« Robert George on Same-Sex Marriage and DOMA | Main | The Retributivist Tradition...and its Future: A Conference on Friday Nov. 4, 2011 »

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bossypants: Can Tina Fey Teach You to Give a Workshop?

During my last stint at Prawfs, I posted about vocal and posture techniques that can help with presenting a paper or teaching class.  This time, I thought I'd let Tina Fey do the talking.

I just finished reading her new book Bossypants.  (Actually, I listened to the audio version which I highly recommend because she narrates it herself).  In one of the chapters she discusses her time learning Chicago school improv.  No, that does not mean Improv and Economics -- it is a type of improvisational theaterdeveloped by Del Close at the Second City in Chicago.

Fey discusses the rules of long-form improv and how they are generally good rules to follow in work and in life.  Since giving a workshop (or even teaching) is a type of improv, and is definitely a performance, I thought I'd see how Fey's advice holds up.

 Rule 1. Start with Yes

Fey's Example:

Actor: “Freeze, I have a gun!”
Bad improv response: “No you don’t, that’s your finger.”
Good response: “The gun I gave you for Christmas? You jerk!”

This is a great starting point.  Saying "no" shuts down a talk in the same way it shuts down an improv scene.  Now, I trust most Prawfs readers are sophisticated enough not to answer a workshop question with an outright "no" and stop there.  But let's explore more of what this means.  Often, the "no" answer in a workshop takes the form of some version of the phrase "I don't accept your question."  The presenter then clarifies that answer with either an explanation of why (s)he doesn't accept the question, or simply answers the question that (s)he wished the questioner had asked.  Both of these are a form of "no," and they don't advance the workshop.  Yes, the person probably asked you a question completely out of left field that has nothing to do with your paper.  But that's why this is a workshop.  If everything needed to be "within the scope of this paper," then we'd all just read the paper.  (oh, I forgot, no free sandwiches when you just read the paper...)

Now, like improv, this requires delicate balancing on the part of the presenter.  While it's true that you want to say "yes" and you want to be open to all sorts of questions, there is the very real possibility that the workshop will veer off in a direction that is not only unwanted, but prevents you from making the points that you want to make.  Keeping control of a scene while "saying yes" is a big component of mid- and upper-level improv classes.  And it's something that with time, practice, and observation of others, we can all come closer to mastering in the workshop context.

Rule 2. Say “Yes, and —–”

Fey's Example:

Actor: “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here.”
Bad improv response: “Yeah.”
Good response: “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth.”

"Yes, and --" is a fundamental premise of improv.  Your scene is at its best when you accept the premise of your scene partners and contribute something new for them to play off of.  This is how you can deal with those pesky "off topic" questions from Rule 1.  Start your answer "yes" and then the "and --" is how you add to the discussion by introducing something new.  The big caveat here is that the "yes" in "yes, and--" must be genuine.  I have seen many a workshop and improv scene where the "yes" is nominal, and the "and" actually introduces a very clear "no." 

Rule 3. Make statements – Don’t ask questions all the time

Fey's Example:

Bad improv:  Who are you?  Where are we?  What are we doing here?  What’s in that box?
(This puts pressure on the other actor to come up with all the answers.)
Good improv: Here we are in Spain, Dracula.

There are two distinct workshop points from this rule.  Again, I know that most Prawfs readers are unlikely to make many interrogative statements in a workshop.  But, the questions are there, even if they're not stated as such.  They most often take the form of answering a question with, "that's a great question!"  and refusing to really engage with what the answer to that question might be.  You should be confident enough in your paper to make statements instead of asking questions.  Some questions are obviously OK.  If you really don't know something, or have really, really not thought about an idea, it's probably not a good idea to make things up.  But, part of giving a workshop is thinking about what Lisa Bernstein calls your "zone of defense."  You will inevitably be asked questions that are not addressed in your paper, but you should be ready to answer them, and/or to be familiar enough with basic schools of thought to engage with the questioner.

There's a second point here, just for the ladies.  Sometimes our statements sound like questions simply because of the way in which we speak.  Women tend to raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence.  So it sounds kind of like this?  Right?  Especially when we're nervous? That means that even if you are making declaratory sentences, they sometimes sound like questions, or as if you're asking the listener for approval.  Try recording yourself giving a presentation to see if this is a trope in your speaking pattern.  

Rule 4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

This one speaks for itself.  Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good in your presentation.  A little slip up here and there is a chance for humor, which can often bring a wandering listener back to your speech.  Other mistakes are learning opportunities, and your audience will be forgiving.  For the most part, they will learn with you.  In many cases, hearing myself make mistakes during a talk is a big clue into the parts of a paper that I need to clarify for myself as a well as the readers of my article.

And a few addenda:

Rule Alpha: Yes, Giving a Workshop is Improvisational

I've added this one myself, to remind us that giving a paper goes much, much better when you (a) don't bring more than a page or two of notes to the podium; (b) do not read directly from your notes; (c) do not try tomemorize your talk as a substitute; and (d) trust yourself to do (a), (b), and (c).

Rule Beta:  "Say Yes" and "Yes, and--" might need more nuance in teaching

I am a big fan of "yes, and--."  I brought it with me from my improv class days several years ago, and I do find it very valuable.  That being said, I have learned to curb my "yes, and--" enthusiasm while teaching.  It is very hard to say "no" to a student in class.  They are nervous and hope to impress (or just survive), and I want to do everything in my power to make them feel confident and successful.  That being said, sometimes a "yes, and--" response to a student, in which I try to take a teeny kernel of what they say and make it into a correct answer is not the best approach.  Students can start to find it confusing to sort out correct from incorrect information.  Attempts to accommodate every student thought can lead to the dreaded "class went off on too many tangents!" comment.

So, the lesson of "yes, and--" for teaching is to communicate the most accurate information without "shutting the student down."  Much easier said than done, but, hey, isn't that true of everything else in this post?

So, Prawfs readers, is Tina Fey right?  Do the lessons of improve hold some great kernels of wisdom for us?  Or am I just happy because I had the equivalent of 6 hours of 30 Rock in my iPod?


Posted by Robin Effron on August 2, 2011 at 09:00 AM in Teaching Law, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Bossypants: Can Tina Fey Teach You to Give a Workshop?:


This is such wonderful advice for someone thinking about the job market!

Posted by: Law Prof Hopeful | Aug 3, 2011 5:22:14 PM

This is great! I completely hear you on saying no to students and not talking like girl...you know???

Posted by: Mehrsa Baradaran | Aug 2, 2011 3:57:38 PM

I would add that there is the second half of the workshop equation - the audience. You can really put a damper on a workshop presentation by stating in your question (or more accurately your allegation) that the presenter has a fatal flaw (usually very debatable) and therefore their work is &*%$. Obviously, it would be better if phrased in a way that left some room for development, elaboration and possible consensus on how the work might be improved and the claimed flaw addressed. Yet, when I attend workshops I see fellow audience members make this type of question/comment quite frequently. A related cousin is "I just dont buy it" -- whereupon the presenter offers background, context and justification, and the audience counter is ... again "I just dont buy it" ... and so on.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Aug 2, 2011 3:34:54 PM

"Yes, and -- " is also a very effective deposition and cross examination technique. It avoids arguing wiht the witness, while allowing you to control the flow of the examination.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 2, 2011 3:09:37 PM

Fun post, Robin.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 2, 2011 2:27:27 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.