The Art of Lecturing and Improvisation

As most people begin as a lecturer, my first lecture notes were fantastically over-prepared. For 45 minute sessions, I would prepare 5000 words in essay level language and fail to get through a third of it. This academic year, I took the decision to begin to rely on extemporisation more. This was for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of time. I’m still an hourly paid lecturer and I simply cannot spend the hours I am paid writing near-publishable material for my lectures. Secondly, I have dyspraxia with dyslexia-like traits that make reading aloud very difficult anyway. Thirdly and most importantly, I’m much clearer and more interesting when I extemporise. Having the confidence to realise this was far more difficult than actually having the confidence to do it.

Now my lecture planning means deciding what themes need to be discussed and building a presentation (Prezi is my weapon of choice) that provides an aid to memory whilst giving students something concrete to hold onto whilst I explain the issue. The presentation is now my only notes, but its purpose is to give me a framework to discuss the topic with the students. I think this mindset is the best way to avoid the dreaded and ambiguous criticism in student feedback “they just read off the powerpoint”. I’m not entirely sure what students mean by that, but I make conscious effort to ensure that the presentation slide is something I respond to and develop on rather than being the content I need to deliver.

Now, not having full notes is a stylistic choice on my part. All lecturers extemporise in some way, even if they rely predominantly on written notes. It’s why lecturing is an art rather than the knack of reading from a sheet. One responds to the mood of the room, one realises what’s going over their heads and what is too simple for them, and responds to it. Similar, I hit the space bar, I read the slide, I identify what they will understand without my help and what they won’t. I begin to speak.

This brings me to the point that prompts today’s post. I’ve just come from a lecture I gave for the first time, having “written” it yesterday. Upon getting two slides in, I realised the presentation itself made a rather large leap from one topic to another, meaning I had to bring in ten minutes of material not even mentioned in the slide. This, thankfully, was the first time in the three months since I’d decided to adopt this lecturing strategy that anything like this had happened. My anxiety-ridden dreams about stepping up and having nothing to say proved baseless even in this situation, since I know what I needed to bring in and I did so.

I was startled I was able to do this, and after leaving the lecture I began to reflect on what extemporisation is. Where do the words come from? This is a problem I’d thought about as a teenager, not as a lecturer but as someone learning the guitar. I used to look at the people in my school who were further along in learning than me in awe when they would improvise solos. I used to wonder where the notes came from. Today, improvisation is my favourite thing to do on the guitar.

I thought, then, that as they are similar phenomena they might have a similar explanation. The way I was taught improvisation, and the way many are taught it, is through “licks”. Rather than writing 12 bars of solo note for note, you write three or four motifs or “twiddles” of a few notes each and play around with them. What might be originally three notes can get you 2-4 bars of blues solo just by repeating it with different emphasis and order, varying the theme. As you continue to play around with the licks, you get more confident and start developing new ones by accident and on purpose. Through even more time, you don’t even need the licks anymore. You play the melody as easily as humming.

I seem, analogously, to have developed teaching “licks” over time; motifs of content that I can elaborate, condense, and develop on the spot to meet the needs of the question. (I do not claim this to be an original ability, it’s clearly what everyone does. I’m simply surprised that it’s finally happened to me.) I can make the point that “Descartes identifies the human being with the mind as something distinct from the body” in a sentence, or a paragraph, or, as I did today to fill in the gap between two bullet points on my lecture slide, a ten minute dramatic recount of the First and Second Meditations.

But, what is the pedagogical equivalent to developing the “licks”? In guitar, you play around with what you’ve wrote on your own with headphones in your guitar amp so no one can hear you make mistakes. You can hardly do this yourself. Equally, we do not teach often enough (4-8 times a week 20 weeks a year) to develop this ability with much speed. How do we get good at riffing on our material? I guess, by debating and talking about our subject with friends and colleagues. I can only conclude from thinking about how I thankfully had the skill to get myself out of a tight spot that talking about our subjects with each other informally in the pub and formally in research seminars is an essential part of the teaching process, to help us master our material. So, to answer my adolescent question (where do the notes come from?) one need only turn to Aristotle: you get better at things by doing them; you get better at extemporising by extemporising, at talking by talking, teaching by teaching and explaining by explaining.

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