Revisiting Vic Mackey

I was rereading my most recent post — the default activity when I’m feeling bored and narcissistic — and I realized I buried the lede beneath a pile of television criticism. Wrong blog, sorry.

And that thesis keeps hankering at me. I doubt it’ll leave me alone until I do it justice so the last paragraph, once again:

The truth, if you’re a speaker addressing an audience, is that the only way to get your audience more engaged is to become, yourself, more engaging. There is no shortcut. The solution is simple but not easy and the difference between those two adjectives lies somewhere on your TiVo.

That last point — that we can and should be imitating our favorite entertainers — is the most important.

I’ve led story development meetings. I’ve sat at a table with four other writers, a character to kill, and no way to kill him.

I’ve sat in front of my computer with a concept to teach and no idea how to make it engaging, new, or fun.

The two experiences are, in their intents and purposes and agony, completely the same.

Frustratingly, the solutions are also the same. You maintain a huge base of inspiration, reading and watching the absolute best of the field whenever you can. But come your turn, you just sit, fingers poised above keys. You sit and you agonize and you reject cheap solutions without pity.

Too contrived. He’d never go into that warehouse without questioning that witness first. Too boring. They’ve seen it taught this way before. The audience’ll never buy this. My students are gonna hate this.

And then it hits you — this idea that satisfies all these criteria, which you can also put together in the four days before principal photography begins or in the twelve hours before the first bell rings.

Right now — May — we’re in the second or third season of a show which started out great but which will, if its writers aren’t obsessed with quality, devolve into tedious wheel-spinning.

I’m talk about Lost. I’m talking about 24. I’m talking about the same repulsive opener-lecture-classwork cycle spinning day-in and day-out. Handouts upon handouts.

The advantage you and I both share is a gallery of greatness on the Internet and on television. Great, engaging characters from which we can pull mannerisms and dialect. Great, engaging examples of how not to bore an audience of millions, from which we oughtta be able to pull some tricks to enliven our audience of mere dozens.

The advantage I share with a smaller crowd — mostly my filmmaking colleagues — is that I bore myself long before I bore my students. Audience disengagement terrifies me and that fear propels me towards better teaching like a starving carnivore into a herd.

I wish for you that fear.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. If teaching were sold more as a demanding entertainer job and less as a caring profession, how would that affect teacher recruitment? How would the pool of teachers selected for be different? What attitudes, skills and habits essential to teaching might be neglected? Would teacher burnout decrease or increase?

  2. Great questions. Hope someone else can pick up those threads. I’m too connected to this to have much perspective.

  3. The only thing that I’d add for your consideration is that a TV show is a passive activity with all of the hard work taking place on screen (and behind the scenes in production). Ideally the classroom is a two way venture where students working stuff out for themselves and gaining skills and knowledge shares equal billing with the teacher pulling out all stops on the engagement front. I agree that the teacher needs to be highly skilled at getting key ideas and concepts out in an engaging way – but entertainment doesn’t always equal engagement – somewhere we want the student to be learning with purpose and taking the responsibility for their own learning because they can see clearly the relevance of that learning for their future. I’m not sure I’m being terribly clear but for me, it’s less about if I nailed a lesson than if I can see the impact of that lesson reflected back to me in what the student does in either assignment, further questioning, teaching a peer, whatever….

  4. Yeah, good comment. I don’t mean to hold up TV as the idea classroom or an entertainer as the ideal teacher. It’s just a slice of what we do. The ultimate aim needs to be something more than a kid who had a good time listening to the teacher talk.

    My concern is that few teachers are pursuing any sort of professional development to that end. Credentialing school didn’t lend me much of a hand in terms of creating an engaging presentation. (Lots of work on management and engaging activities, though.)

    So we now have this assumption that it’s genetics, that the funny, fun, well-spoken teachers were born that way (and thereafter “called” to teaching) when, I dunno, in three years I’ve gone from a inveterate mumbler to someone with a unique style.

    It’s too exciting not to talk about, though I reckon I’m building it up a little too much.