On Lecturing

The life of a history graduate student is remarkably short on excitement. Nicholas Cage might break into the National Archives and steal the Declaration of Independence in order to find a hidden treasure buried by the founding fathers, but the rest of us spend most of our time reading piles of really long books. We also talk about those books. And write papers about them. I love what I do, but there are few moments of my work that I would classify as thrilling. Standing in front of a classroom of sixty undergraduates, about to deliver my own lecture for the very first time, however, was a moment that I would put in the “thrilling” category.

Over the past three months I was a teaching assistant for History 150A: Colonial and Revolutionary America, taught by Professor Caroline Winterer. The TAs were given the option of lecturing on a topic of our choosing for half of a class period. So on a Tuesday morning in November I found myself death-gripping the sides of a podium and trying to ignore the fact that I had about a hundred eyes staring at me. The next half hour was largely a blur, but fortunately Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning provides a wonderful service for professors, lecturers, and teaching assistants: they will come to your classroom and videotape a class period. So, in what seems appropriate for someone who studies the practice of history in a digital age, the very first lecture of my academic career was captured on video.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/18034674 w=500&h=400]

Lecturing, and public speaking more generally, is a curiously under-trained aspect of graduate school. I’ve received detailed and continuous feedback over the past year-and-a-half on my historical writing. Yet as graduate students we rarely receive feedback on another fundamental component of being an historian: verbal communication. Especially for the majority of us who will be teaching for the rest of our careers, effectively conveying concepts to a roomful of people is absolutely crucial. This is why I appreciate CTL’s videotaping service so much, and why I have been encouraging everyone I know to take advantage of it. Especially for those of us (like myself) without much experience delivering lectures, they provide a high-quality means of self-assessment.

Do I talk too fast? Too softly? Are my gestures distracting? Do I really say “you know” at the end of every sentence? These are the kinds of questions that often float beneath the radar of our own self-perceptions, but whose answers become immediately apparent when watching a video of yourself lecturing. Beyond noticing verbal patterns, re-watching a lecture allows you to gauge how well the written structure translated into a spoken one. This was one of the more illuminating parts of my own self-evaluation. Some of the examples that I had tried to emphasize in my lecture notes fell flat when I said them out loud. Other points that I had considered secondary came off sounding much more emphatic. An analytical thread that you can easily follow while reading a paragraph sometimes gets lost after two sentences in a lecture. Studying the delivery of a lecture with a knowledge of how it was written drives home the point that building a paper and building a lecture require two related, but fundamentally different, styles of writing.

While videotaped self-assessment can be quite valuable, I quickly realized its limitations in answering the most important questions in evaluating a lecture. How much of it did the students really “get”? Did they actually understand the themes I was trying to describe and the argument I was trying to make? How many remember any of its details a month later? These, of course, are the kinds of pedagogical questions that are notoriously difficult to answer and certainly outside the realm of a thirty-minute video. Regardless, I found delivering a lecture to a roomful of students to be incredibly valuable, and while it wasn’t quite as exciting as stealing the Declaration of Independence, it was a thrilling experience.