On lecturing

I’m lecturing a lot this semester – about nine hours, all on the one course, all of them pre-scheduled (as opposed to my schtick in earlier years, racking up lecture hours by dint of a useful ability to knock together emergency lectures when other people were ill). For added interest, I’m lecturing on a history-leaning course (interdisciplinary medieval studies tends to ‘lean’ to history or literature or occasionally something else, at least around here), for which the students need different kinds of input compared to lit courses.

I’ve been reading some discussions and bloggy commentary on lectures, how and why to. I was particularly fond of Notorius PhD’s defense of the lecture format, here. In it, she makes the point that lectures should do something which a textbook can’t – she zones in on the ability to draw connections between apparently disparate ideas or processes. She also touches on the fact that she’s a *good speaker*: it’s worth remembering that some students will be aural learners who take in information better from people than from textbooks!

To add to that: I think there’s much to be said for a course in which the lectures are the textbook. That can be done well or badly, of course, but for senior level courses, lectures are the simplest way of delivering the background information you know students will need to navigate the texts you’ve set them. The course I’m teaching on, we’ve recommended a textbook as well – its job is to be a handy resource for applying the necessary theoretical concepts to the primary sources, more or less. We give them historical background and more specific examples of applied critical frameworks.

I spat out at a friend recently the five key things I aim to do in lectures – although not all at once. Typically I don’t try to do more than two of them in an hour.

Preparing students to navigate primary sources

– Introducing text, context, and cultural setting. Trying to ward off egregious history!fail by, for instance, stating at the outset that Shakespeare was not medieval and Protestants are not relevant to your essay on the medieval church.

– Modelling critical skills for working with primary sources (in lit courses, this often takes the form of devoting ten minutes or so to close-reading an illustrative passage)

– And, especially if the primary sources are diverse or dense, introducing a set of key themes we expect to talk about in more detail in tutorials or essays

Preparing students to navigate secondary sources

– Providing historical overviews, especially of things which academic secondary sources assume you know (eg: last week I devoted about 40 minutes to the history of early Christianity, covering such concepts as who St Paul was and why he’s often credited with ‘hellenising’ Christianity).

– Modelling the use of, or breaking down into simplified chunks, the most important theoretical or critical frameworks. This might come in a historiography-overview kind of fashion, as with the brutally short introduction to gender theory I delivered two weeks ago; or integrated with ‘modelling primary source analysis’, as with the lecture we had in Medieval Heroes and Heroines entitled ‘Amy does Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity in Half an Hour!’ My operative principle here is that I’m either explaining something you need to navigate the rest of the secondary lit (eg: you don’t have to read Judith Butler, but you need to be able to decode Bultler-inflected gender studies), or giving students a rough guide to work with the key critical framework despite its density (as with Donald Maddox)

No one could do all of these in a single lecture. I do think those five points cover most of what I’d expect to get out of lectures were I enrolled in a lecture-based course.

There is a certain amount of repetition (I tell you what they key points of Augustine’s writing on marriage are; then you read Augustine!), but ideally, by giving a synthesis (not a synopsis!) in advance, a lecturer is setting students up with some idea of what to expect and how to process the readings. My learnings as an ESL teacher tell me you should never set students to reading things without either having them predict the content (for elementary ESL, that might be “what do you find on a restaurant menu?”) or giving them a  table, a set of questions, or something else to fill out as they read. University level humanities students should need less structure than elementary ESL (should, she says, hopefully), but I see both lecturer input and ‘tutorial questions’ as filling the ‘preparing to read’ function.


Thoughts on cultural difference courtesy of Charles Zika

Belated follow-up to my last post about ANZAMEMS. The closing plenary on Saturday gave us the pleasure of hearing Charles Zika speak – I had never encountered Zika before, but by all accounts he’s something of an institution in Melbournian and indeed antipodean historical circles. I have one piece of advice: if you have the opportunity to hear Charles Zika speak, on any topic, ever, do so

The plenary, which was on the topic of early modern representations of a. witches and b. the Witch of Endor, and how the latter influenced artistic concepts of the former, began with Charles Zika giving a very personalised introduction to his methodologies. He spoke of his childhood as a refugee child immigrant in Australia, and his consciousness at a young age of cultural and religious difference. This, he said, made him ‘intellectually but also emotionally predisposed to engage with stories that speak of otherness’. Then, also interestingly, he spoke of a fascination with ‘strategies that close off understanding… or even feign misunderstanding’ between cultural and religious groups.

That awareness is, I think, critically important to the study of the past. It doesn’t have to come by the hard-earned personal route – I have little claim to experience of otherness myself, unless you count the odd dislocated place which antipodeans tend to occupy in Anglo-American cultural spaces (eg: European history; the Internet) – but I do think it is in the interests of Knowledge at Large if those hard-won personal knowledges and interests are allowed to enter into even apparently unrelated academic space. Who knows what we might find?

Zika then went on to demonstrate, if I understood him correctly, a pattern in northern European images of the Witch of Endor to follow certain exemplars. Alongside that, he showed generic images of witches following these images as their models, and, in one case, an example of reverse influence. He didn’t speak in the lecture itself about why it is that most of his evidence is northern, but in conversation afterwards he said he sees two possibilities: either he hasn’t found the southern evidence yet, or for some reason northern artists were particularly interested in the Witch of Endor imagery. You could tell he was leaning toward the latter conclusion, especially since one of the exemplar pictures was Italian, and copied by Dutch artists who had worked in Italy – but only after they returned to Northern Europe.

By and large, the lecture was about art history, and about ideas of how witchcraft operated (the Witch of Endor illustrations tended to show her with magic circles, books, and other accoutrements of masculine magic). Where the cultural difference comes in is in what witchcraft treatises – in which these images are found – were trying to do.

Zika takes a long view of the development of ‘canonical’ witchcraft theories – he asserted that they were still accumulating in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Witchcraft treatises, then, are ways of assembling information and putting forth certain views and explanations, not necessarily universally codified beliefs. And what they’re assembling and interpreting is a vast range of folk belief and practice – most of it culturally distant from the authors, if not in space then in vertical culture (wealth, class, religious training). The expectation of a universal witchcraft then required elaborate theories for unifying these diverse beliefs, and that seems to be where Zika’s witch-pictures come in: the Witch of Endor, as the only biblical witch, provided a grounding for witchcraft theories, an imagined past which might possibly connect the diverse present.