One of the real advantages of a lecture is that the person giving it is present. A low bar, you might think, but it has a definite effect. The idea of “presence” is one I’d like to explore in this piece, drawing out the ways in which it matters and how they relate to the strengths of the lecture format. As I mentioned in the previous piece, I’ll be concentrating quite narrowly on lecturing in the Arts and Humanities, and drawing (even more narrowly) on my own experience of lectures. I don’t expect these points will apply to everyone who lectures, but they might give a sense of why I think the lecture is so important, and what I think it can achieve.
So the lecturer is actually present in the room. This might be too obvious to mention, but I’ll start with it nonetheless. Unlike the author of a book – and unlike a recording or a transcript – the person the audience are hearing from is standing in front of them. This means that they’re able to do things which books and recordings are unable to. They can reiterate a point if it doesn’t seem to have been understood properly, they can offer a five-minute question and answer session, they can crack a joke when the audience feels restless, or suggest an alternative way of approaching an idea.
They can be alive and responsive to the students in a way which neither a piece of set reading nor a recording of a talented speaker can manage. Perhaps surprisingly, the first benefit of lectures rests on the way a lecturer can give their attention to the audience, rather than vice versa. Lecturers, like actors, get a feel for the audience. At the most basic level this involves knowing when they’re losing them. A person giving their first few lectures to a large group may not know what to do about it, but they can certainly feel when people stop paying attention.
The slightly thespy metaphors of a “cold room” or a “warmed-up crowd” make very personal and immediate sense when you’re in front of four hundred people. The quality of the atmosphere just changes when people are absorbed or when they’re bored, and with experience (and practice) a lecturer can learn to respond to these shifts. That might involve a change in pace, a wander up and down the rows, an anecdote, a more technical passage of explanation, or any other of the various ways a lecturer can speak to a group. (These aren’t “tricks”, I’d hasten to add. There isn’t a standard “information-giving” mode of speech which these diverge from in order to catch the attention of bored listeners and hook them back into “information-receiving” mode. They’re an array of equally valid styles which the speaker can switch between.)
With the audience actually in front of them, a lecturer can react to them in attentive and supportive ways. Where a book would just plough on with its arguments, regardless of who is keeping up or not, a lecture can mould itself to the situation in the particular moment. It’s a rainy Monday at the beginning of term. A hot drowsy Wednesday two weeks before the exams. The day after the Students’ Union Boat Party. A recording doesn’t know and can’t care, but a lecturer does and alters their performance accordingly.
This is a real strength of lecturing: you don’t have to speak as if every word were being taken down and had to contain all the necessary meaning. You can use gesture, tone of voice and movement to bring out the implications of your words. You can comment on your own words, repeat them, break them down and build them back up again. You can include a level of redundancy that, well if you did it on paper, in writing, away from the moment you were saying it in, just there on the page, the people reading would think this was, was terrible style, just wouldn’t know, would think you didn’t know what you were saying, do you see, it’s different in writing, like that bit of Plato we were reading – or Ong, for that matter, Ong and Augustine, remember that, blimey, passive-aggressive much, and that’s the point – and so you bring your audience along with you, but if you wrote it… etc, etc.
A lecturer can explain, can sympathise, can annotate and repeat if it’s needed. They don’t need to write with every possible audience in mind, they can focus all their ability on this group in front of them, to whom they have a duty. This is one of the reasons I’ve suggested that the lecture format can be beneficial for a diverse cohort of students, with different experiences and backgrounds. They can receive a lecture which is directed to them, not to some homogenous Classically-educated nineteenth-century books readership, but neither to the imagined “generally diverse” audience which a module-designer expected.
To state the really obvious, diverse student bodies are diverse in diverse ways. “Diverse” isn’t a particular category, it’s a set of interlocking and overlapping experiences which affect a student’s view of the world and the angle at which they arrive to particular issues. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of addressing “diverse” audiences which can be encoded (by taking out the Classical references, for example) and fixed. There are habits one can adopt of not making assumptions about gender, ethnicity, class, background, etc, but left on their own these still seem to assume a model of “standard – specificity = diverse”, as if “diverse” audiences are less particular and individual. Surely nothing could be further from the truth.
Alongside this negative style, or removing things that might not be suitable, there must surely be a positive style, of adding what is suitable. The work of connecting with a diverse student body involves the lecturer adapting to who they are and what their experiences might have been. It involves a growing understanding, a reactive conversation and the building of connections. This can happen over a course of lectures; I can’t see how a book or a recording can do this. They can only attempt to “diversity-proof” themselves by removing things, or adding caveats, rather than opening up their ideas and their presentation to modification over time, during the collaborative process of mutual attention which lectures enable.
The two-way notion of attention I’ve been sketching here is different from the way the speaker would interact with students in a seminar room. Smaller groups don’t just mean a heightened level of the same attention (as Lucy Allen pointed out in the comments on my last piece.) Lecturing creates an different dynamic, allowing the speaker to respond to the audience as a whole, rather than as a set of individuals.
Audiences don’t react as a set of isolated humans, as if they were all reading the lecture text whilst happening to sit in the same room. The most obvious example of this can be seen when an audience laughs. Studies have shown that laughter is a communal reaction; people on their own laugh far less at comedy shows than those watching in a group. It’s a shared reaction of understanding, enjoyment and communication. But people don’t just laugh as an audience: they puzzle, pay attention, seethe or discover as an audience too.
Thus the students benefit from each other’s presence, to pick up on the term I’m exploring. They can often feel, just as a lecturer can, whether the general atmosphere is cheerful, or perplexed, or watchful, or cross, or absorbed. At the very least this can reassure those who aren’t quite following and might have thought everyone else had mastered the topic if they had been reading alone in their room. At best it can create powerful emotional and sensory memories of the joint wonder and realization, which do far more than provide “information”.
In an increasingly consumer-led society, and in a sector where students are increasingly encouraged to behave as “customers”, this being present to each other matters. Despite the commercial rhetoric surrounding them, students in general clearly want some sense of camaraderie, something to belong to and something to be part of. At my college we joked that anyone who wore the university hoodie had clearly never been there; only college, or team, or society stash had the ring of really belonging.
I certainly see more hoodies around campus with the names of accommodation halls than with the names of the university. And yet the university is a choice the students made in a allegedly market-based system. Many of them will not have chosen their halls, yet many seem to want to identify with them. This doesn’t feel to me like the “brand loyalty” of someone pleased with their purchase, but the fellow-feeling of a cohort.
This fellow-feeling can express itself in shameful displays of denigrating others to build the group up (I’m thinking of the misogynistic or racist songs and chants which have been banned on various university campuses over the last few years) or in more positive ways through sport, art, creativity and mutual support. The lecture hall may not be the most exciting venue for this sort of bonding, but it certainly happens there. Whilst it’s not a perfect system, I get the impression students feel a communal meaning in a lecture hall of four hundred that they just don’t attach to their seminar groups.
I’m not overlooking the problems and the failures of bonding in all this. Personally I never wore stash at college, and I didn’t like all the “get involved” rhetoric. (In my case that was more because I hadn’t found something I could feel comfortable belonging to.) But I don’t think an increasingly individualised approach will solve these problems. I think providing more opportunities where students can feel securely and respectfully present to each other might be, and that lectures can be part of that. The lecture hall may not provide the kind of personal attention which the tutorial or the small seminar can deliver, but it has other benefits which they cannot supply.
Finally, lecturing allows a kind of presence which small-group teaching doesn’t permit. Engaging with an audience for fifty minutes gives a spaciousness in which the lecturer can be themselves in a certain way. In tutorial or seminar, the tutor is (quite rightly) careful to be as unobtrusive as is practical, to draw out ideas and reflect suggestions. The students – ideally – set the direction of argument and develop their ideas, within the framework provided. The ideal seminar tutor enables rather than instructs.
A lecturer can’t do this for everyone in a lecture hall, so they have the opportunity to be a bit more personal. Knowing that there’s the slightly bigger distance between me and the listener, I can elaborate on my ideas, and show my personality, without worrying that they’ll feel I’m doing it “at them”. I can make jokes and tell stories, or obsess about punctuation and ritual, without it sounding like this is what I think they should all be doing, or that this will be “on the test”. I am distanced as a performer in a way which lets me be more personally present.
Though responsive to the feeling in the room as I go along, I don’t have to be instructing each person individually, so I can stretch out a bit. I can gesture towards areas of the subject they might not have thought about, or show how I’d approach a problem, or think out loud about a puzzle, without it all having to be neatly tailored to an individual student and their essay. I can signal how I feel, (hopefully) without suggesting it is “the right answer”, and show what I think without implying they should think the same. The greater distance of a lecture allows the speaker’s personality to show itself without stifling or coercing the listeners.
This is not simply a matter of self-expression. From anecdotal evidence, it seems students might sometimes feel more comfortable with someone they feel they know, even if that “knowing” has come via a lecture. Students have come up to me after lectures to ask questions, or suggest that I might be wrong on a point, or share their ideas, and I’m fairly sure they would not have done that if they’d simply read a set essay which I’d written. Colleagues have mentioned that students I’ve never taught sometimes refer to me in conversation by my first name, as if they feel vaguely familiar with me as a person. Being present to them in lectures seems to make them more able to be present to me by showing their ideas and feelings.
Nor is this solely a queston of education, important though that is. My pastoral work within the university reminds me that you never know who’ll need to speak to you. I’ve had students approach me to discuss difficult issues, who mention that they’d heard me speak in lectures, and felt that I would understand. My being honestly present to the students in lectures, as far as possible, seems to have made them feel I would be safe to talk to.
I’m not sure that the more enabling, unobtrusive style of seminar teaching has the same effect in this regard. I suspect that part of the process of trust here involved watching me from the safe distance of a lecture, gauging whether I could be trusted, noticing what I said when no-one was putting particular questions to me and I just talked about what I thought, and coming to some sort of provisional judgement. I can’t know that for certain, obviously, but I get that impression quite strongly. That particular kind of distance and presence may have been very helpful for such students.
So I believe that the particular forms of presence which lecturing allows – and even demands – are very valuable in university teaching and university life. They make quite specific demands on both speaker and listener, but they offer rewards which cannot be easily supplied by either smaller groups or books and recorded media. Much of that value lies in the discipline of speaking to a particular group, on a particular topic, on a specific day of the year, and finding what needs to be said to them right here, right now.