Learning to Lecture

Continuing our teaching series is Film Studies student Zoë, reflecting on her first experience of university lecture.

On a Wednesday morning in January, I stood in front of a room of first year film studies students, waiting to begin my very first lecture. I watched the students file into the room in small groups, sitting down, taking out laptops, tablets, and pens and paper, and turning to look at me expectantly. I watched the minute hand on the clock on the wall, knowing that once it hit five past the hour, I would have to begin to speak, and continue for the next fifty minutes.

When my supervisor asked me to contribute a lecture to her subject, I was thrilled. It’s a fantastic opportunity for a PhD student. I enjoyed constructing the syllabus, excitedly choosing the reading and the screenings for the week. After spending so many years taking courses, I was feeling the power of being on the other side.

But once I sat down to begin to write the lecture, my enthusiasm waned. Even though I often complain that the standard 20 minute conference paper isn’t long enough, filling 50 minutes seemed impossible. How could I hold the students’ attention for that long? How could I talk coherently and compellingly for almost an hour?

Image credits: Archbob/CC0 1.0

Writing and Structure

The first thing I had to decide was whether I’d write a full script, use bullet points, or some combination of the two. Most of the best lecturers I know seem to be able to talk without reading a script, referring to their notes only occasionally. But I know that I am much more confident when I have my script written out, and I decided that my comfort was more important than trying to perform a particular lecturing style. The aim of a lecture is to confidently present material, and there is more than one way to achieve that. But I knew that I didn’t want to be reading from a piece of paper, so I discretely positioned my laptop on the podium, and referred to my screen. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this had a positive effect on my body language: without an additional object in my hands between me and the students, or something that kept dragging my eyeline down to the floor, my body language was much more open.

The next thing on my list was getting the structure of the lecture right. We all know what it’s like to sit in a 50 minute lecture: your attention wanders, dipping in and out of focus over the course of the lecture. I knew that I needed to construct a lecture with variety, mixing up the exposition with case studies and moments for interaction, to try and refocus the students during those natural dips. Being in the film and television department makes this a lot easier, because the use of clips is natural. But I would recommend using some kind of clip or animation to everyone. They’re a great way to break up the lecture, giving both me and the students a break. I found them such a useful opportunity to stop, take a breath, gather my thoughts, and check my timing. It helps that the lights are off, so it’s like snatching a moment of privacy!

Presenting and Performing

After I started the draft, it became obvious how much a lecture differs from the other kinds of presentations we give as PhD students. My job was not to present an original argument, or to critique theory, but simply to provide an introduction to a particular topic. I wasn’t putting myself or my academic integrity on trial; I was simply a conduit, opening up a path to knowledge for my students. I found this liberating. It felt like taking a break from all of the doubt and defensiveness that comes with original PhD research. I still heard the familiar voice in the back of my head telling me that I needed more sources and more originality. But I silenced it when I realised that my job as a teacher is to show my students the loose ends, so they can follow them on their own.

The feeling of accomplishment following the lecture was one of the highlights of my PhD so far. The lecture went better than I dared to hope: the students were engaged, I didn’t stumble too often or mess up my slides, and I actually had fun. But the experience was also useful in an unexpected way. More than anything else I have done so far, it gave me a clear sense of the day-to-day experience of working as an early career academic. I realised that not only can I write and prepare and present a lecture week in and week out, but I can enjoy it, and, dare I hope, I might even be good at it. After a year and a half of floundering around in the pool of self-doubt that afflicts all PhD students, it feels like I had a chance to break the surface.

Have you had the opportunity to lecture? How did you find the experience?

Zoë Shacklock (@scifizoe) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film and Television Studies at The University of Warwick. Her research explores the role of kinaesthesia in contemporary serial television, focusing on questions of embodied affect, identity, and empathy. 

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