No matter how long I’ve been doing this job, I still have days where I start up a lecture and know almost from the first moment that there’s something fundamentally wrong with it.
The public at large sometimes thinks of lectures as purely spontaneous eruptions of pure knowledge from professors whose boundless erudition resides completely within their own skulls. We hear this sometimes when legislators or other public critics complain about the workload of the professioriate and assume that hours spent in the classroom are the only actual labor time of faculty, because lectures just flow out of our knowledgeable minds.
Any time I hear that, I want to grab the legislator in question, ask him if he considers himself knowledgeable about the political process, or something similar, and then stick him up in front of a group of students and tell him to talk coherently for 50 minutes about a particular subject in a way that students can reasonably hope to learn something concrete from the presentation. I have seen, on rare occasion, a professor who can just produce a lecture cold, but that usually means one of two things. Either the lecture is utterly “canned”, something that the professor in question has given a million billion times, or it is a gifted improvisation that may well be loaded with some serious rubbish in factual terms but is sufficiently charismatic that the listeners don’t care very much. The “canned” variety is often not terribly engaging, and frequently is about ten years past its expiration date. The improvised rubbish variety is fun as a performance but you don’t learn much from it.
Everyone else has to prepare, at varying lengths. I try to design a structure for most lectures, and pick out some details and material to exemplify the larger points. I do try to leave time and space for me to go off on tangents as they occur to me, and to answer questions or take comments. My Southern African survey course this semester is particularly good at generating interesting and useful questions that are probably more useful in terms of education for the whole class than anything I’ve prepared.
To give an example of where you can go wrong, though, in yesterday’s survey course lecture, I made three bad mistakes in my design for the presentation on the comparative political and economic history of Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique since 1965 or so.
The first was to try to jam in way too many topics for 50 minutes, some of which we hadn’t really discussed or looked at previously. For example, I started talking about the Cold War and its influence and then suddenly realized that though the issue of the Cold War had been implicit in some things we’d read, it really hadn’t been drawn out in its own right.
The second was an indiscriminately large set of specific examples and statistics that I wanted to reference. I was pulling stuff from all sorts of sources as I prepared the day before so that I could demonstrate just how gloomy the economic and social indicators and trends have been in Africa in general, but also talk about Botswana’s exceptional status (as well as Mozambique’s recent dramatic improvement). In the first six minutes, I was realizing that I had so many charts and statistics printed for me and sitting on the lectern that I could barely distinguish between all of them.
The third problem was structural. It was an error that I’ve made on occasion and every time, I resolve never to do it again. It is always a mistake to start a lecture and then constantly reference what you’re going to be talking about later, to stick to a predesigned structure that doesn’t flow naturally from one level of analysis to the next but instead requires constant promises about points yet to come but which are not yet made. So in this case, I started by trying to talk about continental patterns and commonalities, then talk about how those manifest regionally within Southern Africa after 1965, and then delve into specific stories or issues that are local to Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana during this time period. That’s simply the wrong sequencing of general to specific. If I’d started in the other direction, with the introduction of the specialized material, and then abstracted upward, it would have worked far better.
Sometimes when you’ve started a lecture off on the wrong foot, there are ways to change course. Other times, you just know it’s hopeless and you’ve got to slog through it because the design is such a misfire. You just hope that it’s not a complete waste of time for the students, that useful information is communicated or important themes are reinforced.