'No one had warned me students had feelings'

February 6, 1998

Did your first students badger you with pertinent but unanswerable questions, patronise your inexperience orsimply fail to keep conscious? If so, you are not alone, according to a new book on lecturing angst. Below, three academics echo this experience with painful recollections of their first lecture. But help is at hand - Janet Howd (right)suggests a few acting techniques that will improve your didactic performance

Terror is the word that invariably crops up when university teachers talk about their first lecture. Nothing quite matches the feeling of walking for the first time into a room full of expectant students with pens poised.Students can be pretty intimidating, scary even, as historian David Allan found when putting together a collection of personal accounts of university teaching called In at The Deep End.

Some individuals have been known to carry a spare overhead projector bulb around in their pocket in case of emergency. While this may be taking forward planning too far he says, nothing beats knowing your audience. "My second public appearance was less than satisfactory since my hosts failed to warn me, and I failed to inquire, about the composition of my audience. If you have ever had the misfortune to prepare a nuggety 50-minute lecture on 17th-century philosophy for what you assume will be a small professional academic gathering and then turn up to find that your 200 listeners are to a man and a woman local farmers with distinctly less esoteric interests, you'll be much more careful subsequently in finding out about your audiences in advance."

For Jill Bourne, a lecturer at University College of Wales, Cardiff, preparation can only carry you so far: "The lecture is all ready with what I hope are interesting quips. If you don't get their attention for the first five minutes then you lose them for the rest of the time." All goes reasonably smoothly except for one disconcerting problem. "There is one girl who just stares right through me, really putting me off. What can I do? I've tried nodding and smiling towards her but so far there's been no reaction. Is it me or is she like this in all the classes?" Mike Bramley, a research student at the University College of Ripon and York St John, found that anxiety was not the sole property of the teacher. "I was not ready for a group of unsure worried students. No one had warned me that students have feelings."

David Allan concludes that the tyro university teacher is a victim of an identity crisis resulting from the ever wider range of teaching demands. "One thing is clear about starting to teach in the modern university," he says. "Status, and its resulting empowerment, still matters both to teacher and to student. It's denial, undoctored, untenured, untrained or without respectable office furniture, truly flings the new university teacher in at the deep end".

Alison Utley

* In at the Deep End, published in collaboration with The THES and the Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lonsdale College, Lancaster University LA1 4YN.



It was my first year as a lecturer. Please would I teach the economics course to the mechanical engineers? This was it - my very own first course.

Planning it was simple. I had my undergraduate notes and essays and the textbook. Matching syllabus headings to chapter titles to the number of weeks available gave me an outline of the lecture programme in a matter of days.

Planning the first lecture took rather longer. The lecture was to last for one hour. How many words should that be? None of my colleagues knew. From, I think, the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, I learnt that a 15-minute radio story required some 2,150-2,250 words. This suggested that my lecture would require some 8,800 words. Thirty lectures - would be over a quarter of a million words.

A brilliant time-saving idea struck - photocopying, cutting and pasting. I used textbook chapters, legible sections of my lecture notes, even the odd well-turned paragraph from my essays. This way, "writing" the lecture only took a couple of days.

The first lecture went fairly well. Eight of the scheduled ten students turned up, and they wrote non-stop. It wasn't perfect. The lecture started a little late and writing things on the board took time which I had not allowed for. I had to speed up a lot over the past five or ten minutes to get through it all; but basically it went OK.

The lecture for new staff later that week on how to lecture was very useful. Afterwards I spent an hour or so in an empty classroom practising writing in big letters in a straight line on the board, and felt a lot more confident.

The next lecture also went well. I only prepared about 7,300 words, to allow time for writing on the board. The six students took lots of notes. Things began to go wrong the next week: "Sir?" "Yes?" "Why do we have to do all this economics stuff? We're engineers." "Because it's in the syllabus. Because engineers need to understand the economic environment in which their company is working."

On reflection, I should not have tried to be so helpful. The students kept on asking questions. They even started to ask questions about my teaching:

"Sir, have you got all this written down?" "Yes." "Why don't you just give us copies? Save us doing all this writing." "The photocopying budget is very tight. Anyway, if I did that, what would I do in the lectures? What would you do in the lectures?" My loss of innocence as a teacher had begun.

David Baume is co-director, Centre for Higher Education Practice, the Open University


Tuesday October 3 1960, 11am University of Wales First-year course: Introduction to Housing Policy.

Most of the previous week had been spent moving house and being introduced to departmental colleagues and procedures. So my first lecture had to be based on an evening's resume of the first two chapters of the only book on housing I could find in the cardboard boxes I had carted into my cold attic bedsit.

A pleasant surprise the following morning was the eagerness of the class - composed of probation officers, social workers and lady almoners, all many years my senior - to write extensive notes on everything I said and to copy down my shaky figures from the blackboard.

Achieving authority was clearly going to be simple. As I warmed to my theme of the difference between need and demand, it occurred to me that university teaching would be a rewarding and satisfying career. Even more reassuring was the enthusiastic response from the class to my attempt at a humorous aside - as I illustrated the ramifications of the registrar general's classification of socio-economic status by head of household. It was only when I returned to the blackboard that I discovered that a charming urchin had wandered in from the street and was expertly mimicking my every movement from behind the dais.

Nothing had prepared me for this eventuality. Gentle entreaties to him to leave proved ineffective. But, I reflected, severe reprimands or physical threats would have united my class in disapproval. After a little hesitation I fumbled through my pockets, found and offered him all my coffee money, suggesting loudly that he use it to go and buy some sweets.

It worked and earned me a ripple of applause. So, with my equilibrium restored, I completed the lecture, confirmed in my ability to satisfy my students and handle anything.

But that confidence led to my downfall. Having completed my tabulation of the distribution of housing supply along the RG's five-point scale, I concluded with a flourish that this demonstrated that demand was in inverse proportion to need. Announcing that I would be moving on to the more sophisticated Hall-Jones scale and an introduction to the British class system in my next lecture, I asked whether the class had any questions.

A moment's pause, as fountain pens were put away and folders clicked shut.Then, very slowly, an elderly man in the back row pushed away his desk and rose to his feet. Everyone turned. Silence. In a deep and authoritative Welsh baritone that could have been heard from one end of a valley to another, he said: "You are completely wrong." Pause. "And a much older and wiser man than you said that."

The class turned back towards me in unison. I thanked him for his contribution and fled.

John Wakeford is director of the school of independent studies, Lancaster University.


I was in my early twenties, barely out of my academic nappies, having only graduated a year before and learning to take my first steps as a postgraduate. My supervisor was making arrangements for her sabbatical and I was to be her stand-in. I was familiar with the material, but there was a world of difference between knowing my way around the core texts and having an informed perspective on the teaching. And no one had ever explained to me just how important and time-consuming the administration of a course was.

My own insecurity about the aims and objectives of the course led to me offering a discussion of key concepts and terms which constituted enough material for a complete term's worth of lectures. When I had practised in my bedroom, I had been an eloquent and animated Judi Dench, not the manic and sweaty Ben Elton I seemed to have metamorphosed into in front of the students.

You do not, of course, always get immediate feedback on your first lectures. Though none of them walked out, thank goodness, I did find out that one of the mature students had declared: "What can that young whippersnapper teach me that I don't already know?". In fact, I was often mistaken for a student (my dress code didn't help, though I've since moved on from Oxfam to Jigsaw). Yet, if essays were anything to go by, I must have managed to appear to know my stuff despite often feeling myself to be just a page ahead of the students.

Most academics give their first lectures as postgraduate students. The arrangement is presented as a postgraduate rite of passage but, more often than not, it is a means of securing teaching on the cheap. The whippersnappers may be able to prove their intellectual worth, but at what cost?

Lorna Warren is lecturer in social policy, Sheffield University.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented


Featured jobs