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.)


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