The lecturer as performer

Ask me which lecturers I remember best from my student days, and you’ll get a ready answer: the one who was able to poke fun at current trends while almost dancing around the room; the one with an amazingly casual style and irreverent manner; the highly strung and personally shy individual whose obviously required constant effort to be there at all demanded respect. And in a curious way, I also remember the man who had long given up on lecturing, who came into the theatre without looking at anyone, then sat down and read out his never changing lecture notes in an oddly monotonous voice. I cannot remember a single thing he tried to teach me (if he did try, that is), but I remember him. Even though I gave up attending his classes after the third one.

Back in those days there weren’t too many competing attractions. We didn’t have computers or mp3 players, there was no day-time television or pubs open before the evening, there was hardly even anywhere to eat out that a student could afford. Nowadays of course it’s all different, and if you want to see students in your lectures you need to give them a reason for being there. And I don’t mean good content. I mean personal flair, wit, some little eccentricity, cleverly applied sarcasm, a passing knowledge of popular culture, and some flair for acting. The lecturer ideally should be a performer, able to hold the attention of a particularly difficult audience.

Of course the trouble is that we don’t give today’s lecturers enough help in preparing them to engage their students. Some of what they need is not a standard approach to content and structure or even to learning technology, but just some guidance as to how to be themselves so that their students can connect with them. We need to allow them to be memorable. In a good way.

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7 Comments on “The lecturer as performer”

  1. Vincent Says:

    How is it then that everyone who’s ever attended a uni’ has had the fellow that delivers in that low drone. Normally on a subject core to the course.
    For what is worth I believe that such people are shy and I cannot ascribe any active malice to their actions, even if that’s the result.
    But why on earth does the uni’ not hire an actor to give a few classes on pitch and projection to everyone. That would certainly bring up the global stats a good bit.

    • Perry Share Says:

      You’ll be glad to know that at IT Sligo we do exactly that – one of the staff on our Performing Arts degree provides a workshop on using and looking after your voice to teaching staff – it is always very popular.

      It wasn’t until I completely lost my voice one year at the Higher Options fair in the RDS that I realised how crucial it is for lecturers to look after this instrument!

  2. Jilly Says:

    I would characterise myself as something of a performer when lecturing – it comes from being ‘inside’ the material and communicating that, rather than a deliberate decision.

    However, I do *not* see myself as being in competition with the pub, or social media, or whatever. Learning is a two-way process, and the students have to make an effort. Without that, the lecturer could be doing cartwheels and swallowing swords up on the podium, to no effect.

    If students want to learn, I’m there to do everything humanly possible to assist in that. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in college, and their absence (physical or mental) from the lecture theatre is no great loss.


  3. […] “Ask me which lecturers I remember best from my student days, and you’ll get a ready answer: the one who was able to poke fun at current trends while almost dancing around the room; the one with an amazingly casual style and irreverent manner; the highly strung and personally shy individual whose obviously required constant effort to be there at all demanded respect …” (more) […]

  4. Al Says:

    with the expected wage cuts this summer for academics I suspect lecturers will be quite animated in the lecture halls come September….

  5. Mary B Says:

    One of my colleagues swore he had tried sword swallowing and fire eating (not at the same time) to maintain students’ attention, but it didn’t work!
    The problem with being a ‘performer’ is that you can never compete with the TV and film ‘celebs’ that students regard as entertaining. There is also the problem that many young people have a limited attention span, which is encouraged by massive inputs of e-information. I’m beginning to wonder if lectures are an appropriate learning vehicle for many students, apart from maybe the few who want to both listen and contribute – say in small tutorial groups. It might be better to run many sessions as workshops where they have to contribute something, as this requires a less intense concentration. However, I can’t say I was a great lecture enthusiast as a student, in ancient times. My Oxford tutors were pretty hard going and I was usually overcome with narcolepsy after the first ten minutes. I used to sit at the back and wedge my chair aganist the wall so if I fell asleep the chair would fall down and wake me up. I also remember going to a lecture by Chomsky the famous linguistic philosopher, or so he was introduced, and I understood nothing after the first sentence, which was something like ‘Hi, I’m Chomsky’. But in those far off days we were too polite to indicate we were bored or puzzled – my doodles were often works of art – sadly, many students now seem to think that they can talk more loudly to their chums than the lecturer. I have told students that I’m very happy for them to leave if they are bored as long as they actually go and not stick around gossiping!

  6. cormac Says:

    I’m sitting in a few lecture courses at Harvard and MIT this year and it’s interesting being on the receiving end again. Overall, I think FvP has it right – style is important.
    Even a little bit of humour, or the odd aside, goes a long long way, as does a single picture – maybe it gets a different part of the brain working. Enthusiasm for the subject is also hugely important, it carries you along in its wake.
    One thing I have learned – internet access will be blocked in all my classes when I get back – far too many students spend their time on facebook throughout the lectures here


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