the title! Who would have guessed :).

  • Robert H says:

    Thank your for the discussion of entertaining and enlightening. I once had a teacher, in junior high, that would assume historical presence when giving his lectures. He would, in a Robin Williams manner, use varied accents and mannerisms to entertain while he taught. I agree that professors often use entertainment to get good reviews and those that feel that enlightenment is not their job. At an R1 university, I argue that teaching is often secondary to research and becomes a tedious act for professors. They teach so they can get paid to do research. It is an interesting interaction that I look forward to discussing further.

    • Kristin says:

      Right, I often feel that same way: in R1 universities teaching can seem to take a back seat. I wouldn’t say that it is always the case, but it can certainly come across that way. At the same time, I recognize the enormous pressure on professors to succeed in research and yet they may not receive as much support to succeed in teaching. Not an easy issue to deal with, that’s for sure.

  • Armin says:

    I agree with most of what you said. I just want to add a few points. I think education should be well-planned in advance. If students believe that they have made the right choice, and they are at the right place in their lives, they already have some levels of motivation. Lack of motivation is certainly not limited to the entertaining nature of the class but there are many factors in private life that discourage students from education. I think the success of a teacher or a department in increasing motivation, to some extent, depend on how much those external factors are addressed. Some may think that dealing with anything beyond course content is not within the responsibilities of the teacher or department. However, the contemporary methodologies emphasize on education as an essential part of life. Based on my own experience, I feel that concerns such as job opportunities and post-graduation life quality are serious issues that if properly addressed in school, could really increase student motivation for participation in class. Professors who show concerns in developing the required skills and increasing post-graduation opportunities and helping students with their achievements (e.g., through consultation, writing recommendation letters, making industry connections, etc.) play a great role in this regard.

    • Kristin says:

      Those are great points to bring up, thank you. External factors can be huge obstacles in the higher education journey. And you’re right: instructors and administrators can (and should) address those external factors as much as possible so that the student can keep moving forward. I hope that in my future role as an educator I can maintain a good relationship with my students so that when “life happens” they will feel comfortable talking to me about their challenges. That way we can find a solution together.

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