Thoughts on lectures and lecturing

Those of us who have been lucky enough to pursue higher education will have had experiences of lecturers who were just so dire that being in class was almost like living through a real-life Monty Python sketch. When I studied chemical engineering in UCD in the 1980s, we had one lecturer who just told anecdotes about his career in the metallurgical business, while leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, staring at the ceiling. He always wore a white lab coat during his lectures and for no apparent reason. It’s not as if he ever got up off his arse to use the blackboard. Another, a well-known business guru at the time, simply used the business pages of The Irish Times as his lecture ‘notes’. Not much preparation required there.

Then there was the bloke who used to put up an overhead of complicated organic chemistry reactions (polymerization reactions mainly) while proceeding to stare out the window in silence. He religiously got through four overheads per lecture. I used to think he may have been suffering from depression; he certainly didn’t seem very happy. But quite recently I heard that he was an avid sailor so maybe he was dreaming about being out in his yacht, leaving Dun Laoghaire harbour in his wake, skimming over the water out past the Kish lighthouse, putting as many miles as he could between him and UCD.

One eminent professor mumbled his way through lectures (on seemingly random topics) aided by overhead transparencies that he appeared to have written on a rapidly-moving DART. Another, something of a legend in engineering circles, literally[1] scribbled on the overhead projector and although mildly entertaining, you learned nothing in his lectures.

Some lecturers didn’t seem to quite know who they were teaching. As chemical engineering students we had to endure one module on electrical engineering. None of us knew what the lecturer was talking about and he seemed to be under the impression that we were third year electrical engineering students. So we learned about “Star” and “Delta” circuits and that circle diagram yoke that had something to do with induction motors.

Despite being clueless, we all rote-learned our way through and I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I got over 70% in that subject without having the faintest idea what I was doing. Rote-learning is not a new phenomenon!

Nonetheless, I did have some excellent lecturers during my time as a student. In UCD, my best lecturer was Frank MacLoughlin. Both Frank’s parents were teachers and it was clear that his passion was teaching, not something you can say about all university lecturers in the modern ear where universities have a lot more in common with corporations than we might like. Frank, who taught us Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer, was amiable, witty and extremely knowledgeable. He had a key skill that all teachers need: he was good at explaining complex ideas. One of the reasons he was so good at explaining things was that he paced his lectures perfectly. His approach was a classic chalk-and-talk one except that instead of a blackboard he used an overhead projector and one of those old acetate rolls that all the maths lecturers used to use. But unlike many (but not all) of the maths lecturers who tended to put the head down and write out, at a fairy rapid pace, a set of notes for us to transcribe, Frank would pause and interact, and humanise the whole process.

It would be easy to say that Frank had a natural gift for teaching but, in later years, as I got to know him as a colleague, I discovered that his ability to pace a lecture and, indeed, his ability to ‘entertain’ us with asides and anecdotes, was a consequence of the huge amount of preparation he did for each and every lecture. Frank was not one to rush into a lecture after a meeting; the hour prior to the lecture was preparation time. I suspect he had a sort of movie in his head as to how the lecture would pan out. He was not one to wing it.

The other great teacher from my student days was Ben Widom. Professor Widom (I’d never refer to him as “Ben”!) was an internationally renowned physical chemist whose course on statistical thermodynamics I attended in Cornell University. Now, statistical thermodynamics is a very mathematical subject that sets out to explain macroscopic behavior by creating models of how “ensembles” of individual molecules move and interact. I remember, vividly, the thrill of working through a particular model of how liquid molecules behaved and recovering part of the very well known Van der Waals equation. That is one of the most satisfying things you can do in science: use an entirely different approach to rediscover, perhaps unexpectedly, a well-known equation and in doing so, to provide additional insight into the assumptions underlying that equation. Indeed, generating mathematical models of physical and chemical systems is hugely satisfying and after a while you begin to understand, in a minor way of course, why theoretical physicists are so guided by the aesthetics of equations. In their world, beauty is truth.

Anyway, Widom’s approach was quite different from Frank’s. He arrived into the lecture hall (which tended to be filled with insanely clever physics and chemistry PhD students), armed with a few sticks of chalk and a duster. No notes. And then he held our attention for a full ninety minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday, 8.30am to 10.00am. He brought chalk-and-talk to a new level and although I admire Frank tremendously, Widom has always been the lecturer I aspired to be. Luckily I have been teaching a long time now and most of the time I lecture from my head, not from my notes. There are few better feelings than being in full command of your subject and feeling confident enough to be able to walk into a lecture without a safety net. You feel like you’ve arived; you’re good at something!

***

Here’s a theory I have: the majority of academics are introverts at heart while many lack social skills, perhaps due to shyness on top of their introversion. It’s not uncommon, for example, for two academics to pass each other in a corridor without greeting each other, only to have a great chat after a meeting the next day!

Most introverts are not comfortable with attention being directed at them and in a lecture you are the centre of attention. When I first started lecturing I found the exposure very disconcerting. It’s really only in the last few years that I’ve become sufficiently comfortable in my own skin to walk into a new class without any sense of trepidation. For many years I found those first few lectures of a module very tough and I suspect many of my colleagues did too. Anxiety was the name of the game.

So if you’re an introverted lecturer who is uncomfortable with being the centre of attention, what do you do? My solution has been to push my sociable side to the front (introverts are often quite sociable but can’t keep it up for long) and let my sense of pride and ambition do the rest. I never wanted to be an adequate lecturer, I wanted to be a good one. I never wanted to give a run-of-the-mill presentation in which I plodded safely through my slides; I wanted to give a presentation that people would remember. All of that self-imposed expectation creates its own pressures but if you don’t but pressure on yourself, you’ll never improve your craft.

Nonetheless, no matter how much you want a lecture to go well, there are times when it just doesn’t. It could be that you’re tired, or that you’re not quite as prepared as you thought you were, or it could be something completely intangible. Or it might be that you and the class haven’t connected as well you might. Classes develop a sort of hive mind and even when you’re very fond on the students individually, there might be something about the class that throws you off. On rare occasions I have had classes where there was just an air of negativity about that dampened my mood to the extent that I’d go through the lecture feeling resentful and no doubt letting it affect the quality of my lecture.

For the most part, though, lecturing is very rewarding and even if you make a mess of a lecture one day, you’ll have plenty more chances to make amends. One thing is sure though: you’ll have days when you’re in the zone, the class is in good form, and you nail it and you leave the lecture room on a high. Of course, while you’re buzzing, it’s not a given that the students have actually learned more than they would in your average lecture. And that is the big unknown. We never know if learning is happening. There is so much that is out of our control.

[1] Literally in the true sense of that word. Not literally as in “Michael Owen literally turned into a greyhound”, one of the many “literally” quotes from Jamie Redknapp, former footballer and now Sky Sports pundit.

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