How David Letterman inspired my teaching philosophy

David Letterman is a comic genius.  The ability to both innovate and survive for over thirty years is a testament to his ability.  I am too young to remember much from Dave’s time at NBC but watching him in the 90’s was a thing of beauty.  His nearly singular ability to be smart and stupid at the same time has always struck me.  I would say that we share the same sense of humor, but the reality is that Letterman shaped my sense of humor.  In recent years, I haven’t watched the Late Show as much as I did back in the day (thanks to the kids I can’t stay up that late).  With all of the celebration of Letterman in recent weeks, I’ve been reminded how much I loved watching him.  At the same time and with the benefit of hindsight, I now realize how David Letterman inspired my teaching philosophy.

Photo credit: CBS

Artistic Integrity

Some late night hosts (ahem, Jay Leno) go for the easy laugh.  There are certain kinds of jokes that you can reliably expect to get a laugh every time.

I respected Letterman because you always had the sense that if he didn’t find it funny then he wouldn’t tell the joke.  Plenty of times that meant the jokes weren’t funny to anyone but Dave.  Of course, watching Dave be amused is funny by itself.

One story I read about him recently described this as his artistic integrity.

It didn’t matter if you didn’t find Rupert Jee or throwing stuff off the roof funny (although I worry about you if you don’t).  If Letterman thought it was funny, it was going to be on the show.

I try to have the same sense of academic integrity.  I know what students need to know.  I have some specific ideas on how to get them to know it.  And we’re going to do it my way.

I once joked in class that my teaching philosophy was a one trick pony.  If you didn’t like group activities and discussion, you were likely going to be disappointed.  But I think, like Letterman, this is part of the schtick that works.

Smart and Silly

Perhaps my favorite aspect of David Letterman was his ability to be very smart and silly all at the same time.

I have tried to bring that into my classroom and it is at the core of many of my activities.

Over the years, I have done my fair share of smart and silly.  My hope is that it connects with students in memorable ways.

I’ve stood on chairs to make a point about the Yale faculty in the Yale Report.

I’ve brought academic regalia to class for students to try on for fun.

I’ve pretended we were going somewhere as a class only to just walk around the building to take a break from writing.

I’ve lied about starting a new degree program to get students to confront their own biases.

There has been a lot of silly things, but all is the service of smart learning.  I suspect that’s what students remember most when thinking back to my classes and I am quite pleased if that’s the case.

Embrace Sarcasm, Irony, and Being Yourself

I love how Dave could engage in casual mockery or playing the sardonic observer.

I often play these roles in class.

Sometimes they work great.  Sometimes they bomb.

But they are always me.

This may be the greatest essence of David Letterman.  He was himself.  Yes, that occasionally meant he was aloof or seemingly uninterested in his own show.  But he was himself.

I used to think about what persona I would play in the classroom.  I even tried on a few that didn’t work so well.

In the end, I decided to be myself which doesn’t seem like a choice, but it may be the hardest one of all.

Dave made that choice for 6,028 shows.

I hope I’m just as lucky… and good.

Really, really good.