Sunday, December 07, 2008

Is an audience of one a lecture?

At almost every conference I attend, someone reads an entire lecture verbatim from notes. Is there anything dumber? It’s a throwback to a non-literate age. I can read. In fact, I can read faster than they can speak. It’s an insult to the audience.

One of the saddest learning stories I’ve ever heard was from the actress Tilda Swinton. She was the only student who turned up to a lecture at Oxford by Raymond Williams where he read out his lecture, from notes, from behind the lectern, and neither of them even acknowledged each other. How sad is that? Almost every University has even worse tales of lectures where not one student turned up.

Samuel Johnson saw the folly of it all:
‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!’

As David Hume, observed, it is the content, not the person who matters:
‘ you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor.’


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald.

Funny you should post about this. At both the conferences I've been to in the last few months there have been those sort of readers, who stand and read something they wrote themselves.

I can still enjoy a good lecture. Ken Robinson has delivered a few that I wouldn't mind listening to again, and again, and again.

But the man who topped it all for me this year was Jeff Cole at the NetSafe Conference in Queenstown, NZ.

The hall was near to full. He spoke for an action packed hour. Gripping stuff. Statistics, predictions, history - a lot of interesting factual stuff, but gripping nevertheless. And he had no notes. And no PowerPoint.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen Ken Robinson with notes or using PowerPoint.

Lecturing is an art. But it seems that many who lecture haven't studied it.

Catchya later

Donald Clark said...

Yes it's a skill. The conundrum is why so many professional teachers/lecturers/academics make no effort to acquire the skill. It's the equivalent of a singer with no voice.

I personally think that it's a perverse 'style doesn't matter' thing. They sometimes like to be deliberately dull to show that they're not part of the presentation game - that they're above it all. But mostly it's pure incompetence.

Paul said...

This is the problem I face with my current employer, where we need engaging people to give classes, but nearly everyone is wholly incapable of understanding simple concepts like projecting voice or inflection, let alone working physical gestures and storylines.

But then, the content is very often quite dull as well. Theree are ways to make dull content itneresting, but not always. At the very least, there are internal classes given by some very good presenters on how to become better presenters. The only problem is, these classes tend to be given only at one site, and are rarely given the go ahead for a "roadshow" to train in other locales.

To put myself on a track toward better presenting, I joined ToastMasters International. This is probably one of the most accessible ways to really work at presenting.