10 February 2006

On listening to lectures (again)

Building on Wednesday's posting;

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) carried an article today on Richard Sennett. (Sorry I can't point you directly to the article, it's in the "Subscription only" area; but you can get a sense of his ideas from Laurie Taylor's "Thinking Allowed" programme on BBC Radio 4 of 18 January, including a chance to listen to whole thing. It is well worth listening to.)

However, the article starts, painstakingly re-typed as a short quotation which does not I think violate copyright (hey, I care about mine, I respect others);

'Just after Richard Sennett arrived in the UK in 1999 [...] he got his first introduction to British bureaucracy in the form of a teaching quality officer* [who] sat in on a lecture on Max Weber and [...] seemed to be busy writing throughout. Sennett later found out that the officer was ticking boxes for the number of times he made eye contact in the lecture. When Sennett later asked the officer what he felt he had learned about Weber from the lecture, the officer said that he was not interested in Weber. "The content was not important, just the process," Sennett says.'
GARNER M (2006) "'Craftsmanship' is laid low by quick-fix fever"
Times Higher Education Supplement 10 February 2006 (No. 1,729) p. 18
[* "Teaching quality officer" sounds like a QA commissar; I'm almost certain that, particularly at the LSE, this is something of an overstatement. And, for what it's worth, eye-contact in lectures does matter, as I have noted earlier in this blog; but the point is still well-made.]

We'll come back to that. However, today I discovered (not before time) the virtues of the "Blank" (sometimes "Black") button on the remote control for the data projector. It simply shuts down the projected image, and it is liberating! It overcomes quite a lot of my objections to the use of presentation packages in lectures. There are other ways of achieving the same effect, but not as simply and elegantly; I hope your kit has got a similar facility.

That set me thinking about writing a page, which I may do shortly, on the sensitive use of presentation package techniques ("ppt" -- any resemblance to a certain trademarked Microsoft file extension is entirely intentional, but you can get just as impressive results from OpenOffice, which is free, and you can even save the results as ".ppt" filesórant over).

But reflection often rambles, and in this case the article and the eye-contact point and ppt came together. I had noticed the eye-contact issue in a teaching session where I could not understand the language much of the time; so my mind was highly focused on the process rather than the content. On the other hand, I do observe many teaching sessions (as a teacher-educator) where I find it hard to concentrate on the process because the content is so interesting; in fact, it is a good marker for a good session that the process slips out of my attention**)

And so, (I have finally got to the point) I do sometimes find myself able to empathise with the students. And ppt often sends many of the wrong messages. I'm not quite as convinced as Edward Tufte that "Powerpoint(tm) is evil!" but I can see his point, from the receiving end. Imagine sitting there (as a student) in the lecture theatre being bombarded with an inexorable barrage of bullet points. You will eventually think, "Gee, there is so much to know about this stuff", and "I have to remember this!" So your naive aspirations as a student to understand the subject are driven into the ground by the pile-driver of (apparently essential) "facts". Most of them, of course, are not "facts". They are mainly the lecturer's cues about what to talk about next, but she thought it would help the students to flag them all; after all, aren't "visual aids" desirable? Yes, but...

On Wednesday, I would have appreciated a few markers as to where we were in the argument, but the argument was what mattered, much more than the individual components of the evidence, and Trevor Phillips knew that. Using ppt to flag every stage and every point is in danger of of devaluing the whole in favour of the partsóand then we complain about "surface learning". It's not the whole story, but in some measure we asked for it!

** I have only once actively slipped out of role as an observer, though. I was observing a really good Access class at a college, when the teacher (my student) referred to the work of Roy Nash on how self-fulfilling prophecies and labelling processes happened in the classroom (mid '70s); I had actually been present at Roy's initial presentation of his work, and it just seemed the right thing to do to pipe up and say so, and to bring alive what might otherwise have been just another dry reference. (Sorry, this research does not show up on a web search.)

08 February 2006

On listening to a lecture

I have just returned from attending the annual Gaitskell Memorial Lecture at Nottingham University, given this year by Trevor Phillips.

It prompted thoughts at two levels, neither of them to do directly with its content, which was very impressive, but not part of the remit of this blog. (How often do you get that on a blog? [It does not necessarily set a precedent!])

I was not making notes, so the fact that I recall all this is some testimony to his lecturing style; and he was lecturing rather than speechifying. He respected his audience (mainly academics and their friends); at an early point he referred unapologetically to "Butskellism" (my initial metasearch for the term on the web, qualified with references to Gaitskell, got only seven results) but presumably knew the reference would not be missed by the middle-aged UK academics who constituted (at a rough guess) two-thirds of the audience. The lecture was delivered without any visual aids at all.
The first concerned the simple problem of following a lecture, a point I have made elsewhere. He is a very accomplished speaker; he is after all a former (and occasionally present) broadcaster, and very easy to listen to. He had a few jokes, mainly at the beginning, at his own expense ("Thanks for the introduction. It helps clarify things; I have lost track of the number of times I have stood up to speak and people have been disappointed because they expected the guy who reads the ITV "News at Ten" or more recently, the fellow who advertises the Halifax Bank!") He had interesting new information, and provocative perspectives, and he both illustrated and lightened the tone with anecdotes, such as the one about the multi-racial day-centre in Glasgow which fundamentally worked on women's shared hatred of their daughters-in-law; a great inversion of the mother-in-law joke tradition. The teaching-observation protocol which is (unfortunately) indelibly printed on my brain was filling up with approving ticks.

But I can't sustain attention forever, however interested I am. At one point he referred to a poll which asked people to identify the ethnicity of their twenty closest friends. Afterwards at the reception, someone commented to me, "I lost the argument at that point; I was trying to list my twenty closest friends!" When you lose track of an argument, how do you tune in again?

My mind wanders, and then returns. But what am I listening to, now? I don't know. Is it a major point, or a gloss, anecdote (illustrating what?) or an aside? I am relying purely on auditory material. Trevor, on the other hand, had a script (and this is where it is important for the rest of us) . As an accomplished speaker, he did not so much read it, as use it as a list of cues on which to elaborate. But his script (which I have not of course seen) will have been laid out in paragraphs, and even bullet-points within paragraphs. The level of his points would have been clear to him, but his purely verbal delivery gave no idea to the (momentarily interrupted) listener as to what they were listening to.

At one, early, point (as I recall) he distinguished between under-achievement of ethnic minority people due to discrimination (OK, familiar territory; I used to teach social workers), cultural factors (sit up here; is he--chair of the CRE--going to say it is their own fault?), and systemic factors (what are those? this is a new idea!). So I was primed to hear interesting stuff on the latter two factors. I heard a lot of interesting stuff, but it did not fit with those categories, so I could not organise it.

I am not setting out to demolish a really interesting lecture, by any means; I am just trying to give some indication of how it might have made more impact as a whole, from the point of view of a member of the audience.

(Oh, the second level, too. That was to do with the hidden agenda of how Trevor's comments might be reported. I've said enough already, and this particular issue does not rate highly on the scale for most teachers and lecturers; it's sufficient to say that we were in the presence of a master. I am not being cynical or sarcastic at all, here. I know something of the waters in which he must swim, and they are full of sharks. This was a master-class in how to get the important messages across without offering oneself up to be eaten; but that's not really an issue for this blog.)