In the third of our series of star lecturers, Olga Wojtas joins the audience at a performance given by Ronnie Jack
Edinburgh University's George Square lecture theatre used to be a real theatre. And it is a particularly appropriate venue for Ronnie Jack, Edinburgh's professor of Scottish and medieval literature, an accomplished actor in his student days.
There was a buzz of anticipation among the 300 first-year students, who were clearly expecting to be entertained, as he approached to deliver a lecture on genre criticism. And Professor Jack did not disappoint. He strode around the stage, punctuating the lecture with balletic poses and sardonic asides, extending his arms like an Old Testament prophet and doing a brief impersonation of an indecisive Hamlet wandering round in circles: "Oh dear, I don't know, oh dearie me, oh dear."
His acting skills once led to his being listed by the Mail on Sunday among "Ten Raving Brainiacs", very intelligent academics with no sense, on the grounds that he spoke very fast, in a thick Scottish accent and a high-pitched voice. He had, he explains mildly, been delivering a poem by Burns which was supposed to be spoken by a female.
He admits that he becomes a completely different person when delivering a lecture, and constantly tells himself "I must be boring, I must be boring" to avoid the lecture turning into a show.
"But with a class that size, some element of performance is necessary. Voice production and acting techniques have been the most valuable training I've had for this funny game."
He has never had to use a microphone: a colleague once remarked that even if his sole audience was three elderly ladies huddled together, he would still address them as though he were in the Usher Hall.
Paradoxically, he finds the George Square venue inhibiting because of its stage, which means he cannot come down from the rostrum and wander among the students.
But Jack still manages to keep firm control of his audience. At one point,continuing to deliver the lecture without any change of tone, he crept to the front of the stage, went down on one knee, and waved at a student in the third front row. "She looked as though it was just before someone's funeral," he says.
She may have been disheartened by Professor Jack's determination to push his audience intellectually. One student admitted after the lecture: "I find him very difficult to follow. I prefer someone who sticks to what you need to know. But he's very entertaining."
"Sometimes he's not very organised. He has a very erratic way of presentation. But he's very passionate and enthusiastic,'' said another, while her friend added: "He manages to convey what is important, and inspires you to look up what he doesn't cover, which I suppose is the point of a lecture."
Professor Jack is aware of their complaints. "The things I get criticised for most are that I go too fast and I'm too complicated, and I'm afraid that's just too bad. Are you trying to address them at their level or the highest possible helpful level?" He compensates by providing handouts, or, for the large George Sqare class, clear headings via the overhead projector, at one point telling the students: "It is not expected that you understand every word I say. But I guarantee that if you take down these headings, you will by the end of the year understand much better than you do now.'' His lectures may appear to be delivered spontaneously, but, mimicry aside, he invariably has a written text "because that means you have to have a rigorous argument. I always work up my lectures the day before."
He is saddened that "for perfectly acceptable curricular reasons'' he does not do more lecturing.
"I was brought up in the old Scottish system with very heavy lecturing, and the professor doing lecturing all the time. What worries me is that lecturing as such is not so highly valued any more, and most of the younger members of staff will be much happier doing tutorials and seminars,'' he says.
"The lecture is being questioned because it's a medieval thing. I don't think it's the only method of teaching, but something that lasts that long must have some value to keep it going - there are a lot of medieval things that we don't do.''