My Lecturing Disjunction

Lecture HallAs 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?

7 responses

  1. I appreciate your comments on lecturing. I also have struggled with lectures and realized that a “performance” is a much better attitude. Not that I am there to totally entertain, but I like to make it interesting. History is full of so many intriguing stories that you can use to help explain difficult topics in ways that won’t put the students to sleep. For my upper division courses, I have switched to a purely seminar/discussion type class with a shared reading that we discuss. I divide the class into groups and each day one or more of the groups are assigned to talk. Each group member must come prepared to talk for a minute or so. We then spend the rest of the class following up on the comments made by the group and I usually add some more to make sure everything is covered. I have found that we cover much more material than I would if I merely lectured AND the students are engaged.

  2. Will be teaching an introductory American History Course this Winter at a college that is very much a vocationally business oriented institution. Accordingly I will be using PowerPoint with minimal text to illustrate the lectures. I did this at a conference of the Society of Military Historians a while back and it seemed to work quite well at a conference where almost all of the papers were read.

  3. I’ve found that even when “lecturing” to a class of 30—which, ideally, doesn’t involve much actual reading on my part—I usually have to script most of my audience interaction ahead of time by including the questions I want to ask the students at the appropriate places in my outline. Otherwise, I’m likely to breeze past ideal opportunities to get a conversation going. It can be a little different in a much smaller class, where conversations can begin more naturally (and “lecture” is an even less accurate term), but I’ve found that question-scripting indispensable in most settings.

  4. The “lecture” has never been my game plan. It is far too stodgy. The more dynamic concepts of “performance” and interactive guerilla theater seem to be the better models for the 21st century classroom. And as for PowerPoint, that is so 1990s. Hey, I do not mean to throw stones at anyone who “lectures” and uses PowerPoint, but I would say this: classroom presentations are a very personal matter, and each “lecturer” must adapt and adopt, using whatever delivery method that makes the material matter to students. After all, what is more important: the “lecturer” or the student?

  5. Writing and delivering lectures is very personal, but my #1 piece of advice would be to speak it as you write it until you start to find your lecture “voice.”

    I have to write out all my lectures, but I write them out in a colloquial way and I don’t use conventional formatting or punctuation in the text. So my lectures are basically collections of phrases, lists, some more “written” than others. I talk through them as I write them, testing them again my ear. (I’ve become able to do this testing in my head, but I always try to imagine myself talking as I write them.)

    I also work rhetorical and discussion questions into the lecture so that I can step away from the podium and address the class directly — I lecture to a hall of 80-100 people. The more comfortable I am with the material, the more I am able to go off script, but I always have my “script” to back me up. I am not comfortable writing lectures in bare outline format as some of my more experienced colleagues (10-15 years of lecturing experience) do and I still don’t know how they do it!!

  6. Thank you for your post and for starting a valuable discussion. I started out teaching public speaking and for the past three years I have been teaching about early American theatre and culture. In other words, the pressure has always been high for me to be entertaining; everyone expects the theatre professor to be watchable. Here are a few tricks I have developed over the past several years of teaching a lecture class to a large room full of students.

    –I usually just outline, but I sometimes “script” my lectures the night before or early in the morning. I rarely look at this script while I am talking, though. I think of the act of writing it out as a rehearsal. If I can freewrite my way through the material in fifteen minutes or so, then I am ready to give the lecture
    –No matter what else I do to prepare, I ALWAYS script the first five minutes of the lecture. And I edit it. And then again. I make sure that in those first five minutes I introduce the day’s themes and guiding questions and that I do so without any specialized vocabulary. I never introduce new terms in the first five minutes. I never parse, backtrack, or refine in the first five minutes. I bring all of my physical and vocal energy to those first five minutes. I state in clear forceful terms what I am going to be talking about today, I preview the several parts of the lecture they can expect, and I raise a question that I will answer by the end of class.
    –Just in the past year, I have started experimenting with beginning class with a moment of music. The music is usually related to the day’s material–a jig, a field holler, a Baroque gavotte–although the relation is sometimes more thematic than temporal–I have used Macklemore. The music gives the students a moment to collect themselves and have a moment of deliberate stillness before they need to begin listening. I think this moment of transition is very important and it’s not one students are likely to take on their own.
    –I try to leave the last ten minutes of class every day for freewriting. Sometimes the prompt is a response to today’s lecture, sometimes it’s related to their upcoming research project, and sometimes it asks them to reflect on their own learning process. This writing exercise is only graded for completion and the grade takes the place of the dreaded “Participation Grade” that both teachers and students everywhere loathe. The responses let students lock in what they have just heard and begin to make sense of it in their own words. I also use these exercises as a way of taking the class’s temperature at any given point. Sometimes their responses can uncover a widespread misunderstanding you need to go back and address in the next lecture.
    –Here is a rule I live by: However much material you think you need to get through, you need to cut that by at least a third, and you need to say it slower. Remember when I said I sometimes freewrite my lectures in fifteen minutes? What takes me fifteen minutes to write takes them at least thirty minutes to hear. And then I have to spend ten minutes repeating myself. And then they respond to a writing prompt for ten minutes. That’s fifty minutes right there.

    These are some of my personal breakthroughs over the past few years. I hope any of them are helpful. I look forward to reading what others have to say.

  7. Pingback: On Assigning Undergraduate Reading « The Junto


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