Learning to Lecture as a Grad Student — a Guest Post by Colin Gilmour

Colin Gilmour is finishing his second year of the Ph.D program at McGill under Dr. Peter Hoffmann. He did his BA at Queen’s University in Kingston and his Masters at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His research focuses on celebrity culture in Nazi Germany, and specifically the role of mass media in military hero-propaganda.

Giving lectures, it seems to me, is one of those boxes that grad students must check in order to make themselves attractive to prospective academic employers down the line. Given the competitiveness of the academic job market, it is now more necessary than ever to be an experienced and skilled lecturer. Some such boxes, such as superior writing and research skills, can be developed and honed in the course of one’s own research and by attending conferences and seeking publications. To gain experience in lecturing, however, a grad student’s development is largely dependent on the generosity of course instructors who are willing to lay down their professorial prerogatives. Thus, when Sarah generously offered me the chance to teach a lecture in her course on modern European history which was close to my field, specifically the Holocaust, I jumped at the chance. I actually got to deliver the lecture again in her summer course, and I am very grateful to her for giving me these opportunities and now also the chance to take over her blog for a week.

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After initially seizing the chance to teach this important, not to mention controversial, aspect of European history, the full weight of responsibility for the education of 150 students on this topic set in. Although an overwhelming feeling at first, I actually welcomed it. I looked forward to saturating 150 ‘dry sponges’ with all the fascinating and disturbing minutiae of the complex history of the Holocaust.  It would be, quite frankly I thought, the best lecture they had ever seen. Thinking this a healthy enthusiasm, I keenly began researching and writing the lecture months beforehand, spending hours in various coffee shops (and by various I mean Starbucks) pouring over old notes and sources. Trying to include what I perceived to be the most important facts, figures and themes of said material, I soon found myself cutting-and-pasting whole pages of information into my ‘Holocaust Guest Lecture’ Word document. As a result, my initial ‘lecture’ resembled in length a reading of the book of Leviticus, and Power Point slides looking, commensurately, like pages from the Gideon bible. In effect, what I was doing, as I eventually realized, was trying to ensure the students could pass a course on the Holocaust (something not offered by the university, which saddens me no end), instead of having them leave with an understanding of its general narrative, major themes, etc. Coming to grips with this unfortunately necessary ‘drive-by’  nature of survey courses and reigning in unrealistic expectations, although a basic part of preparation, was to be the most difficult part of the lecture.

What made this realization so difficult in my case was not so much the act of cutting information, as any graduate student does this regularly in the course of writing papers, presentations, abstracts, etc.,  as it was my emotional attachment to the subject matter. While any historian will no doubt say much the same of their own period, informing others on the narrative and relevance of the Holocaust lies close to my academic heart and the thought of chopping up its complexity, which historians have worked for years to accomplish (although that will no doubt sound odd to some readers), seemed unconscionable. Like a robbery in a museum (please excuse the analogy), I had to leave some priceless items where they lay for the sake of time and the size of the getaway vehicle (in this case the capacity of moderately-interested students’ minds for detail and the speed of their typing-fingers). I had to choose only those items which would yield the biggest capital return: i.e. students leaving with the most retention and comprehension of the material. In my experience, it was coming to grips with this wrenching of the academic soul which was the most time consuming and challenging in preparing my lecture; far more than actually giving the lecture itself.

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While others understandably have difficulty lecturing to large audiences, I have been blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective as my girlfriend will no doubt say) with the gift of the gab, which, combined with a bit of helpful feedback from select friends and some excellent advice from Sarah, made the lecture itself relatively easy. First, I made the point to try and practice my lecture on some non-grad student friends with similar historical backgrounds as the students (something I found key), and fortunately found such a group of interested (at least after pizza was promised) friends who were willing to listen for the hour and a quarter while I worked out the kinks in the lecture. Besides giving a rough estimate of the time it would take, something I think really can’t be done effectively in one’s apartment or office, it also provided the opportunity for some helpful comments as to how effective the information was communicated, what could have been emphasized more, or seemed superfluous. While such practice sessions are obviously impracticable for every new lecture one might give, I, as a student still gaining my lecturing sea-legs so to speak, found it immensely helpful and would most heartily recommend it to any grad student.

As to the day itself, I found that it was the small things that made the experience easy. One piece of important advice from Sarah was that I bring some coffee to carry around while speaking. While I never ended up actually drinking from that Starbucks cup during my talk (something noted by several amused students), it did help psychologically as a simple way of putting me at ease. Likewise, I have a natural tendency towards movement while speaking, in terms of wandering from the lectern. This accidental advantage, I felt, was important for conveying information in a more conversational manner and therefore build some student engagement, since I’m sure most university grads can remember with a wince at least one professor whose voice resembled Ben Stein’s and his/her movement during lecture a statue of Buddha. Moreover, I must agree with Sarah that from a lecturer’s point of view, having less information on Power Point slides is definitely preferable, since it ensures that when I am speaking I know that the students aren’t struggling to copy down tons of information. As Sarah aptly put it: “If you put it up, they will try to take it down.” The feedback from students also emphasized two aspects which I will incorporate into future lectures (if I am so lucky). I was told that taking frequent quick breaks to summarize sections of material instead of (though not discounting) 1 big summary at the end, was very helpful. Second was the inclusion of primary source material from the events discussed, as opposed to about the events discussed. Particularly as regards the Holocaust, such inclusion, I was told, not only brought home the material but also gave the students’ frenzied fingers a quick rest.

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That said, however, and as anyone who was there particularly for that first Holocaust lecture could testify, it was not perfectly delivered by any means. My biggest problem was speed. Perhaps because I had, even after the cutting process, so much information to get through and a natural tendency to speak quickly, it was the equivalent of a P90X vocal-chord workout. I suspect that the lecture, in retrospect, would sound ‘normal’ only if someone had recorded it on an old walkman, and then put flat-batteries in it.

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In sum, then, my development as a lecturer is still very much a work in progress. Since most of my experience has been in teaching subjects with which I am well acquainted, as well as in which I am emotionally invested, it is definitely still missing a lot. Working on things like diction, speed, and more important, becoming academically detached and objectively-selective about the subject matter are most definitely things still to be improved and practiced. Getting the opportunity to do so is somewhat problematic, since as outlined at the beginning of this post, not all grad students do, or do regularly. Since this is the case, the question emerges as to whether ‘practice’ at lecturing can come in other forms and a myriad of possible spit-ball solutions follow. Could there, for example, be semesterly seminars on lecturing hosted by experienced instructors and professors for grad students, or perhaps a program of free lectures for undergrads on various interest-topics given by grad students to hone their skills and gain feedback and experience? Realistically, there couldn’t and shouldn’t be a course for grad students called ‘lecturing 101’ which imparts wisdom like holding a coffee cup for psychological support. Such tid bits of wisdom, I suppose, are simply part of the natural academic order and come, as with many other parts of grad student life, with a bit of luck in terms of who you have the good fortune to meet and learn from.

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