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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Seminar: Can You Break the Ontological Argument?

As discussed in the last post, I believe an important task in teaching philosophy of religion is being able to identify the difference between an unphilosophical attack on religion in the manner of Dawkins and the philosophy of religion itself, where the former seeks to understand religion in its own terms regardless of its decision on the question of the existence of God.

I’ve found a good way of teaching this, presuming the students tend to view religion within the locus of Dawkin’s allegation that religion is irrational, is by teaching the rationality of religion. This makes the discussion relate to them and meets the desired learning outcome.

A fun way of doing this in a seminar is to discuss the ontological argument. The discussion takes the form of a challenge: prove to me that this argument is invalid. There are some prerequisites for making this work.

  • I unashamedly stack the odds in my favour by not teaching them the classic refutations (Aquinas / Hume / Leibniz / Kant) beforehand.
  • Some famliliarity with the arguments for the existence of God will help (recalling A level should be sufficient)
  • But, again, I wouldn’t encourage them to do too much preparation for this debate. It spoils the fun

Now, you may say this is a bit of an odd tack to take. But, the point of this seminar is not actually for them to refute the ontological argument, but experience the frustration at being unable to refute it. As my college critical thinking teacher taught this argument: the ontological argument is one of the best arguments in history because everyone hates it, everyone wants to refute it but noone can agree on exactly what’s wrong with it.

The most authentic objection to the ontological argument is just a vague sense that there’s something funny about it. But, this sense is not a rational sense, it is an irrational dislike of the way the argument operates, which is itself ultra-rational. As a Heideggerian, I tend to interpret this as a pre-intellectual sense that the meaning of being is misunderstood in this argument. This follows his reading of Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument. By saying that Being is not a real predicate, Kant is saying that the meaning of being is misrecognised in this argument abused. But, that is by the by.

As a continual reminder that no one says anything new, students only really come up with the same three or four objections. I will present these in a table, because I like tables. Before doing so, it is only fair to remind you of the premises of this subtle and intensely annoying argument.

P1 – We all can conceive of a perfect being

P2 – Existence is a perfection

– The perfect being exists

Complaint        Response
But it depends on what you mean by perfection doesn’t it! Well, no. Perfect is a technical philosophical term that means a “complete” being, a being that has all positive predicates as part of its being. Just as the perfect pizza does not have anything lacking, the perfect being lacks no positive property whatsoever. So, that argument doesn’t work.
Yes but that’s not what perfections means to me That doesn’t matter, it’s what perfection means to the person making the argument. Playing around with definitions won’t refute the argument. Try again.
Well, you can’t prove the existence of something just using logic. Why?
You just can’t!!! Well, Hume said that, but he didn’t actually justify it. The entire point of the ontological argument is that it purports to prove that the one matter of fact that can be settled by reason is the existence of a perfect being. You have to say why that’s incorrect

And on it goes. The first time I tried this I did feel like the students were about to attack me, they were that wound up. But, it is an important lesson. By refuting every argument they have, they are forced to simply say the don’t believe it, which is itself an irrational response to the rational argument.

To calm them down, I tell them Kant’s refutation which, for me at least, does solve the issue. But, remind them that if we follow Kant we are admitting that the problem of national religion is not that it is rational, but that it is too rational. Reason believes it has the ability to deduce the existence of things but it is unable to because reason is not a property at all. It certainly gives them something to think about.

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.