Stewart Ryan doesn’t don the traditional professor’s uniform. Instead each day he makes a point to wear Pi-inspired parody T-shirts to class. Tuesday’s shirt bore a drawing of fangs in the shape of a Pi symbol with the word “VamPire” written underneath.
Ryan, a physics professor with 31 years of experience, is one of several OU professors who uses non-traditional antics like humor, cartoons and demonstrations to teach.
Briana Bliss, communications sophomore, said she enrolled in physics for nonmajors specifically to have Stewart as a professor.
“I heard he was funny and made it easy so you could understand it,” Bliss said.
Ryan begins each class with a cartoon and then announces “Viewer Mail” by blowing into a giant seashell.
“Viewer Mail” is an outlet for Ryan to clarify physics concepts to students who are embarrassed to ask questions in class. He said the purpose of the mailbox is to get students engaged in class, and the idea came to him from a former OU math professor.
“Sometimes there is physics in the mailbox, but it’s usually a joke of some kind or another. And so students can put that in, but if they don’t, I have a file here, and I pull out an appropriate one from a past semester,” Ryan said.
Ryan also incorporates everyday examples into his lecture to help students relate to the material. He said the more outlandish the demonstrations, the better the lesson
“There are usually a lot of props. Some of them are sort of ho-hum and some of them are fun. It’s important to keep attention, and sometimes you have to be a little bit out in left field,” he said.
The demonstrations range from inflating a hydrogen-filled balloon to lying on a bed of nails and asking a student to stand on his chest or swing a sledgehammer to break a concrete block on his stomach.
Kennedy Winn, University College freshman, said he was surprised by what he was asked to do when Ryan handed him a sledge hammer and told him to smash the concrete block.
Tentatively picking up the sledgehammer and shaking his head a few times, Winn gently tapped the block.
It took two attempts — and a bit of goading from Ryan — for Winn to gain enough momentum to break the concrete block.
“He keeps class lively with stuff like that,” Winn said, gesturing behind him to the bed of nails. “He has a really unique personality. He’s just kind of out there. It helps hold your attention instead of just being monotonous.”
But each professor is different, and for communication professor Eric Kramer, lying on a bed of nails is not his style. Instead, he uses humor to keep students interested.
“There’s a way of presenting material that makes it interesting. You can take anything and make it horribly boring, I suppose, but I’d also like to think that the ideas themselves are exciting,” Kramer said.
Few students said they get bored in Kramer’s class, where he acts out various story lines and covers the chalkboard with words and visual representations. Ashley Rhone, international and area studies sophomore, said creative teaching methods help her comprehend and remember material. The semester is almost halfway over, and she remembers the majority of what is discussed in class, she said.
“The subject could be very heavy if he didn’t relate what he is talking about at the time with an example or story that helps you remember it. Usually, I space out in class, but he makes his class interesting with his sense of humor and funny antics and stories,” she said.
University College freshman Namisha Thapa said she occasionally becomes so engrossed in lectures that she loses track of time, and is surprised when she discovers the hour has passed.
According to students, many professors are popular because they try to get the class laughing.
“I don’t think people come to class just to see my demonstrations. It’s probably much nicer to sleep in, but what I hope is that there is enough fun in the class that they can get through the boring part,” Kramer said.