A rough guide to lecturing

February 23, 1996

Olga Wojtas talks to a group of tyro teachers whose book aims to pass on a few tricks of the trade

Martin Gough did it confidently, and was greeted with looks of blank horror. David Allan did it in front of a mirror first. Kate Hill did it in front of a veteran, which put her off. Chris Stokes did it ten minutes early, and found four people ahead of him. Jill Bourne calculated that preparing for it took more than five hours.

Turning up to present your first lecture or tutorial can be nerve-racking, but 15 recent tyros are aiming to smooth the path for their successors through a new book, In at the Deep End. The contributions are highly individual, but they are more than personal reminiscences of life as a new teacher: they could offer waterwings and lifebelts to those who have traditionally faced the deep end with no support.

John Wakeford, director of the school of independent studies at Lancaster University, says: "It's strange that the qualifications of people teaching both undergraduates and postgraduates are merely that they themselves have been through it. You wouldn't send children to a primary school whose staff's only qualification for teaching was that they had once been to school."

Most of the book's contributors attended the school's annual two-week course, "New Approaches to University Teaching". Dr Wakeford sees both the course and book as contributing to a more professional approach to academic teaching. But the emphasis is not on slicker presentation of scholarly lectures. The fundamental aim is to help students to learn.

Students are becoming more demanding as they make an increasing financial investment in their courses, and are frustrated and indignant when teachers are not using the time to best effect, Dr Wakeford says.

This does not mean that new teachers have to set themselves unrealistic standards of scholarship. Every year, the participants on the Lancaster course evaluate what makes a good lecturer. Almost always, "being a good communicator" is in first place. Enthusiasm and having a sense of humour invariably come before being an expert in the discipline, which is either not mentioned, or comes very low on the list.

Some academics are hailed as brilliant orators who attract mass audiences, says Dr Wakeford. "But what do students learn from that? They often learn that they are incompetent, because they could never be as brilliant as that person. We're trying to develop people's confidence as learners."

This is very different from traditional lecturing. An academic can feel reasonably protected standing behind a lectern on a podium, but helping students to learn in a group raises problems such as how to establish authority and being open to challenge.

Chris Stokes, a postgraduate research student in Lancaster's centre for science studies and science policy, highlights the dilemmas in his contribution. During one of his tutorial groups, two students were talking while another was making a presentation.

"What do I do? Remember, I'm not a teacher or a lecturer but a tutor, a facilitator. I'm a member of the group, almost. On these terms, how can I impose? On the other hand, this could get embarrassing. The two who are talking may not have the sensitivity to stop; Tom may not have the nerve to raise his voice authoritatively. Then again, perhaps I should let it get more embarrassing; that way Tom may be pricked into taking control himself and come away with new self-confidence and respect from his peers. Eventually, I turned in the general direction of the miscreants and asked for 'some hush while Tom speaks'. They apologised and stopped talking. Tom continued. I felt I had done the right thing. The voice of authority had spoken."

Kate Hill, far from finding her authority challenged, was startled to find how readily the seminar group handed over the initiative and responsibility to her. The seating arrangements tended to isolate her and allow the students to try to blend into the background.

"Nobody should be more or less conspicuous than anyone else, and that certainly includes you," she warns. She asked a new group what they thought a seminar was. "Their ideas were very similar to mine - that they could learn from each other, express their own ideas and so forth. And I think that this, for a while at any rate, effectively implicated them directly in responsibility for their own seminars."

Janet Cowper, who now teaches at the College of Ripon and York St John, urges postgraduate tutors to start talking to institutions about their problems, arguing that this is the only way to change attitudes, and for institutions to learn about their needs.

Postgraduates take teaching seriously, and their level of commitment is reflected in the amount of preparation they do, and the level of stress they experience, she says. But many are afraid to ask for help and advice, labouring under the impression that they are expected to have the presentation skills and subject knowledge to teach effectively.

Their teaching experience will feed back into their research work, and while increased academic confidence and communication skills will be potent motivating factors, a bad experience can conversely sap the postgraduate's morale, self-esteem and confidence to do anything at all.

She would like to see a formal policy of teacher training in every institution, but even where this is absent, any postgraduate can do a number of things to prepare for teaching, she says. They can ask to observe good lecturers, watching what they do and the students' reaction. They can read about teaching techniques, and offer to do presentations in order to get used to preparing and delivering material to an audience. And, she suggests, one way of overcoming the fear of public performance is to join an amateur dramatics group.

An asset to any such group would be Lou Armour, who teaches in Lancaster's sociology department. Disputing conventional wisdom that theoretical ideas can be difficult to get across, he decided to give a practical demonstration of one: phenomenologist Alfred Schutz's observation that people have to take many things for granted in order to get around the social world. This consisted of dressing up in a chef's uniform, producing a toaster, metal bowl, various comestibles, and a recipe for scrambled eggs on toast. And then following the set of instructions to the letter.

"Try it at home and you will see that, rather than ending up with scrambled eggs on toast, one ends up with an almighty mess: the toast ends up in flames, egg and milk goes everywhere, and you're left looking like a Swedish chef out of The Muppets."

The students both enjoyed the demonstration and understood the theoretical point about so-called tacit knowledge, he says. But the real point of the story is that despite all the pressures there can be a positive advantage to being a postgraduate tutor. "A full-time academic member of staff does not have the 'street cred' to pull it off - but you do."

In at the Deep End - first experiences of university teaching. Edited by David Allan. Pounds 7.95. To be published in May by The THES/Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lonsdale College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YN.

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