To engage students in a ‘maligned’ subject, Jonathan Reuning-Scherer creates moments for humor
Keeping the attention of a classroom of 300 students studying statistics can be a challenge, but Jonathan Reuning-Scherer, the recipient of the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for Teaching Excellence, has it figured out. He uses and encourages humor. Props are a routine part of his repertoire. Instead of a pointer, he uses a Jedi light sabre, and he tries to make every minute count, as he’s even figured out how much time is lost if his students’ attention wanders. One student who nominated him for the teaching prize said Reuning-Scherer brought the material alive in such a way that his lectures felt like a “one-on-one study session.”
Course: “Introduction to Statistics”
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
Obviously, we have some of the most brilliant students on the planet here at Yale. But, frankly, the thing that excites me the most is getting to help train future leaders and future scientists. I really see statistics as a helping field: It’s a critical tool these students will use as they go off to do great things in life. Sometimes former students send me notes about what they’re doing, and it’s very exciting to see what they do with statistics.
What do your students teach you?
The thing that my students teach me, really, is how to teach. I think that by listening to them I learn what motivates them and what excites them. I teach some of the biggest classes here at Yale; I have 300 students. I can see when they are asleep and when I’m losing them. Over the years I’ve learned what will engage them: what examples to use, when to use silly props and humor — whatever it takes get statistics into them.
I teach one of the most maligned subjects on the planet and so it’s very rewarding when I see in the reviews, “Professor Reuning-Scherer managed to take a dreadfully dull subject and engage my attention for an entire semester.”
Being a teacher of a class of 300 students I often think very carefully about every word I say. I often think that if I have 300 students in front of me, every minute that I talk is five hours of human time lost, so that minute better be engaging and relevant.
What advice would you give to a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I think the advice I would give to a Yale undergraduate would be to figure out what their passions really are. One of the great surprises of hitting my 20s was to discover that after all the emphasis that has been placed on getting good grades, no one ever asked for my transcript after my first job. But people did care if I have skills and was really passionate about my work. I would say to undergrads, “Figure out what really drives you, and if you can make a living out of it, it’s one of the greatest joys in life.”
If there is one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
If there’s one thing that I’d like my students to learn from me, it’s the power of statistics. There’s been a real explosion of data analysis and use of data in politics and in science. Statisticians, while we are a rather maligned lot, are actually highly moral. I hope that my students will learn that there is a real power in data, that it can be used for good or for ill. Regardless of what field they are in, people will try to use data against them — or data can be one of the most powerful allies they have in telling their story.
Tell us about one of your most memorable classroom experiences.
One of my most memorable classroom experiences happened about three weeks into class when we were talking about regression. I put up a slide with some data and said, “Now this point right here, is this an outlier or an influential point?” And one student goes, “Argh, it’s an outlier, captain!” I said, “Argh, you’re right, matey!” It turned out it was Sept. 19, National Talk Like a Pirate Day. It was one of the best times we ever had. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is nothing like a bit of humor to get people’s attention back and to engage them in the subject again. So I was ever grateful to that student, because it became a running joke for the rest of the semester. Argh!