12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

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02 August 2009

On wire-walking and beyond...

On 7 August 1974, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the (then) World Trade Center. He did so with no authority or sponsorship (and the financial backing remains unclear).
(Is the above plagiarised? Discuss in the light of the link from the heading.)
I have just watched this extraordinary film.

Its impact is largely based on the equally extraordinary variation between the practitioner's (Petit's) account, and that of spectators.

The spectator question is "Is he going to fall off?" (Spoiler; he didn't, otherwise he could not have contributed to this film.) For the participants or practitioners the question just does not arise. He spent 45 minutes on the wire and crossed and re-crossed eight times.

The point of this observation? It's a very vivid illustration of how the acquisition of a skill is capable of completely transforming a person. It would be nonsensical to listen to the Proms to see if you can catch out a player producing a note out of tune. Their performance concerns are utterly different, as a result of course of thousands of hours of practice. Richard Sennett, in his rambling and ultimately disappointing "The Craftsman" (2008), pronounces on what is becoming the received wisdom, that it takes 10,000 hours to produce a craftsman.

Random reflections;
  • At what cost? Ten thousand hours which could have been spent doing something other than practising an instrument, or training on a track or walking on a wire. What kind of person would the craftsman have become without that obsessionalism?

  • And related to that, it is not surprising that the craftsman does not just do something differently from everyone else; he or she now is different, and thinks of her- or himself differently.

  • If it takes that long, and always has done, why are we so obsessed with doing it faster? It's just pushing on an automatically closing door. It takes an enormous amount of wasted energy.

  • And as Sennett moots; can we afford it any longer? A few years ago there was a TV series called "Faking it", in which participants were given about three weeks to be transformed into passable imitators of a DJ, a hairdresser, a chef or such-like. Is that the paradigm for vocational education to come?

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