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.


4 Responses to “On lecturing”

  1. Annelise Says:

    The thought about preparing to read is so important. So much more can be discovered in reading and research when the groundwork is done deeply and clearly in lectures and discussion.

    Regarding the history!fail… in undergrad I was really deeply evangelical-Christian, and that worldview and commitment definitely blurred my ability to focus on the historical sources with broad perspective. I would suggest letting students know that it’s legitimate, and even really good, to choose your historical interests and to research from perspectives that are inspired by your cultural, religious, and political persuasions. This motivation can contribute vibrant and original work to a bigger discussion. But somehow you must make sure that this doesn’t cause you to get totally off track from the issues at hand, or to leave the parametres of the discipline. I think the key is a commitment to respectfully listen to history for what the sources are saying. To be a ‘good listener’ to the people of the past, and at least *sometimes* try to speak on their behalf rather than your own. To be able to look at things that were important to the people then, rather than just using them to illustrate what is important to you now. We should be transparent when we synthesise and add our hand to the storytelling.

    • Annelise Says:

      i.e. the Protestant vision is a dot-to-dot picture that connects the Reformation with lots of elements of medieval Christianity. But what was the dot-to-dot like to medievals, around those same issues?

      • Annelise Says:

        and that all comes down to the ‘why do we do history’ question. Only when writer and reader have common answers to that question will the research have worth. So, if people want to join the existing conversation of medievalists then they need to understand what questions are already of interest to people there, and *also* to themselves, keeping both in balance.

  2. Alana Says:

    Ooh! Wonderful post, thank you! 🙂 I have to give my first lecture ever (!) in a few weeks so this is perfect!
    -Alana (from ANZAMEMS) (who is really enjoying re-familiarising herself with your blog of awesometasticness)

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