Turning research into lectures without tears

Since I’m still knocking two and a half first-semester modules into shape at my first institution, a quick blog post/response to my historian colleague Melodee Beals, who is also starting a new job as a Teaching Fellow (a charming British name for contingent faculty).

Last week, Melodee blogged about her approach to revising one of her department’s modules on the Atlantic world, which she’s chosen to revise intensively to suit her own research interests. I was in Melodee’s position last year, when the Faculty I worked for as a researcher offered me the chance to design a new module on a topic that would appeal to first-year historians and could be structured around a historical controversy (translation: build your own primary-source-packed syllabus on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s).

I wish I had read Melodee’s lecture writing rules before trying to turn my subject knowledge and vision for the module into lectures. Probably like most early-career academics, I’ve been in the situation she found herself in when she began approaching the material:

It was not that I did not know the material I needed to present. I have been immersed in Atlantic World historiography since I was an undergraduate. I simply had too many ideas and no way of determining the correct course of action. I was, in all honesty, paralysed with indecision. But, at least, I thought, I have four months until my first lecture. I am sure it will all turn out for the best.

Three months later I was not much closer. I had created a programme and developed reading lists to accompany it. Indeed, I had spent much of the summer re-reading these books and articles in search of inspiration. But I was no closer to a set of completed lectures.

Click through to her blog for a list of all the five rules she set herself, but what resonated with me most was this:

If I want my students to think, rather than merely transcribe, my lectures should offer spaces for individual reflection.

This is what I believe I should be doing, and after my mid-semester feedback sheets and teaching observation, I knew I had to change something in my lecturing practice in order to make this happen.

But how?

Melodee helped me out some more on Twitter:

Last year I had slides after each section that summed up the past 15 minutes, during which I poured myself a glass of water.

I like this. I’m going to try it. And it solves another classroom problem, because I always fret that my mid-lecture water breaks turn into unintentional displays of slapstick (drop bottle cap on floor; drip water on to light grey shirt; etc.). I do not want to find bingo cards with all the different ways my taking a drink of water can go wrong.

Over the summer, I was asked whether I could repeat the Yugoslav wars module this year. Again, I hope to talk about that in more detail. But I already feel much better equipped to make the lectures do what I believe they should.