11 May 2016

Lessons from Lecturing

In April, I went from never having lectured before to giving 3 lectures in 2 days. In that whole month, I gave 5 lectures over 3 weeks.  Sure, I had helped in tutorials, but I had never stood in front of a class of expectant undergrads. My first surprise was how few undergraduates attend lectures. A study at Harvard found that each lecture is attended by an average of 60% of students, and I’ve anecdotally heard similar numbers at St Andrews. Considering both the financial cost of attending lectures and that students who attend lectures generally get better grades and that the whole idea of university should be to go to class and learn, I was pretty shocked when I was told by one of the students that “this was a really good turnout” when about a third of the students were absent.

Because I was nervous before the first lecture, I asked my cousin who is a teacher and a violinist how he had felt when he started teaching. He said, “I tried to think of teaching like a performance, and that helped me to get over my nerves”. Great advice for musicians and actors, maybe less so for those who get stage-fright. I found that what helped me was the realisation that I had new knowledge for these students, knowledge that I now took for granted, but remembered being excited to learn when I was in undergraduate myself.

The two undergraduate lectures that I delivered were on great ape evolution and social learning mechanisms. I also gave a series of three lectures for the St Leonard’s College Lecture Prize. This was really fun, because I got to propose the lectures that I wanted to give, I was accepted for the prize, and then I got to write and deliver entirely my own lectures. I chose to give them on animal communication, covering a number of species along themes that built from lecture to lecture: signals à meaning à syntax. The lesson here was that preparing a lecture from scratch takes much longer than you’d think. I laboured over small details, wanting to make the lectures (like the prize stipulated) open to all levels of students across all disciplines.

Overall, I really enjoyed giving the lectures. The undergraduate lectures were the most satisfying – it’s a huge ego-boost to hear from students that they “loved your lecture; it was really clear and precise”. More practically, it’s satisfying to pass knowledge on to other people. If you get the chance to give lectures during your PhD, it may be daunting, but I highly recommend it to give yourself a taste of teaching. I look forward to lecturing as part of my job as I move higher in academia.

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