As I near the end of a somewhat unusual semester, I wanted to reflect a bit on my experiences as a Teaching Fellow for a course on the American Revolution. This semester I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to deliver a number of lectures. And it has gotten me thinking about the lecture as both a piece of writing and a pedagogical tool. The purpose of this post is mostly to throw out some things that have occurred to me throughout the semester but to also get thoughts from those of you with experience giving lecture courses.
First, the lecture was for me, at the start, a piece of writing. Having had no experience lecturing to such a large group (100+ students), I was not willing at the start to go up there with just notes, even though (I realize now) my knowledge of the material was enough that, nervousness aside, I could have done so from the start. It struck me that writing a lecture is essentially writing a performance piece. We all write papers for conference presentations and (too) many of us get up at these conferences and read them verbatim from the page. Many papers presented this way that I’ve seen at conferences are often written AS a paper, with seemingly no adjustments made for the fact that it was going to be recited. But when you’re lecturing to a large group of undergrads, including many freshmen and a vast majority who are non-majors, taking that approach would simply inflict torture on both you and them.
So the question then became: How do I write out a lecture in a way that doesn’t read (or, more importantly, sound) like an academic conference paper. I adopted a technique that I had begun using with my conference presentations but really turned it up a notch. That is, I did my best to write the lectures out colloquially by thinking of it, essentially, as a script. So I included notations to “pause” or italicized words that needed to be stressed. It was all very Fliegelman-esque. And on top of that, in order to reduce the sense among the students that I was reading it largely from a script, I found myself (almost involuntarily) adding impromptu speech mannerisms and body language here and there that would connote some kind of spontaneity or extemporaneity. In a sense, it’s acting but what is a lecture, after all, but a performance?
Now, I’m sure there are a number of (or perhaps many) readers who are thinking, “Well, of course.” But I did my undergraduate work at the City University of New York, particularly City College, and I never had a lecture course (in any subject) in all my four years there. My history classes were never larger than 35 students (at most). And the way the professors taught the course was a mixture of what here at Yale and at other R1s and large state schools is separated into lectures and discussion sections. To me, that was what I thought of when I thought about “teaching.” There was information delivery, sure. But it was accompanied by questions both to and from the students as well as the occasional group exercise. That mix provided a back-and-forth between the professor/instructor and the students in a way that you don’t get with lectures, obviously, but not even in a discussion section where the instructor’s role is more that of a facilitator.
And so I must admit that this division of learning has seemed quite foreign to me. At the same time as I was preparing to give these lectures, I found it hard to get out of my head studies that have shown that students can really only give optimum focus to a spoken lecture for twenty minutes at most (and a few of those were done before the internet!). I understand that there doesn’t seem to be any broad agreement on a viable alternative for dealing with large-enrollment courses and, of course, no one in our field should be complaining about high enrollment numbers.
Space precludes me from going into the myriad alternative possibilities for information delivery, but it was a disjunction that remained in the back of my mind the entire time I was both preparing and giving the lectures. And I wondered if this disjunction was an issue in any way for others. I’m also interested to hear about others’ approach to lecturing undergraduates both in terms of preparation and delivery?