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.


The Dawkins Problem in Teaching Philosophy of Religion

In 2006, Richard Dawkins released a consumer product that is widely alleged to be a book. It was called The God Delusion. It brought no new insight into religion. It was not grounded in scholarly sources on the topics about which it spoke. It was not released by OUP, Dawkins’ publisher of choice, implying that even the elite have work knocked back sometimes. It was, however, a succeess. It was a bestseller and made Dawkins’ a necessary cornerstone of any discussion of atheism.

Despite the so-called books lack of scholarly qualities, any course or attempt to teach the philosophy of religion. This is not because it offers any great insight or contribution to knowledge, but quite the opposite. The God Delusion is a lucid, if utterly non-self-aware, expression of the common sense attitude to religion. I mean “common sense” as the collection of predjudices our society has about a topic, that which initially delimits the possible positions within a debate before philosophical work can take place.

Common sense is something every philosophy teacher must reckon with. If philosophy has any chance of meaning anything to a student, it must be made to make sense to them, otherwise it will just be a neutral exposition of eccentric opinions had by people who are now dead. This is, applicably, the attitude that Richard Dawkins has to theology and the philosophy of religion.

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. (56)

Responding to the frequent criticism that he simply has no authority in the field he is talking about, Dawkins says that religion is not a field. It is just a collection of errors that are not worth wasting one’s time with. This is a dominant presupposition in common sense, which students find themselves repeating.

As such, whenever I teach the philosophy of religion, I begin with Dawkins. Not because he is profound, but, quite the contrary, he gives expression to a basic prejudice that must be challenged. So, I begin by reconstructing Dawkins’ position to the following two basic ideas.

The idea that religion is irrational is not unique to Dawkins, or even to atheism. It is the basic idea of fideism, the idea that religion is to be found through faith and faith alone, not the intellect. But, fideism is itself a reaction to the hyperrationality of natural religion; the claim that all religion is irrational needs at least to be modified to “some religions are irrational”.

This opens a pedogogic opportunity. By demonstrating the rationality of natural religion, we can challenge our students on the Dawkins thesis fundamentally and historically, rather than pointing to the extrinsic problems with his position (lack of expertise and scholarly conduct), or even by attacking his particular claims.

Kant is a particularly good place to start. In his discussion of the arguments of natural religion, in which he refutes an names all the arguments for the existence of God, he attempts to give an explanation of where these arguments come from and why. Rather than attributing it to an irrationalism or emotionalism, which is where he would go to explain moral abberations, Kant actually blames reason itself.

Reason longs for ultimate explanations of things, but can never provide them because doing so takes it beyond its de jure limits. The problem with religion is it follows reason to far. Religion is hyper-rational, not irrational. In practice, I’ve found the best way to hammer this home to students is to take a seminar on the ontological argument asking them to attempt to refute it. I’ll talk about that in another post. But, it generally frustrates them as the argument is incredibly difficult to refutre rationally, and they are forced into an irrational dismissal of it.

Getting “Meta” with Socrates

Kierkegaard says somewhere that you can’t learn swimming without swimming. Similarly, I found this week, that the Socratic method can’t be understood without having it done to you. For a while, now, I’ve enjoyed teaching Socrates by emphasising how irritating he was to the Athenian poloi. I do not think it controversial to claim that the real reason he was executed was not that he corrupted youth but that he was bloody annoying. He embarrassed important people who had claim to knowledge and showed them up by revealing their ignorance to all. This has always been a good way of introducing them to Socrates that avoids worn-out, dust-covered platitudes about how the only thing we know is that we know nothing and treating the man as a martyr dying for a cause. It is not that I think the latter is untrue, but that it is so well recognise that it borders on the banal. Socrates the irritant provokes more thought than Socrates the Saint. Why is it that people are so angered when they are proven ignorant? What is it about our prejudices that makes us defend them so ardently? This, perhaps, negative aspect of the Socratic method is more important for new philosophy students to reflect on than its positive epistemological claims. The positive content of Socrates’ philosophy, that we don’t really know anything, sounds far to much like contemporary subjectivism for them to take seriously; they agree with Socrates’ statement immediately and superficially.

However, just talking about this, whilst coaxing assent, did not really make much of a difference to the students’ attitudes towards the idea. And so, this week, the second week on the Apology for our first years, I tried something different in the seminar: I did the Socratic method to them in the most pedantic and irritating mode of which I was capable. I set myself the following rules to do so:

  • I was not allowed to say anything that wasn’t a question
  • Every answer a student would say had to be criticised, even if it was an interpretation I had been arguing for in previous weeks and that I genuinely wanted them to understand and agree to
  • Where a consensus was reached, I was required to break it by finding a problematic implication, however spurious

The first question I asked, by the way, was “Who was Socrates? Why should I care about him?”

This worked really well. I wasn’t very confident going in with this plan, I was worried I would not be able to pull it off (I am getting quite good at teaching, but I’m no Socrates), and I thought the whole thing rather contrived. I expected them to see through it immediately. However, the following things surprised me.

  • They got annoyed at my ignorance, in spite of the fact I was taking positions I’d argued the opposite of only last week
  • They got annoyed long before they realised what I was doing (This delighted me)
  • Where students gave the “right” answer, being forced to defend it in more detail by the method (“Why would you waste your time doing that? Why not just tell people what you think? Asking questions all the time is just annoying and lazy, isn’t it?!”) seemed to
    • Make them realise that they hadn’t really understood, but were just repeating by rote.
    • Made them more passionate about defending Socrates than they might have been

In short, Socrates really knew what he was doing.