That Sinking Feeling, or the Art and Science of Lecturing

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.

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9 Responses to That Sinking Feeling, or the Art and Science of Lecturing

  1. jfruh says:

    Here’s a question for you. Can you even give a lecture to college students in 2006 and talk about the Cold War and assume they know in a general way what that was about? Or is it ancient history for them and you have to give a little background.

    I was a TA for an ancient history class full of freshmen in 1997 and I remember in section I was attempting to use the (first, now) Gulf War as an metaphor for something or other, and suddenly I noticed all the blank stares and realized I might as well have been talking about the Spanish-American War. It made me feel pretty old — and I was 23!

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you have to give background now on the topic, which was one of the small problems I had in this lecture. It definitely isn’t in the common memory of students any longer.

  3. Alan Baumler says:


    Do you think you were maybe too hung up on flow? I always try to get what I am doing to flow nicely and all make sense. Sometimes it does. Sometimes I realize it does not as I am going along and in the panic of the moment come up with a good (or at least plausible) way to fix it. That makes me feel smart. Of course nowadays I usually post an outline at the start of class so there is less room for that.
    Sometime even by design however I up and tell that that A and B are not going to fit together, or that the significance of something I am talking about now will not be fully explained until later. I need to sort of stop and point out to them that this is a lecture not a high-wire act. I have never actually stopped halfway through and told them that the lecture seemed to be turning into a train wreck, but I suppose it would work. I actually like pointing out what the different parts of a lecture are supposed to do, as students are not likely to see a lecture as an artifact unless encouraged to do so. YMMV.

  4. CMarko says:

    Apropos of teaching: Are you planning on posting syllabi for the other two classes you’re doing next semester? I’m very curious about both of them.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. Production of History shortly (late tonight or early tomorrow); Development in Africa by Monday (I hope).

  6. Miles says:

    I’m obviously not a professor, but I think the format of the lecture worked reasonably well. Glancing back at my notes, it seems you basically broke it all into three sections—”Africa is having *major* issues,” “Continental problems which also impact Southern Africa,” and “Continental problems which don’t really impact Southern Africa.”

    The only (small) issue I noticed, looking at my notes, was in the first “Africa in trouble” section, you brought up quite a few Southern African-specific statistics, and then moved into the much broader second category, That said, I didn’t really notice the issue in class, putting the lecture worlds ahead some lectures I’ve had at Swat so far.

  7. dkane says:

    I think that your meta-problem is that lecturing is a ridiculously inefficient method of teaching. Why not just type out what you are going to say and hand it to students? They can read much more quickly than you can speak. They can focus on confusing topics and skim the material that they already know.

    Lecturing is not teaching. Longer argument here.

  8. hwc says:

    To my esteemed colleague from Massachusetts, dkane, (sorry I’m listening to a c-span Senate hearing), the word on the street has it that Prof. Burke’s lectures are the epitome of great teaching.

    Prof. Burke’s self-critique probably needs to be put in proper perspective: his students are in awe of his lecturing and his teaching in general. They literally take on a reverent tone when talking about his classes. I know for a fact that his teaching generates thoughtful discussion; I’ve had the pleasure of listening to two students recount a Burke course around the dinner table months after the fact (compete with standup impersonations of classroom characters). The enthusiasm was palpable. He apparently has a knack of getting students to think, which is what teaching is all about in my book.

    From the reports I get, he’s the kind of professor (like a Don Gifford) who students will remember decades later. Prof. Burke’s influence even extends hundreds of miles away as the word “trope” has now become a fixture in our family’s vernacular!

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    David, I actually agree with you about lecturing up to a point. Where I think it is still efficient in some respect is in combining and synthesizing large amounts of information which have not been well synthesized or combined in any written material, and where it would not be an efficient use of my time to try and write out a fully realized essay for students to read. My lectures are from outlines, never completely written out essays. To write out all the information I’m synthesizing in a lecture for distribution to the class would be the equivalent of writing a short book, just for a single class.

    In a way, this speaks to a sort of complex truth embedded in the common assumption that professors just walk into a classroom and start spewing out their intrinsic erudition. I can produce a lecture in part because of all the things I know which my students do not yet know; to try in one gulp to transfer all the things I know about a particular specific topic through writing, to externalize all the things I know, would be very hard.

    There’s also a question of the value of repetition, and of the mnemonic value of listening to a lecture and taking notes. I know I’ve always learned best by reading and noting things from my reading, but that is not the only learning style out there in the world. I’ve definitely known people who simply can’t retain things from reading, who have to hear it, write notes on it. When I first start teaching at Swarthmore, even in my surveys, I largely avoided lecture, and I had a definite constituency of students pretty much beg me for more lectures when I did my course evaluations. I don’t think that was just Pavlovian on their part: it reallys reflected the fact that this was the way they learned best.

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