Don’t be afraid to get vocal

With PowerPoint presentations and group work dominating, we would do well to remember the pedagogic power of a voice

February 25, 2016
Woman holding photo of open mouth over face

It’s not often that someone’s voice stops you in your tracks.

A brilliant stage actor’s might, or the voice of a political orator of Obama’s skill or Hitler’s chillingly effective impact.

There are times when the tone and rhythm of everyday voices are noticeable too – while abroad where you don’t speak the language, perhaps: suddenly, with meaning stripped away, those mundane discussions sound more like a melody than an argument about whose turn it is to put the bins out.

The same might be true of the ambient sound of children playing or – dare I suggest it – students chatting before a lecture. As Logan Pearsall Smith, an essayist known for his aphorisms, put it: “What music is more enchanting than the voices of young people, when you can’t hear what they say?”

It’s a bit strange, then, that few of us ever give much thought to how to make the most of this powerful instrument, the human voice.

In this week’s Times Higher Education, Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, argues that this is a particularly egregious oversight for lecturers, whose trade relies on the power of communication and inspiration.

And Moran’s point extends to the way that campus infrastructure and pedagogic approaches are designed.

“The modern university encapsulates our culture’s neglect of the voice,” he writes. “Our teaching rooms seem to have been designed with little thought to acoustics…The PowerPoint presentation is the main attraction, and the lecturer is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a desk working the buttons and levers.”

While the shift away from didactic teaching styles to focus on group work and conversation is undoubtedly positive, Moran worries that it has also had the effect of neutering the power of the lecturer’s voice. In its place, “we assume that communication will occur just by putting people together in open-plan environments…when many of these spaces actually dampen the individual voice, or drown it out in group chatter and ambient noise”.

He’s also convinced that understanding the power of a voice is the key to good writing, arguing that “weaknesses in student writing generally derive from…a tin ear for the internal sound of sentences, powered by a mistaken belief that grown-up writing should get as far away from speech as possible”.

Incidentally, this is a sound observation in journalism too – it’s rarely a good idea to use a complicated word if a simple one is available, and the first thing that you’re taught in Journalism 101 is that your introduction to any story is what you’d tell your mate in a sentence or two down the pub.

It’s worth noting that Moran’s opinion is not that of someone whose natural inclination is to be the centre of attention – indeed, in a THE article last year he wrote about being an academic introvert. It was also interesting that this article was one of our most-read pieces of 2015 – he is clearly not alone. So his observations about the pedagogic power of a voice – in its literal, physical sense – are particularly noteworthy.

Go on, read his article. Better still, read it out loud in your finest impression of Brian Blessed. At the very least it will brighten up the day of the colleagues who share your open-plan office.

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