The Art of Lecturing: A Practical Guide to Successful University Lectures and Business Presentations

December 4, 2008

Parham Aarabi's slim volume is intended to be a practical guide to giving enthralling lectures to an internet generation with reduced attention spans, but even as a member of the Channel 4 generation with an attention span sufficient to complete Middlemarch, I struggled to reach the end of The Art of Lecturing. Aarabi must be an excellent teacher: the book concludes with a two-page author note that lists at least one award per year over a four-year period, and he is (we are told) one of the youngest tenured faculty at the University of Toronto. His advice is largely sensible, if unremarkable, but both his prose and the editing are noticeably poor. It may be unfair to expect a brilliant engineer and teacher also to be able to write, but the publishers must answer for the padding chapters on business presentations, the repetitiveness (chapter summaries (in italics) and checklists) and the silly illustrations.

Aarabi's style is all that one might fear from an ubergeek, with its plodding, laboured exposition, clunky locutions ("Good lecturers need a sense of humility and humbleness") and redundant, vacuous graphs. Juxtaposed with a couple of impressive formulae for sound localisation is a singularly unenlightening one - portentously called The Equation - that claims that the "level of audience understanding = c x lecture quality x audience quality x lecturer quality". Don't imagine that the intriguing little "c" multiplier is some fascinatingly enigmatic "x" factor though; it's just a constant of proportionality. So now you know.

A complete and total novice lecturer might pick up a few tips here, but apart from a discussion of effective integration of lectures and labs that might be useful in the right disciplines, there is nothing in The Art of Lecturing that has not been covered much more fluently and succinctly elsewhere (in Phil Race's books, for example).

The real appeal of the book is, I'm afraid, the unintentionally comic effect of Aarabi's continual arrogant self-deprecation and the hilarious use of photographs. The book's dedication acknowledges both those who supported him and those who inspired him to "ever greater energy, motivation, and focus" by kicking him when he was down, and he constantly tells us: "I seek failure. I want failure." And yet every "case in point" cites some accomplishment or brilliant professor he has "had the pleasure of" knowing. Aarabi is, Dickens might have said, a bully of humility.

Any author who has argued with a publisher about the inclusion of even a handful of photos will first be enraged by the huge number in this book - nine in the Introduction alone - and then amused by their aggressive banality. We are treated to Aarabi as a child in Iran (several times), Aarabi at Stanford, Aarabi before the Canadian Federal Government, and then about a score of seemingly identical photos of a lecture theatre at the University of Toronto from different angles. A tribute to Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographic sequence, Blast Furnace Heads, perhaps? Sadly there is none of Aarabi with his hero John McCain, although I guess now the ex-presidential candidate may have a little more time on his hands.

So The Art of Lecturing is memorable for all the wrong reasons, such as its tips for handling dozing students: questions should be addressed to those slumped unconscious "with the utmost gentleness and care", and the novice should remember that "the worst mistake ... is to continue with the lecture ... even if a large number of people in the audience are asleep". Well, quite.

The Art of Lecturing: A Practical Guide to Successful University Lectures and Business Presentations

By Parham Aarabi. Cambridge University Press. 170pp, £38.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9780521876100 and 703529. Published 6 September 2008

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