Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Unstable Lecture

The Oxford Examination Schools - lecture venue par excellence
Photo by Matthias Rosenkranz

Hilary term is the point in the academic year when I give most of my lectures. In its basic tangible form, a lecture (at least the way I do it) consists of about 10 A4 pages of bullet points, and a memory stick with slides of 15C monarchs, paintings and frontispieces. When the time comes to dust off these props, you might tinker by incorporating the latest literature on the subject, but the lecture itself is substantially the same year after year. And yet the experience of preparing and delivering it is anything but.

Oxford lectures are meant to last 50 minutes. A lecture which has always filled this time-slot perfectly can sometimes go wildly off-schedule for no apparent reason. This term, I got half way through an often-aired lecture on Renaissance art patronage, glanced up at the big Victorian clock in the hall, and realised to my horror that we were only 15 minutes in. So I began to ad-lib, spin out some of anecdotes, speak slower – and then mysteriously struggled to wrap up in time.

One’s sense of how useful, or successful, a lecture is is also prone to highly unpredictable shifts. Most years, I pull one particular Reformation lecture out of my filing cabinet, read over it the day before, and feel that it’s basically coherent and will serve its purpose just fine. But this year, as I scanned it a certain chill descended – the text seemed full of logical non-sequiturs, gross generalisations, strangely irrelevant detail, and totally inadequate to air in public. Year after year, students had said in their feedback questionnaires that they had liked this lecture very much: how could they possibly have thought that? It was my perspectives, not the lecture stowed away in its dark drawer, which had evolved so much over the intervening year – I’d spent 5 months of leave researching this topic, and having learnt about it in much more (archival) depth, my state of knowledge from a year before (fossilised in the lecture) seemed suddenly alarmingly limited.

And a lecture isn’t just a text, it’s also a performance. One year you may have a lot of energy, real conviction about what you’re saying, and the whole thing seems to pass off pretty well.  Other years, you worry you’ve descended after 45 minutes into a monotonous low-energy mumble, and you’re not quite sure how that happened. On top of all this, audience reaction is hugely unpredictable, and totally unrelated to one’s own sense of how well the lecture has gone. Sometimes, I make it to the end of a lecture and think it would be best to leave the room as quickly and discreetly as possible; only to find the students have burst into spontaneous applause. Yet when you give a passionate delivery, with arguments which challenge received thinking, ending with a poignant vignette by way of a final flourish, you look up from the podium and find a row of very silent faces staring back.

So a lecture is at first glance a fixed body of knowledge, a sensible & steady text to teach from – but in fact it’s a living document, a reflection of the lecturer’s own shifting views, a one-off performance, an interaction with a particular set of personalities in the room. And that’s why every single lecture delivery, like a game of roulette, has a life of its own.

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