Lecturing: it’s harder than you imagine

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As a graduate of St Andrews and a former junior member of staff in the School of History, I share some of the frustrations expressed in a recent article in The Saint about bad lecturers. A few days after reading this, I got thinking about the issue again when an excellent Overheard in St Andrews post on Facebook appeared featuring graffiti on a desk in Purdie lecture theatre displaying a PRESS HERE TO DETONATE LECTURER button. I think we can all agree that bad lectures are a waste of time, but I also think this article raised another important issue, namely that of “bad” lecturing versus the format of the lecture itself. I think there’s some potential here for conflating these issues unfairly.

Perhaps we should first ask what the point of a lecture really is. In the early European universities, put very simply, masters lectured to their students to transmit to them a body of knowledge needed to get their degree (we’re mostly talking about law and theology), largely reading from their own copies of key texts. A pretty simple affair. The basic format of an expert orally passing on specialist knowledge hasn’t changed much since then. When I first taught as a PhD student, I attended all of the lectures for the course I was teaching. It was exhausting because taking notes properly is hard.[pullquote]Please be assured that university lectures have bored students to death since the Middle Ages[/pullquote] But when I got to Week 11, I realised I’d accumulated enough material (with some background knowledge) to teach any of the tutorial topics in the following year, including those I hadn’t touched during that semester. Anyone actually doing the course who’d done the same would certainly have had enough material to revise comprehensively for the exam. My point is that if lectures are done well, then the information you get from them – summarised, accurate and relevant for assessments – is very valuable. Just like labs and tutorials, lectures must be seen as work. Following this a problematic assumption sometimes enters the equation, namely that ‘good’ lectures must be interesting or even entertaining. Please be assured that university lectures have bored students to death since the Middle Ages (our Purdie desk artist is working in a long and honourable tradition of disinterested scholarly doodles).

Yet here’s the thing: most lectures probably would be better if they were more interesting, but all a lecture really needs to do is to supply its audience with relevant information on a given topic. Are you expecting to be entertained? You might get lucky and find yourself in front of a talented speaker who can also teach you useful stuff. However when it comes to lectures, and perhaps this won’t be a welcome message, you’re there for the content, not the delivery. Above all it should never be a passive experience, even if you’re not invited to answer questions or participate in other ways. As the original article also pointed out, lecturers are paid to teach students. This is true – though only partly.

Nowadays, most academic staff are actually recruited primarily for their research credentials (to see why search “What is the REF?” on Google) and one problematic consequence is that brilliant teachers don’t always get jobs. The article also made the suggestion, in good faith, that a teaching qualification would solve these problems. I have my doubts. This is partly because many staff already have to undergo various forms of admittedly lightweight teaching instruction. Even so, lecturing is hard! I doubt you can really teach someone how to deliver lectures well via a course. The ability to command the interest of an audience of 100+, many of whom you know are on Facebook and Reddit, is a skill I suspect somehow to be innate or learned over many years. Even then: I once sat in the back of a lecture from a senior colleague, raved about by students, and witnessed someone buying shoes on Amazon.

None of this is intended to invalidate complaints about bad teaching. There’s no excuse for disorganisation or irrelevance. I’ve certainly sat through some diabolical lectures (if you attended my ‘Germany 1050 – 1350: Fragmentation and Empire’ as an ME2003 student last year, so have you! Sorry, I’m still learning). Next time you’re in a ‘bad’ lecture, ask yourself how much of this is down to the content, and whether you can still get something out of the experience by engaging with it, rubbish delivery or not. A genuinely bad lecturer will make this difficult, and here you can make use of your module questionnaires, class reps, and Presidents. A good lecturer – even if what they say seems dull and the relevance isn’t immediately apparent – will always give you something to work with.

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