On Lecturing Terence E. Fretheim
These items are not prioritized, and they are not followed as well as I would like in my own presentations. I no doubt have missed some items. Lecturing remains a fundamental vehicle of good teaching, but these “how to” matters can have a considerable impact on its effectiveness.
1. Care deeply about the students you are teaching. This can be demonstrated in several ways, not least through your ways of interacting with them both inside and outside of class time. Do care enough to learn their names, call on them by name, and do so early in the term (give yourself about two weeks). Be alert to the contexts of student life, including families, illnesses, school ambience, and national/world events that impinge upon their lives. Seek to develop a relationship with your students so that they can say/believe: I trust this person.
2. Care deeply about the subject matter, and show this to be the case by your enthusiasm, energy, and passion for the subject and for conveying it to others. Show in public ways that these matters are not simply an intellectual issue for you, but a personal one, showing thereby that you believe that it is important personally for others as well. How you say something has a high level of importance. Speak to student hearts and not just their minds. More generally, your public affect is important in shaping the way people respond to you and to the subject matter.
3. Punctuate your presentations with questions, most commonly rhetorical questions (don’t you think that’s a good thing to do?). Use the questioning tone in your voice. Even state your claims in question form on occasion, or raise questions/reservations about your own convictions. If questions come from you about your own material, a greater student readiness to ask questions will be there and their questions will be more imaginative and penetrating. Your own questions are crucial in maintaining your own integrity, as well as student interest; if you are dead certain about most or all of what you have to say, you are mostly dead. Another angle on this point: encourage imagination in your students as much as possible, whether in writing assignments or your own use of language, e.g., work on developing interesting and open-ended metaphors/stories about your key points. But be careful of making yourself the center of too many stories; that may be helped by including stories of how you have at times fallen short of your own ideals.
4. Demonstrate an openness to receive questions from students regarding any class-related matter. Don’t be so tied to your schedule that you give the impression that your real task is being interrupted by student input; always be ready to adjust your agenda, though well short of anarchy. Seek to be as non-defensive as possible regarding challenges to your own point of view (when you may appear to be defensive, admit it; when you find yourself “cornered,” admit it; use humor in such contexts). In responding to student questions, be careful about the length and tone of your response. Being purposely incomplete in a response can be productive of even more questions.
5. Make it evident that you do not know everything about the subject and learn to say “I don’t know.” Modesty is a vital virtue in a teacher. Even more, publicly acknowledge that teaching is a two-way street and that you expect to learn from your students.
6. Work hard at prioritizing your material. You cannot cover everything about any subject, so carefully discern the issues/themes that you believe to be the most important and work on them.
7. Be clear. Few (if any) things count more than clarity. This will mean at least the following: shorter sentences; don’t hurry; well-organized, but not to a fault! (do be open to spontaneous reflections); spell names of scholars (etc.); repeat matters you consider especially important; give definitions of difficult terms; learn to pause for questions (or just a moment or two of silence!); periodically ask how things are going; make sure you learn how well your voice comes across and whether you might have to compensate in some way (e.g., volume; dropping your voice at the end of sentences). Be very careful in your use of the English language, not least grammar.
8. Be prepared. There is no excuse for shoddy preparation. If you find yourself cutting corners regularly, losing interest in the subject matter, commonly falling behind in your reading in the discipline – change careers or retire.
9. Commit yourself to research and writing. Writing projects—whether for publication or not—will enable more reading and research and your presentations will be fresher and have greater depth and breadth. Try to find some niche in the world of publishing (including online) whereby you can express your perspectives to a larger audience.
10. Learn how to watch and read faces. Know your material well enough to develop a style of lecturing that is not reading and, when reading, learn how to do so without it being so apparent. Watching students’ faces will often be revelatory of whether they understand or are confused, bored or interested. Generally, face-to-face contact helps personalize your material.
11. Learn to pitch the level of the material to the audience being addressed. At the same time, the closer you can get to speaking at the same level to all audiences (except at the extremes), the clearer you will be to each of them.
12. Students need to hear your point of view on matters, though not just that. Make students aware of the range of interpretive options, but usually consider only major ones, and don’t just list possibilities. Do not seek to be as objective as possible; that is impossible in any case and it is important for students that you are revealing of self relative to the matters under discussion. One might speak of varying levels of objectivity depending on the discipline. But, in any case, weave dimensions of yourself into your presentation of the subject matter. Yet, go light on the use of personal experience; let your affect and your glosses/asides on the material carry much of this.
13. Be careful of data-oriented presentations. Obviously this will depend on the subject matter, but generally don’t make presentations (or course objectives) so filled with detail that students are always scrambling to get the facts or focusing on details and data. Helping students learn how to get the data themselves, to explore interpretive possibilities, and to engage in (theological) reflection are more important matters to leave with students.
14. Use handouts (or other visual aids). This is an especially valuable vehicle for conveying important details and data, including quotations of others’ work, art, etc. Outlines of your lectures can often be very helpful, but do not so fill it in that students do not need to focus on what you have to say. Be careful of over-reliance on non-personal vehicles of communication.
15. Be alert to communal/ethical dimensions of your material, not just its appeal to individual minds. Will this material contribute to the life, health, and well-being of communities, churchly or otherwise? This includes being as honest as possible about the effects of your discipline and its content upon the ongoing life of communities (e.g., certain biblical texts and interpretations of texts by academic or churchly authorities have long been deeply harmful to women).
16. Be careful how you treat your colleagues or other persons in your presentations of their points of view. Be open and welcoming toward those with whom you disagree. Be especially careful of verbal trump cards and labeling--dismissing a school of thought or point of view by a quick comment (e.g., “that’s Barthian,” or “that’s liberation theology”). Do not intimidate or bully your students with your own point of view, expecting conformity of thought for good grades, references or other forms of commendation (it is possible for students to bully teachers as well). Students should never have to worry about staying on the good side of the professor. Most of us have learned a great deal from people with points of view different from our own; that should be encouraged in students, not least so that they don’t become our disciples.
17. Read outside your own discipline and let that be evident in your presentations, without passing yourself off as an expert on everything.
18. Watch for barriers between lecturer and audience. For example, try to keep lectern, tech equipment, etc, from coming between you and your students. Disembodied words commonly have less of an impact. Body language counts in conveying the material well, not just your voice and facial expressions. Also, coming a little early to a lecture and staying for a time afterward can show forth this dimension of openness to the students.
19. Work on being relaxed, and showing that you are comfortable with who you and what you are doing.