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Jokes in the Physics Class

  1. Oct 24, 2014 #1
    Hi, all.

    I want to become a Physics professor in the US. For a few years now I've been a TA in an american university and I've had to teach a few lectures to a large audience in a big lecture hall. However, american students learn differently. For moments, I feel like a performer in this lecture hall, with the lights of the ceiling pointing at me and the blackboard behind me. Moreover, I feel that the students want me to perform, they want me to break the tension and not to bombard them with formulas. Unfortunately, I was not educated in this huge lecture halls and the way I teach doesn't truly fit in this kind of space. In more than one occasion, I've noticed my students glazing their eyes over or yawning. That sends a terrible signal to me. I try to keep them attentive by throwing questions about what I'm teaching or doing an experiment or a demonstration (and most of the time they're genuinely interested, specially if I precede what I say with "this will be in tomorrow's exam"), but I want them to enjoy the lecture. I know the best way for this is to break the ice with some joke, so as to relax the ambiance. But I don't know any. Maybe some of the readers might give me some feedback on how to make the lecture more relaxed and more amicable and less "analytical" and formal.

    Thanks :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 25, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Well I had one I presented to three interviewers who were considering me for a teaching position. I had to give a short lecture on Newton's third law of motion and so my joke was

    Question: What government agency was so I moveable that not even a force of nature could make it move?

    Answer: FEMA or F=ma

    Other parts of my talk added Sherlock Holmes like problems:

    Case of the Rolling Truck Stopper

    The question was whether you could stop a parked truck on a hill that began to roll down.

    You can no longer just lecture as students quickly lose interest. You must instead establish a connection with them, dazzle them with puzzles, comedy, and remarkable videos.

    Check out how Robert Mueller teaches his Physics for Presidents course.
  4. Oct 25, 2014 #3


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    Homework Helper

    If you teach a class on quantum mechanics, this old chestnut might get you a chuckle:

    Heisenberg and Schrödinger get pulled over for speeding.

    The cop asks Heisenberg "Do you know how fast you were going?"

    Heisenberg replies, "No, but we know exactly where we are!"

    The officer looks at him confused and says "you were going 108 miles per hour!"

    Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, "Great! Now we're lost!"

    The officer looks over the car and asks Schrödinger if the two men have anything in the trunk.

    "A cat," Schrödinger replies.

    The cop opens the trunk and yells "Hey! This cat is dead."

    Schrödinger angrily replies, "Well he is now."
  5. Oct 25, 2014 #4
    Thank you for your advice, guys. I must say that I am not the main lecturer for this class I was talking about, I'm just their TA; but I want to become a lecturer after I graduate, so I feel it's important I find ways to keep my audience interested. I do present them with puzzles and questions, whenever I can. But I want to make the experience more dynamic, that's why I wanted to throw a few jokes. Next time we meet will be in a month or so. Then, we will be reviewing oscillations and Arquimedes' principle. Usually, I tell the story of Archimedes and the crown in a bit of a comical way (because, it is comical that Archimedes left the bathtub naked and ran out screaming 'Eureka!'), but if you know any joke about oscillations, I could try to throw it too. Thanks again for the inputs. :)
  6. Oct 25, 2014 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    You could dress up like Newton or Einstein depending on what you be lecturing on....
  7. Oct 25, 2014 #6

    Stephen Tashi

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    Science Advisor

    Examples always help - namely look at some online videos of USA physics lectures. Many of these are given in large lecture halls. Perhaps forum members will suggest links to lectures that kept them awake.
  8. Oct 26, 2014 #7
    Do it like John Nash :)

    Even thoe John Nash was teaching mathematics and not physics.
  9. Oct 27, 2014 #8


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    In fact, I do not. The only thing that I know regarding oscillations is that I keep changing my mind about them. What I would suggest is that you don't even consider structured jokes unless you encounter one that is so funny that it must be shared. I find (although the majority might well disagree with me) that observational-and-or-improvised humour (i.e.: real accounts) delivered in an unassuming deadpan manner, is most effective. That's what I find most comedically appealing. (Think Bob Newhart or Johnny Carson or Danny Bhoy, not Rip Taylor or Joan Rivers.) Try to find the honest, natural humour in real-life occurrences, and distill them into a brief comment. Don't worry about offending anyone, because that will happen no matter how inoffensive you try to be. The reason for that is that there are a lot of people whose sole entertainment is becoming offended by something that's probably none of their business to start with and making a stink about it. (Now, if something is overtly racist or sexist or ageist or any other "ists", that's a different matter. Don't even think about doing that.)
    The most important thing of all is to never, and I mean NEVER, laugh at your own jokes. If possible (and sometimes it isn't ) pretend that you didn't realize that you'd made a funny at all. Just look puzzled, wait for them to stop laughing, and then clear your throat in a confused manner and carry on with your notes.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2014
  10. Oct 27, 2014 #9
    As a student, I like my teacher to keep me busy doing funny exercises and with his or her meaningful jokes, never to use difficult or big words to explain difficult things. The problem I had is I met teachers who never joked, they kept a straight face and poured sarcasm on stuff from time to time. They looked like graduated from some military school. :D
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2014
  11. Oct 27, 2014 #10


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    Then just point out to them that theres a major difference between the infantry and the Intelligence corps, to the latter of which you belong.
  12. Oct 28, 2014 #11
    As a TA it's going to be hard to keep students attention. They don't respect you like they respect the Professors, and often you may find that their inattentiveness is due partially to their feeling that you are inferior to them.

    I know because I sometimes felt that way towards the TAs in undergrad. My advice is just cater to those who do engage, and let the ones who don't zone out if that's what they want. I highly doubt jokes are going to help you much.
  13. Oct 28, 2014 #12
    When they know you´re the one grading their exams, they kinda do. :)

    I do know, however, what you're talking about. Although they're not disrespectful at all, they certainly don't take me as in such a high ground as the professor. That's OK. I'm just using my time with them as a practice when I become a real professor. Thanks for the advice :)
  14. Oct 29, 2014 #13


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    This might seem to be a blasphemous thing to say on a serious science site, but... there is an excellent television series named "Perception" that stars Eric McCormack as a schizophrenic neuroscientist and professor who is partnered with an FBI agent to solve crimes. Many episodes begin with, and sometimes end with, his lectures in the classroom. He is surreptitiously funny in the manner that I suggested, although targeting specific students and his TA the way he does might not work in all situations. (He uses them as examples, but not in a mean way; everyone likes him.)
    I honestly think that if you watch a few episodes, or at least the classroom parts of them, you can get a handle on what I've been trying to convey. He does it pretty much exactly the way that I would (if I had an education). If it doesn't air in your vicinity, it can be watched on the net.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2014
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