By way of a consideration of chickens, chicken tractors and YouTube, this first post of 2013 considers how instructors are tackling ever-growing class sizes in their lecture halls. Trust me, these things make sense together.
My partner and I have recently moved to a hobby farm. We got some chickens. (Two of ’em got et by a hawk. Where there’s livestock there’s deadstock, eh?). We want some sheep. We don’t want ’em to get et, so we also wanna get a guard llama, too. More realistic for 2013 is the prospect of getting ducks, turkeys, and rabbits.
What am I talking about? Well, first off, I’m sick-ish, so I’m all rambly.
Secondly, when you want to raise livestock but you want to do so ethically (ie., free range, on pasture), things get suddenly, exponentially tricky. Hawks become a problem, and so too do weasels, raccoons, coyotes, your neighbour’s dog, the need for shade trees and natural cover, and your crappy fencing that wants replacing across 7 acres or so.
My point is that we’ve got a lot of questions–in fact, my partner just interrupted my writing to ask one: “Hey Lis, if we get a chicken tractor, and put the ducks in it, how do we get the ducks to it each morning and back to the barn each night, so predators don’t get them? And how do they access the pond?” I replied: “Oh, I don’t know; I think it’s supposed to be like all ramble-ramble-ramble… and then, you know, maybe that works.” This, of course, just to make him feel like I was listening to him, but really I just wanted to get back to my writing. (All you academics out there know exactly what I’m talking about; save your judgment. And P.– I’m sorry!)
When P. and I have questions like these, which is pretty much everyday, we turn to the internet. One young, first-gen farmer we met recently and who kindly gave us much thoughtful advice, called himself a “Blackberry Farmer.” I thought he meant he owned a blackberry field. Really he meant that he never heads out to the barn, the pasture, or the garden without his connection to the folk-knowledge available on the web–his Blackberry.
All of this research occasionally causes friction between P. and I. Not because I’m tired of research (I am a grad student, after all), but because we each prefer different methods of learning. I want to read; P. wants to watch and listen. I take to books, articles and blogs; P. turns to YouTube and podcasts.
That’s when the whining begins. I beg, I implore: “Please don’t make me watch another YouTube video, please. Please.” I moan, I squirm: “Oh frick, why is this guy always so angry? What?! How can you say he’s not angry?! He won’t stop yelling. Why is he yelling about sheep?? Please, please don’t make me listen to this.”
Please, Please Don’t Make Me Listen to This
This year I’m working as a “Senior TA,” which means I assist the TAs for the course, the professor for the course, as well as any students who might be seeking extra help. The position also requires that I attend lectures, so, since September of last year, I’ve been learning a lot about lecturing. The two lecturers for the course have (probably without realizing it) taught me a lot, as I’ve seen them both do amazing work using different approaches and techniques. In the past year I’ve rarely felt the need to moan, whine, or squirm while listening to a lecture. This is no small feat when you consider that my preferred mode of learning is reading–in fact, not reading, really, but scanning or speed-reading.
However, lecturing is increasingly coming under fire as an outdated style of education that favours information-transmission over deep learning. Students aren’t the only ones who lose out in this equation. Professors and lecturers, too, feel alienated by their inability to connect with students, not to mention to effectively evaluate their own teaching practices. While some might call for the end of the lecture, the fact is that it is an inevitable part of the modern university’s approach to education: one that focuses on high enrollment rates rather than teacher-to-student ratios, and on accreditation rather than learning.
So, in solidarity with instructors and profs out there who are working to make their lecture halls places of deep learning and even inter-personal connection, I want to share with you two videos of lecturers lecturing on, well, lecturing. You follow me? And another of a workshop on bringing acting and performance into presentations. The lecture ain’t dead, and there’s only so much that speed-reading can accomplish if one wants to improve the lecture-hall experience.
I’m Going to Make you Watch This
Eric Mazur, in “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer,” begins his talk with a confession: “When I started teaching,” he explains, “I never asked myself, ‘How am I going to teach this course?’ Normally when you start doing something new in your life the first question you should ask yourself is, ‘How am I going to do it?’ That question did not even come up in my mind. The first question that come up in my mind is: ‘What am I going to teach and what book am I going to use?’
And, from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, the following two videos, with their descriptions quoted from the Center’s webpage:
“In The Act of Teaching, Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre, leads a workshop stressing the importance of communication with the whole self in order to reach an audience. She introduces participants to the same techniques that actors use to prepare and deliver a performance, including warm-ups, relaxation, strengthening, and visualizing exercises.”
In How to Speak, “Professor Patrick Winston of MIT outlines a structure for how to give an effective lecture, illustrating the ideas by using them himself. He covers how to start a lecture, cycling in on the material, using verbal punctuation to indicate transitions, describing “near misses” that strengthen the intended concept, and asking questions. He also discusses use of the blackboard, overhead projections, props, as well as “how to stop.””
P. just interrupted again to inform me that he saw some sort of aquatic animal he couldn’t identify in the pond just now. He’s looking it up on YouTube as I type. He tells me, “So far I’ve got ‘aquatic animal two flaps’ as search terms,” and he’s giggling.