As a teacher, I was not a natural “lecturer.” And then, my first teaching career, teaching English as a Second Language, I learned that people learn skills — like language — through practice not by someone standing in front of the classroom divesting him/herself. It was best to “run” a “student-centered” classroom where the teacher facilitated learning. That meant class projects, group work, teacher checking in with students as they learn, conferencing with students. Great for me. I never learned much from lecture classes and was happy not to lecture. BUT, in 1999, when my career shifted to teaching writing to university students, I had to learn to lecture. And why?
Most people learn from lecture, from being told something. It’s a very efficient way of transmitting information. The thing is, writing is not exactly a “content.” Writing is a skill, but content is part of it. Once the content is transmitted, the students work, but at a certain point, usually the first two weeks of classes and whenever new material is introduced, a teacher has to lecture. I was so bad at it, and I wanted to get better FAST. Teaching at the university had been my DREAM, and I wanted to keep living it.
Some years earlier, I’d sat in on some classes with a friend — Introduction to Comparative Religions — taught by a guy named Dr. Mueller. My friend thought Dr. Mueller was the BEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. After I’d seen him lecture a few times, so did I. Searching for a way to improve my ability to lecture, I suddenly remembered Dr. Mueller. I decided to sit in on his classes for the first few days of the semester. In the back. He wouldn’t notice me and I had to figure out how he did what he did.
Freshman composition and Introduction to Comparative Religions might not seem to have much in common, but from a student perspective, they have a LOT in common. They satisfy requirements. Dr. Mueller’s job and mine were the same; get the kids interested enough that they show up for class and do decent work and — inshallah — learn something and develop some enthusiasm for the subject. It didn’t really matter that composition and philosophy are miles apart for the interested student; our “market” was the UN-interested student in his/her first semester at university.
Dr. Mueller was energetic, enthusiastic, captivating. He didn’t cling to the lectern, but moved around the room and spoke to the students. He asked interesting rhetorical questions and not-so-rhetorical questions. He related to the students’ actual lives. He was older than I was by maybe a decade, so it wasn’t his youth that appealed to his students (they are funny that way). It was his way of lecturing.
I sat in that class — and another of his introductory classes — for the first three lectures for, I dunno, maybe four semesters? I saw that he gave essentially exactly the same lectures every semester. I understood that this was theater, not lecturing, per se. A-HA! His goal was less about transmitting information and more about getting students curious. After that? I knew what would happen after that. They would start TEACHING THEMSELVES. Teacher as facilitator. I could do that.
The content of one of those lectures has stuck with me. Dr. Mueller made up a situation in which (as I remember) a guy (or girl, depending) got dumped for someone else. “It’s not fair!” cried Dr. Mueller in the role of the dumpee! Then, “Is it?” He’d look at a student for a response. “C’mon, maybe you’ve been in that situation. No? How about you?” He’d pick on someone else. “Is it fair?” The whole class would be engaged, wondering what was going to happen. Invariably the kid would shake his/her head.
“Fair is for soccer,” pronounced Dr. Mueller, returning to the front of the class, reassuming his professorial role, through body-language telling his class “OK kids, here’s the thing you need to remember from this play-acting. “Life isn’t fair. It doesn’t have a referees or rules. And if it did? Would YOU be the person who made the rules?” Heads shake all around the classroom. “No,” Dr. Mueller would say, softly. “Probably not.” Then he’d make his serious point, “Our sense of justice is centered on us, on what we want. If we get what we want, it’s fair. If not, it’s not fair. Is THAT fair?”
Years went by, and I was lecturing well on my own. Then, one day, I was teaching a class in the building where Dr. Mueller had his office. I came out of my classroom just as he was going down the stairs. Our eyes met. Of course, I knew who he was. He only knew he’d seen me before and felt he should say something. He said, “Well, hello! How have you been?”
I’m 100% sure he didn’t get the full message in my response, “Great, thank you!”
How did I do? Here’s my report card. My students wanted to make sure all my classes filled so they put up advertising all over campus. Business Majors do what they do. IDS 290 was Basic Business Communication.