...an embarrassingly unfunny academic. If you want to be popular with students, becoming the lecture theatre clown isn't always a winner, says Harriet Swain, but boundless enthusiasm could be
Heard the one about the lecturer who wanted to make his students laugh? He succeeded. In the struggle to be liked and admired by your students, it's often a fine line between getting them to laugh with you and experiencing them laughing at you. But it's usually a risk worth taking, according to Patrick Ainley, professor of training and education at Greenwich University and convener of the Student Experience Study Group. He predicts that lectures will become increasingly comic thanks to the use of student feedback forms.
This is because students like jokes, he says. "They will like someone whose lecture is more or less like a stand-up comedy routine, and they will score highly."
He acknowledges the risks of jokes falling flat and of being heckled, but "that's the same for a comedy routine", he says.
Not so fast, says Richard Wiseman, chair in the public understanding of psychology at Hertfordshire University. "Trying to be funny when you are not is one of the most painful things I have seen from most lecturers," he says.
However, Wiseman adds that lecturers do have something to learn from comics about timing and gauging an audience early on to help them pitch speed of delivery.
Paul Street, who is studying for a doctorate on the application of performing arts in higher education, warns that humour can sometimes seriously offend people. He argues that the type of humour that works best involves anecdotes and stories related to the subject you are teaching.
Rather than humour, try enthusiasm, suggests Wiseman. He recommends "being yourself, but caring about what you are talking about". Group situations flatter enthusiasm, he says.
In research on charisma carried out by Wiseman earlier this year at the Cheltenham Science Festival, those people who revealed particular passion and enthusiasm in a questionnaire tended to be separately judged as the most charismatic by other people.
He says we unconsciously mimic the facial expressions of others. Therefore, if you are enthusiastic and good at conveying your feelings, others will mirror that enthusiasm.
What if you don't naturally brim over with the joys of lecturing? Never fear, says Alan Bryman, professor of organisational and social research and author of a book on charisma and leadership. "Charisma isn't something that's inherent in a leader; it's very much something that people work on,"
He says charismatic leaders tend to be very aware of the effects they are having on others and are good at learning from other charismatic people.
Rhetorical skills are particularly important. He recommends florid use of metaphor and cultivating an exciting form of delivery.
While extroverts tend to make more charismatic leaders, he knows of one bashful lecturer who was well liked by his students because he was so good at communicating complex ideas in an accessible way. "It's very difficult if you are going to give a jargon-laden lecture to come across as accessible and as someone who's going to produce excitement," he says.
Veronica King, vice-president (welfare) at the National Union of Students, says you will be popular so long as you're approachable. "Many students are afraid to seek help from their tutor or lecturer, and their academic work often suffers as a result," she says. "Students often feel that lecturers are too busy or not interested."
She advises tutors to publicise the hours they are available to discuss work and other issues with students, and to be aware that asking for help may be a big step for some.
However, it is also important to remember that students are adults and to treat them as such. "Some lecturers also need to be aware that these days students are often not the typical 18 to 25-year-old from a middle-class background," she says.
Basic things, such as smiling a lot, maintaining eye contact, being on time and finishing on time will always endear you to your students, Street says.
If you use overheads or flip charts, make sure you know how they work. And don't just read them out. Even if you don't know the material as well as you should, sound as if you do. "The worst thing is to go in and say, 'I have never done this before'," he says.
Ruth Pickford, senior lecturer in computing at Leeds Metropolitan University and winner of several teaching awards, has a three-meeting plan for establishing good relations with students.
She advises making sure the first session you have is as near perfect as possible. Even minor mistakes on visual aids and handouts could let you down. "Your aim is to impress on them that you know your stuff and are very good at your job," she says. You also need to show students that they are important to you by learning all their names and by using them.
In the second session, you have to grab their attention and make them feel they are going to enjoy themselves. Draw on the most fascinating examples in your subject, or, like Pickford, introduce the lecture by singing the terms of reference to a 1970s backing track. Answer all questions positively, confide in them about good websites or librarians and show you are enjoying yourself too.
In the third session, you need to show you're human and that mistakes are OK. Drop your handouts, reveal a past mistake, laugh at yourself. You also need to show that you and they are a team and are working on the assignment together.
"I tend to like people whom I trust, have something in common with, who are able to laugh at themselves and with whom I feel comfortable," Pickford says. "But above all, I tend to like people who like me."
Further information: Charisma and Leadership in Organisations , by Alan Bryman, Sage, 1992.
Know your stuff
Like your students