No Sleep Till Bloomsbury.. Learning small lessons from big lectures

In the Summer of 1981, I was 13, and living in rural Leicestershire. I have quite a clear memory of cycling my steel-framed racing bike to the new-ish, big Co-Op supermarket at a few miles away, where they had a small record section. I then rushed back with Motörhead’s No Sleep Till Hammersmith live album safely in my army-surplus, canvas rucksack*. Over the next handful of years, I found myself a regular visitor to Leicester’s don-1986-advertDe Montfort hall, where I, witnessed things of awe and wonder. Like UFO, Motörhead, Saxon, Ozzy, Iron Maiden, Magnum, Scorpions, and various NWOBHM support acts. We also weren’t far from Donnington, so the Monsters of Rock became part of our young, impressionable, lives.

What seemed to me to be the ideal life, was that of being on tour. The inner sleeve of endless double live-album releases were full of backstage snaps, of excess, of camaraderie and hilarity, there were even actual women in some of them. Wouldn’t it be just the best thing to be on tour. With t-shirts with all the dates listed on the back. Heaven. I sat with my friend Ivan, in the room above his Mum’s pub, we talked rubbish about our never-to-be-completed plans.**

I never did learn to play the guitar. Or got a job where I had to hump Marshall amps on and off trucks. Sunderland Polytechnic, with the lure of the North-East of England in Thatcher’s Britain, proved irresistible. Skipping forward a few years, I have found myself in the last couple of years doing the nearest I have ever been, or will probably get, to being on tour. In the last fortnight, with the wonderful Candle Conferences, I have spoken in Exeter, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, York, Manchester, somewhere near Uttoxeter, ending at Bloomsbury, in London. We did a similar itinerary last year.

It isn’t much like being on the road with, say, Hawkwind, and I don’t give my talk on the Theological Problem of Evil, while full of LSD, and no one chants for an encore. I am pretty sure I have never tried to trash my room at a Travelodge, or even a Holiday Inn Express. But it is multiple venues, travelling, microphones, and sometimes a fair few in the audience (I think there were 500 people in London yesterday). So, it’s close enough for me. I just don’t understand why the organisers won’t print me a tour t-shirt.

Ignoring my adolescent echoes, though, the events are quite interesting. They are very different from my work with Undergraduates, or staff, in an HE context; but I wonder whether I can actually learn anything useful to take back with me into that context.


So, what is so different about these sessions? Well, the audience is bigger, but also younger, FE/6th-Form based, and expecting a proper lecture. 400 people in, say, Oxford Town Hall, is not really the place for post-its and flip charts (though I am toying with trying some Socrative based next year). So, I tend to go for a lecture format. We have an interactive debate slot next anyway – so I don’t feel the wrath of the progressive-pedagogic Gods is too strong. But is is not just the format. The audience have dragged from some distance away, and often the teachers have had to struggle to get the students signed out of other lessons. To do so, and to justify costs, the event is flagged as having a strong focus on the content of the A-level specifications. I have to ensure they actually walk away with things to help with the exam and essay portions of their course.

No room to digress. Oh dear. University lecturers do awful digression (I was in a first year class, as a student***, and the tutor got distracted, wandered off, found a slide projector, and showed us his holiday pictures, so we could see a photo of the person he had mentioned in passing..). They also do awesome digression. Dr. Arnold Spector would delve into his seemingly infinite stock of anecdotes, and recollections, that absolutely nailed the point he was trying to make. Or confused you, at the same time as making you almost run to buy the book he’d been talking about in class, to untangle the web of ideas in your head. But it was interesting to have to stick to the programme. Eight times in a row.

That’s right, giving the same 45minute talk, on the Theological Problem of Evil, concentrating on Augustine and Irenaeus (because that is what they need to be able to evaluate for the exam), eight times, in a two week period. I remember this from last year (though that year, the 8-time lecture was on Kant’s ethics). You can lose your mind, losing track of where you are. Fluffing your jokes. Rushing through too fast, because everything sounds, due to familiarity, so bleeding obvious.

With a big audience, out of their usual learning-context, possibly distractible by other schools to stare at, the novelty and anonymity of a crowd, a big hall, and a lecturer using, often to his own amusement, a microphone, you can’t really be faffing your performance. You can’t resort to your usual, ‘always effective for getting undergraduates back into paying attention’, 5 minute digression – you need those minutes (to explain what the hell a privation of the good is).

What doing these events remind me, is how much better my lecturing is when I pay attention to certain key aspects. And how I can let these slide in the rest of the year, relying on my cunning and the autonomy of HE work, and shouldn’t. Why shouldn’t I? Yes, some digression is important, but as I talked about in another post, there is evidence that a key factor in ensuring success in student outcomes is ‘alignment’. The ACE report I cite in that post says: Learning environments are successful depending on the degree to which the various elements are aligned, such as content, instructional design, pedagogical approaches, assignments, and evaluative criteria. Alignment provides a means to counteract incoherence and fragmentation of the college experience. 

So, once I have the course aims clear, the assessment set, and my colleagues have a view about how my module/unit fits into the cohesive whole that the course should be, I am then playing fast and loose with the content. Maybe I need to rethink. To see my lecture as part of the student experience more holistically; and to think that I have responsibilities to them and my colleagues to make this alignment work.

The aspects that these events remind me should be clear by now then. Pacing. A clear trajectory of development of the topic (if you look lost, and don’t know how you bridge to next topic, a quarter of the room has been lost to Snapchat). Not forgetting that what you are doing is performing a more charismatic and engaging version of yourself – that believes this topic really is interesting. A self-discipline that I, and maybe some others in HE, find tough – I keep thinking of extra examples, or wanted to embellish narrative examples. I try and return to clarify the problem about 20 minutes into these talks (in line with my post about differentiation in lecture formats), and if I mess with the pace, timing or content – this won’t work. I need to sum up the way the evaluation can be offered, to make sure the audience can see how to make practical use of the content I’ve offered. I need to hit time markers throughout. It’s almost like a 45 minute PechaKucha presentation!

Some colleagues may remember me saying that ‘preparation is for amateurs’. I am pretty sure I was talking about something else (who knows), but it is good to do these gigs, even without the bowls of blue M&Ms, the roadies, and tour t-shirts. I walk away reflecting on how each of the eight talks went, and that a refined lecture is one where I have areal sense of where it fits, what its goals are, and how I am going to hit the required outcomes. That doesn’t make it a dull, by-numbers, robot lecture. But it pulls me back to some kind of middle-way, providing a useful corrective to my tendency to wander, topic, style and content wise, as the whim/wisdom strikes me. These events take me out of my usual practice, and as such allow me a chance to watch myself at work, and see if I am happy with what I see.


*These, as I remember, only came in blue or yellow. Ebay seems to have green and file-11-02-2017-11-45-08black. The Irish Menswear in Leicester didn’t. They look quite hipster now. We weren’t hipster. In our leather jackets, with denim cut-offs with patches over the top, drainpipe black jeans, and white basketball boots, were we like the antipathy of hipness

** This hasn’t changed.

***Which was, I am ashamed to say, quite an unusual occurrence.

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