Star Turn

October 2, 1998

Alison Utley discovers how a lecturing job in the United States relaxed the style of an international communications expert

"There's a reading list with websites but it's out of date," Phil Taylor tells postgraduate students attending his lecture. "Since I wrote it in July I've found another 20 sites that you'll need." Subjects just do not move much faster than this. International communications is so new that most of the relevant books have yet to be written. Academic study has to catch up. Look at the Financial Times and the Internet for up-to-date information, Professor Taylor adds, joking about students who quote 1970s statistics in their essays.

This lecture is a taster for what is to come in the rest of the masters programme in international communications studies at Leeds University. We are left in no doubt about the pace and depth. We are taken on a whirlwind tour of international communications, propaganda, Coca-colonialism, the changing nature of conflicts, information as a tool of war, satellites, the Internet, radio, television.

Wars between states are fast becoming a thing of the past, he says. Information warfare is the future. Communications and information are cheaper than bombers. "People are talking about a revolution in military affairs; we no longer fight wars by blowing people's brains out, instead we use information as a tool of persuasion. Is that reality or is it misguided?" You get the feeling he knows the answer.

Besides heading communications studies at Leeds, Professor Taylor is a consultant to Nato and is off to Florida to do some lecturing in a couple of weeks. His contact with the military gives him the insight into how people in the real business of international communications think about what they do.

"Think about what you see and hear," he says. We are shown a 19th-century portrait on the overhead. "How many people see an old woman?" A few. "How many see a young woman?" A few more. No agreement.

Phil Taylor's lectures were once meticulously planned. He wrote down everything, even the jokes. Then he went to the United States and everything changed. To his surprise he found students were interrupting and his carefully choreographed lectures were soon in disarray. "They made me make them understand," he said. Now his lecturing style is relaxed and students love it. He occasionally uses overheads as prompts. The rest of the time he goes with the flow, allowing himself to be swayed by the mood of the audience and veered off course by questions.

He would rather his students did not take lecture notes either. "Sometimes when notes get left behind I read them and wonder if we've been in the same lecture room," he says. He recalls the story of an eminent historian at Leeds who used the same lecture notes for 20 years. Someone suggested he spent the summer reading and updating his notes. Returning for the new term suitably refreshed he began his lectures with the opening line: "It used to be said that..."

On the odd occasion he gives formal lecture notes Professor Taylor usually spots at least one person dropping off. "I tell them there are three important points then only list two," he says. "Keeps them on their toes."

There are more tricks. In a lecture on war corresponding he might ask who knows the difference between incoming and outgoing mortar fire. No, comes the reply. "Then you're all going to die," comes the response. "Do you still want to be a war reporter?"

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