In the stare of ravens

June 11, 1999

A student audience can unnerve the most experienced lecturer. Sean Neill analyses the hidden threats in looks and locations.

At Twycross Zoo there used to be (probably still is) a red-faced uakari monkey, who, as his name implies, had a remarkable appearance. When zoo visitors stared at him with interest, he became the spitting image of an apoplectic Colonel Blimp, jumping and shouting at them through the wire, puce with fury.

He interpreted a stare of interest as a threat. This ancestral response to the ambiguity of stares is well understood by every parent who warns their curious toddler not to stare because it is "rude" - in other words potentially threatening. If the gaze of a toddler is threatening, what does a lecturer feel about the gaze of tens or hundreds of students, especially if he or she is uncertain or embattled?

The conventional lecture theatre, with the students rising in tiered seating, produces a second ancestral threat: the advantage of height. In a wide range of species, including people, the tall "look down" on the short literally and figuratively.

In political conferences and churches the elect stand on a podium or pulpit, architectural evidence of their superiority, however banal their pronouncements. In the more egalitarian university the lecturer is denied this architectural support. The students look down, apparently with the considering interest of ravens. They do not intimidate lecturers with healthy self-esteem, but the lecturer may feel that "wheresoever the carcass is, there shall the eagles be gathered together".

The difficulties arise largely from the different social interaction between lectures and other human intercourse. Much research shows that in normal conversation the listener actively supports the speaker, not only by making approving vocalisations and assisting if the speaker is lost for a word, but by non-verbal signals such as nodding, gaze, facial expressions and posture shifts that are synchronised with what the speaker is saying.

Most speakers respond to this and modify what they are saying or hand over to the listener if it is apparent that they want to participate, intervene or change the subject. Those who do not are liable to be considered bores.

However, this feedback gets too complex to monitor in groups of more than four or six. Larger informal groups tend to break up into subgroups with several conversations running parallel; seminar groups or meetings usually require a chair to regulate speakers' turns. In groups of this size or larger, such as lectures, there is "diffusion of responsibility" with no one responsible for supporting and providing feedback to the speaker, who may feel, from the lack of apparent response, as if he or she is throwing stones into treacle.

Charismatic church congregations and political conference audiences are among the few that give speakers the immediate feedback characteristic of "normal" conversation. Student audiences generally do not. Speakers usually compensate by "turning up the volume", using more expressive gestures and intonation than in one-to-one conversation.

There is not space to deal with speakers' tactics here; we need to look in more detail at the students' behaviour. Interested listeners in large audiences tend to watch the speaker closely. If the lecturer looks at them, they will show the normal social response of looking away; but because there are so many of them, the lecturer receives much more direct gaze and less looking away than normal. He may interpret this as threatening, especially if students show the concentration frown that is indistinguishable from a mild threat frown (since concentrating on the opponent is the first stage in confrontation).

Whereas an individual listener will show "advertence" (an appropriate level of attention), diffusion of responsibility means that audience members show much more self-directed comfort behaviour such as head-propping or head-tilting, a relaxed slumped posture, perhaps even yawning or scratching.

The lecturer is liable to read these as meaning the same as they would in one-to-one conversation - inappropriate "advertence', implying boredom or disrespect. Combined with direct gaze this can be read as implying the audience will "take steps" if the lecturer does not stop boring them! It is worth looking at an audience that is known to be enthusiastic - for example at a non-plenary conference session.

Despite the fact that such audiences have made an effort to attend, they usually show relaxed and apparently inattentive behaviour after the first few minutes - it is in the nature of audiences rather than a reflection on the speaker. This does not stop such behaviour putting the speaker off.

In some classic experiments in the United States in the 1960s student audiences were primed to change their behaviour from normal to attentive to inattentive when the experimenter turned over a file. Visiting lecturers who had not been warned of this became less likely to clarify points and more directive and critical when the audience was inattentive; they recovered when it became attentive again. (There was no difference between attentive and normal behaviour, suggesting that student audiences at that time were normally respectfully attentive.) This suggests that. despite the lack of explicit feedback, a student audience can control the quality of lecture it receives. To some extent, students get the lectures they deserve. If students want every lecturer to be as good as possible, they need to learn how to be an appreciative and supportive audience.

Perhaps the Institute for Learning and Teaching should be considering its responsibility. Recent developments in university teaching may increase the apparent threat of the audience.

Traditionally students were provided with relatively little course material; improved word-processing and reprographic facilities mean that more liberal course paperwork is available.

Self-study or web-based materials also give students alternatives to gathering material by taking notes in lectures. This material assists students' learning, as note-taking interferes with their ability to listen and comprehend; but it reduces one of the two clear cues that the lecturer is "getting through" to the audience - the sight of students energetically writing.

Students who are writing will not be transfixing the lecturer with intimidating stares. (The second unambiguous channel is when wit makes the audience laugh, but not all lecturers - or subjects - have the necessary charisma.) But then the lecturer faces other demands on their performance for the purposes of quality assurance and accountability and to ensure students are treated well as consumers. This could add to their stress and the likelihood of perceiving student responses negatively. It would be unfortunate if quality watchdogs were a further disruption to the lecturing process.

Sean Neill is senior lecturer in ethology and education at the Institute of Education, Warwick University.

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