“To me, teaching is really a performing art”—so says Jonathan Reuning-Scherer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Statistics and Data Science and in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. For nearly two decades, Yale students by the hundreds have crowded into his lectures, eager to watch the performance unfold.
In 2015, Reuning-Scherer won the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for Teaching Excellence by a Lecturer or Lector in recognition of his famous “Introduction to Statistics” class, which typically enrolls between 240 and 320 students. Many current undergraduates would be surprised to learn that his work on the course dates to his time as a Yale Ph.D. student. After completing a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College in 1991, Reuning-Scherer continued his education at Yale under the acclaimed statistician John Hartigan (now the Eugene Higgins Professor Emeritus). When consulted about a vacancy in the instruction of introductory statistics at the forestry school, Hartigan didn’t hesitate to suggest his then-student as a temporary substitute. It was Reuning-Scherer’s popularity, and the lack of a viable replacement, that rooted him in this new position.
Post-graduation, it took only a year in industry for Reuning-Scherer to realize how deeply those roots extended—that he belonged in front of students. The performative elements of the classroom enthralled him and forged a strong connection to his other passion: music. As an undergraduate at Oberlin, he had studied math but also graduated with a degree in piano performance. After completing his Ph.D. at Yale in 1997, Reuning-Scherer returned within two years to receive a master’s in choral conducting while learning to play the organ at the Institute of Sacred Music. Now back on university soil, Reuning-Scherer was invited to reenter the classroom; he taught two courses in the first year, then three, then five. A teacher once more, he began to develop a new art of conducting the lecture.
“When I think about what keeps people’s attention,” Reuning-Scherer considers, “it’s not who has the coolest example or flashiest slides: it is tone of voice.” The details of his presentation extend far beyond course material; breathing, cadence, and volume all are tested methodically for effect. “Where I pause, when my voice goes up or down, when it disappears altogether, or when I tell a stupid joke…being conscious of that has had the greatest effect” on sustained engagement in his class. With a sample size of some 300 students, retaining attention demands ingenuity—and, often, a herculean effort.
Such has been the case with one of Reuning-Scherer’s more recent teaching experiments, namely, the “flipped classroom.” Rather than listen to a lecture in class, students watch videos of the lesson at home. Class time is reserved for manipulating data and working through questions. Reuning-Scherer describes the preparation involved as extensive—three to four hours of work per video—but the experience yielded several insights. Trial and error showed that 12 minutes was the ideal video length, that it was still possible to include his signature brand of humor and, ultimately, that in a flipped classroom “every single student can control the rate at which they get the information and can repeat information as much as necessary.” This added flexibility can be particularly beneficial to students who speak English as a second language, or who have an alternative learning profile and thrive when given the opportunity to direct their own experience.
The stellar reviews of his flipped class notwithstanding, Reuning-Scherer is wary of becoming beholden to any one model—of adopting a “one-size fits all” mentality. So he tries everything, fusing a history of successful techniques. “If you’re a visual learner, here are a thousand slides; if you’re an auditory learner, here is the video; if you want to be in a physical space with other people, here is the lecture.” And even he has been surprised by the results. At the beginning of a recent undergraduate course, he posted all the videos of the lecture online, giving his students explicit permission to skip class. “I thought maybe no one would show up,” he laughs, “that it would just be me and the camera in this giant lecture hall.” Only about 25 percent of students stopped attending class. But when Reuning-Scherer asked who had, at one time or another, watched one of his videos, a sea of hands rose into the air.
Conducting a lecture requires experimentation and creativity. But most of all, it demands honesty: the ability to look at oneself and be truthful about the quality of the experience. For Reuning-Scherer, this is one of teaching’s greatest challenges. “If I talk for one minute and three hundred people are listening to me, then five hours of human time disappears for every one of those minutes. That minute had better be good.”
Outside of teaching, Reuning-Scherer serves as the musical director at Hartford’s Emanuel Lutheran Church. Though the subject matter is different, success often looks the same: “I think all the time, when I hear a great preacher, what is it that is capturing my attention? It is the content of what they have to say, it is the passion with which they say it, it is tone of voice, it is pacing, what their eyes are saying, what their face is saying.” That message extends beyond the confines of the chapel, or the seats in an auditorium. A powerful performance sticks with its listeners. And for the students in Jonathan Reuning-Scherer’s lectures, the harmony is unforgettable.
-Reported and written by Christian Soler for the FAS Dean’s Office