Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lecturer as Rock Star?

One thing I have never had a problem with is speaking in front of groups. I have always found it hard to believe that lots of people fear it more than death, but this seems to be the case. Jerry Seinfeld even joked about it: "At a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."

So, in my current line of work, it has been helpful not being a glossophobe. In being a TA and now a lecturer, I have to be in front of people as the central part of my job. This will be the case for my entire career.

In addition to this, I have always been somewhat aware of the performative aspect of education. A successful lecture or discussion section is built as much on the presentation as on the content. I actually will paraphrase former president Ronald Reagan here when I say that I don't know how anyone could go into education without having acting experience.

I never really had this awareness of performance and education brought home or clarified, though, until a recent conversation with my brother. For those of you who don't know him, my brother has been a musician, in one way or another, since he was in the fifth grade. He has performed in school bands and orchestras, pit orchestras for the stage, heavy metal bands, jam bands, bar bands and impromptu jam sessions of all sorts. I (and I might be showing family bias here) think he is quite an accomplished performer.

Recently I was talking to him about my frustration at sometimes not being able to tell if my students are getting it. I was frustrated that the best that I can do is see if they are obviously asleep or obviously surfing the web on their laptops.

My brother then drew the paralell between teaching a class and performing live on stage. You need to feed off the audience, drawing your energy and directing your performance in the direction of the audience. You have to try to keep the "diehards" going strong while drawing in the people who seem not to care or not to notice that there is a performance even going on. You need to constantly relate to your audience, establishing this connection so that the exchange can be mutually beneficial.

I was taken aback. Hell, he's absolutely right. They ARE pretty similar.

I had to counter with something, so I pointed out that while you mostly play at bars and music clubs, the lecture hall is a much different forum. He admitted that this was true, but that they were still people and they still act the same when something is going on in front of them on a stage.

Additionally, he said that the fact that the crowds at the average gig might be intoxicated (in one way or another) might be a double-edged sword. It might make them more "in to" what you are doing, or it might make them more ignorant, and you can never really tell.

Nail on the head, I'd say. This was not really shocking, though. My brother is in front of crowds at least four times every week and has been for most of his adult life.

So, does this mean that I think that lecturers and rock stars are the same? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the fact that they are both performers of a sort that depend on audience reaction for the energy behind their performances. No, in the fact that rock stars' performances are in the "entertainment" part of one's life, lecturers much less so.

It is drawing these paralells between the linements of human endeavor that I think lead to the deepest understanding of human behavior and the human experience.

So, if you'll excuse me, I have finish getting ready to rock Humanities 1131 with a blistering set of culture in interwar Europe.

Or, if you like, less people yelling, "play 'Freebird!'" than yelling "show us how culture influenced and was influenced by the dissolution and horror following World War I!"

Rock on, indeed.


Dad said...

This indeed is a great perspective, son. As you begin each session, concentrate on those in the room that are your "regulars". As their peers observe their positive reactions the "in" group will steadily grow for you over time. Keep on rockin....

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

I'm not of your Clan, so I show no bias when I say that your brother is pretty fucking spectacular when it comes to musical performances.

I see his point, but my strategy was always to engage the audience (my class) more as a comedian. Work in a terrible joke here or there during the lecture, and then, during the practical part of the lab, I'd "work the crowd", i.e. wander around, ask about weekends, got any plans, by the way, what's going on in the flask?

This, of course, didn't jive with the people who oversaw the teaching labs, because it wasn't how things had been done back to the beginnings of time. Oh well. I know that, when it came time to take the test, there were 20 kids who knew what the hell they were doing.

Glossophobia said...

Your brother does make some interesting parallels, and I really do think he is on to something. I'm an avid reader of Tom Wood's blog over at Fear of Public Speaking and he mentions in there a lot about trying to read the audience and gauge their interest from it.