Tuesday, November 5, 2013

An Early Thirsty on Working a Big Room. Dina in Dover is Desperate.

My longtime mentor has had to take a personal leave of absence from our university because of a chronic illness, and she'll be out the rest of the semester and possibly longer.

As the senior graduate TA in the department, I've been asked to take over her 150 student lecture course. (I've led a group of her discussion sections along with 4 other TAs for three years now.)

I've seen her lectures, I've run slides, I know a lot about the material - it's my specialty.

But I've never taught more than 20 people at a time.

The chair of the department is desperate enough to ask me to take over the lecture section for the next 4 weeks, and as I'm finishing up my program next May, it's been suggested that this could serve as a trial run for me for a future position.

And I am scared shitless. I have to start next Monday (this week's been cancelled). I want to do this, not just to help my mentor, because she means the world to me, but because I'm ambitious enough to want to take a big step like this.

But what on earth do I do? There are notes of hers I can use. I can follow her footprints, but she wings a lot of what she says. She's thrilling. She's dynamic. I'm quiet, shy, and my heart is racing just imagining facing one lecture, one week. I don't want to freak out and tell the chair no. I don't want to let my mentor down.

But I have no idea how to handle this. I can do the give and take of a discussion. I know how to ask probing questions and make them respond. But I can't do an hour and a half on stage!

Q: Can anyone who teaches large lecture sections like this give me some newbie advice about how to get through even that first day. I can't imagine filling the time - 90 minutes. I'm holding the notes for next Monday, and I can read them in about 5 minutes. How do I vamp? How do I keep their interest? I need any and all help.


  1. My specialty is narrow enough that I chose to gain this exact skill while in grad school, and it paid off. My experience and ability to teach a large lecture course landed me a TT job when all of my peers were working at local bike shops and community colleges.

    In my experience teaching such a course isn't for everyone. The job becomes more about logistics and performance than it does content (although that's always there). In fact, I'm subbing for a colleague in a situation much like you describe above, and I'm having to recreate their lectures, which seem a bit free-wheeling as well. And it's not in an area for which I have much expertise!

    Anyway, here's my advice. Treat it like a performance. I write out *everything* I plan I to say in order to better focus on the delivery. (Maybe it helps that I had a job in radio in high school). If I don't write it down, I find myself falling back on bad habits...trying to fill any awkward silences, stuttering a bit, loads of "ums". Once you write it down, you'll also have it better committed to memory, and you'll be better equipped to have an array of interesting additions in the event that you're waiting for a slow note taker, or for a homework to be passed out, or whatever. I've observed colleagues who are constantly interrupted by students asking questions and challenging what they've just said. The colleagues get pretty frustrated and flustered and their ability to effectively lecture goes in the tank. It doesn't happen as often for me - when it is written down I don't give out as much questionable information and am more authoritative in delivery.

    And as loathsome as this seems, don't be afraid to write down your jokes. It helps.

  2. Tshirt Prof is correct. You're putting on a show, more so with a big lecture class since they are less likely to get involved in discussions.

    Write everything down, as Tshirt Prof said. Speak slowly (they still won't be able to keep up with you). Write everything on the board.

    In a 90 minute lecture, take a couple of breaks. Talk for 25 min, find a good place to stop the lecture then do something fun or relaxing, like showing a short, funny youtube clip. They can relax for a minute. Speak for another 20 minutes then take a 3 min break. Don't let them leave (they won't return) but they can talk among themselves or (continue to) check Facebook. Take another youtube break after another 20 min. These breaks consume a total of 10 min but you'll keep their attention longer and get less complaints.

    Talk to the first three rows of students. They are close enough to you that they will respond to you with appropriate facial gestures. The rest of the class is a blur.

    Let them call you "Dr." You want to maintain authority. A grad student gets less respect. Although I don't bust their chops for texting or sleeping, I do make them be quiet. 200 students talking is like a tornado.

    If you want to ask them questions and get feedback, you can give them a few minutes to write their answer on paper. This consumes class time and can keep them paying attention. Of course, somebody has to grade them...

    I did exactly what you are doing as a grad student. It went well and definitely helped me get a faculty job. In fact, I got the job that I complain about so much on this blog. So, um, yeah. Great.

  3. "But I can't do an hour and a half on stage!"

    Yes, you can. As goes as great line from the movie Bull Durham: "The way to play this game is with fear and arrogance."

    You know the material and your job is to present it clearly and as engagingly as you can. Be yourself. As your ease with lecturing increases, your personality and enthusiasm will emerge naturally. Don't worry of your first few lectures are a little awkward, as long as the material is clear. Be your earnest self.

    Prepare much more material than you think you'll have time for (you will tend to rush yourself at first). Don't expect any feedback from the audience. Lecture audiences expect to play a passive role, so don't be intimidated by a sea of blank faces and slumped bodies. That's always the most discouraging point for me, when I walk on stage and then make the mistake of looking out. Large classes always remind me of the scene in Airplane when the captain tells the passengers to "assume the crash positions" and the passengers fling themselves all over the cabin, as if post-crash. Let your own enthusiasm for the material fire you up.

    Good luck and let us know how it goes!

    1. Apologies for typos and poor style above. I'm dashing this off in a break between essay grading.

  4. Another vote for treating it as a performance. This is my tactic with all classes that don't talk much, actually, big or small. And as with all performers, you have to know yourself. This won't be easy at first, but with four weeks, you should just get to the point where you start to figure out your strengths and weaknesses.

    See, I don't write down anything, but that's because I could talk for hours without repeating myself or stumbling, just off the top of my head. That's one of my talents - blathering. If I write my lectures out, I sound wooden and unconvincing. I can't work from a script. It HAS to be extemporaneous, or it doesn't fly.

    But some people are the opposite, and you need to figure out what works best for you. How can you be most engaging? Do you hold people's attention most when you are speaking in measured tones, or when you are really bringing the bombast? Do you do better with lots of jokes, or none? Figure out your style. If nothing else, try to think about the times at social gatherings when you've been most successful at holding the attention of a group, and work from there.

    Also - have water. The first few times you do this, your throat WILL need some additional lubrication. If your courage does, too, switch the water for gin or vodka.

  5. Very much as above, treat it as a performance. And listen in order to get a bag of tricks.
    One of the best profs I have ever had used to teach General Linguistics (not the most amene of topics) to a 300-students classroom. The first day he told us that every time he mentioned the name of Noam Chomsky we were to stand and give an applause.
    Since that was a) ludicrous and b) fun, people paid attention in order to catch every time Chomsky was mentioned.

  6. While you will likely go too fast the first few times- you can do some things to slow yourself down. If you can, use the whiteboard or the smart-podium to write some notes. This will take some time and slow you down (lots of people use powerpoint and go too fast over too much and are boring to watch as they read their slides-please avoid this!). Also, if students are writing what you say, and you say something important- repeat it. Also, watch the people who are writing/typing. While it feels awful to stand up in the front in silence, sometimes letting the students 'catch up" in note taking is ok- take a drink, cross to the other side of the room. slowly erase the board. etc. Also, since it is a performance- work on the story-telling aspect of your field. Whether it is English, sociology or science, there is a story in the information or the experiment. Also, be confident and remember most of the people in the room probabliy didn't read the book and you, even in your most unprepared moment, are more prepared than they are.

  7. Use a microphone - if your voice is soft, it makes a difference in a large class. If they can't hear you they will get restless, and it's even harder to be heard over a roomful of rustling people.

    If you're good at leading discussions, break up the class at about 25 minutes by asking a question and giving them 2 minutes to discuss it with their neighbours. With this lead time, they will be willing to actually say something (otherwise they will be mute).

    If someone is talking at the back or side or whatever of the room, stop talking and look silently in their direction. Eventually they will realise that nobody else is talking, and everyone is looking at them, and they will stop. Then ask courteously "was there a question?" Sometimes there actually is. MOst of the time they will just look embarrassed and shake their heads. You may have to do this 2 or 3 times.

    You will be fine. Anyone who can lead discussions is already a good teacher. (I suck at that, incidentally.)

  8. As someone who's won teaching awards based on big class performance, I definitely agree that you should treat it as a performance- infotainment. Remember what you lack for in experience, you can compensate for with enthusiasm. If they like you, they will forgive you just about anything. Two tips - one is to try and project warmth, empathy and liking for your audience - as in "although I am so sorry that Professor x cannot be here for this month, I like you guys so much that I am so delighted to be her/his replacement" [that's where the performance aspect comes in]. The other is to actually give them added value that makes them appreciative (and hence well behaved). An added value that thankfully fills time is going over an old exam question to help them "test their own learning". Put up or hand out one essay or multiple MCQ if you don't have essay exams) at the end of each topic- , then ask them to work in pairs to outline an answer to the question, then put up your outline and discuss. I usually have inexpensive lollipops in my pocket to reward particularly good contributors to the discussion. All the best and keep us posted!

  9. Move around, as much as you can. I spent the first few weeks I was lecturing to a large class with my hands clenching the podium like a life-preserver. Once I let go, I tended to lean up against the blackboard... I've become a very mobile, animated lecturer (I'm normally physically very restrained)

    Moving keeps their attention. Moving into the crowd creates a connection. Not sure why it works, and if you're working primarily from lecture notes then you may need to try something else. If you can use PP as an outline, and have a remote control, that works pretty well.

    Saw Patricia Limerick last year talk about her large lectures. Every now and then she stops, asks a question, then throws a rubber chicken at the students. Whoever catches the chicken has to answer the question, then throw it at/to another student. This goes on until a small sample of the class has answered the question. If I had large lectures that were over fifty minutes, I'd try that. (Maybe. It's not exactly my style, but it might be worth it.)

  10. 1. I've done the rubber chicken thing with a large Nerf ball. It does work.

    2. It does get easier as you go.

    3. Spot several students who seem to be getting into the class. They should be in different parts of the room. Look at them occasionally as you speak. Seeing students that are enjoying the class will help you relax a bit.

    4. If you use the old trick of imaging your audience naked, only do that with the good-looking ones..

  11. I agree with what everyone else has said--it is a performance and you should treat it as such. It will get easier as you go along, but give yourself time, and speak slowly enough that you notice that you're doing it. It will seem like you're being obvious, but they'll be appreciative.

    I almost always teach big sections (usually my smallest class is around 100 people). I teach intro physics and astronomy, so the lectures can be super boring, for them and for me. I break it up by giving them things to work on during class. One of my classes meets twice a week, for two hours each, in the evenings. During that time, I'll lecture for 15 minutes or so, give a few multiple choice questions for them to work on in pairs, discuss the answers, lecture for another 15 minutes or so, then give a practice problem for them to work on and then go over the solution. Then lecture for a few more minutes, then a demonstration and a discussion. Rinse and repeat and give a short break in the middle somewhere.

    To get them to participate, I bribe them with candy and stickers. I keep fun size chocolates and hard candy in a little container that I bring with me to every lecture. If I toss you a piece of candy, then you have to answer the question/contribute to the discussion/predict the outcome of the demo/etc. The students seem to really enjoy it and it keeps the boredom away. Also, I have really bad aim, so it's fun for them to see if anybody is going to get knocked in the head with the candy or have to dive for it or whatever.

  12. I second (third?) everything that everyone else said. But I also want to recommend the following series of books: The Green Guides, published by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

    The one you want is #1, Teaching Large Classes by Alan Gedalof. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's short, straightforward, and full of practical suggestions of things to do and to avoid. I've loaned my copy out so many times, I think I've lost it. They're available on interlibrary loan at your school, too.

    I am not a spambot.

    Seriously, though: I had the very good fortune of taking a class on how to teach at the college-level and one of our instructors was Alan Gedalof. He's won national teaching awards. He's amazing.

    Since then, I've taught 300+ person classes and I go back to this book every time.

  13. Four words: Lead-weighted pool cue.

  14. Dina says:
    I am so grateful for all the comments. If I would be permitted to follow up, is it even possible in a room with a hundred plus students to actually have some discussion, some questions and answers? My mentor never does this because she's a dynamo. But I can't imagine doing 90 minutes straight of talking without some interaction with students.

  15. Yes, it's possible to to interactive stuff in a class this big. One thing I often try is a magician's move where you ask for volunteers to demonstrate something fun (I do it for camera movement and blocking, but it would work for any discipline, a short playlet, role play, whatever). The students are more invested if their peers are up front and you get a reputation as someone who will do the unexpected.

  16. I cannot stress enough ( on top of all of the above): protect your voice. Don't hesitate to mic up, and breathe from your diaphragm. Stay hydrated, as I believe someone above mentioned. And when you ask a question, count to thirty before you prompt or say anything. It isn't that long , and gives them a chance to gather their thoughts.

  17. When you're still in your early '20s, form a rock 'n' roll band, with yourself as lead singer. Pleasure the groupies. Get booed. This is absolutely the perfect preparation to becoming a great university lecturer: it's hard to imagine anything better.

    It also helps enormously to have a great love of whatever you'll be talking about. Try to look at it from the point of view of your audience.

    Also, believe it or not, the time will go astonishingly quickly. Go ahead and prepare organized notes that are easy to read for you, and easy to follow for anyone else. Don't be surprised if you find you're behind schedule from Day 1. It'll always be that way.

    Importantly also: never blow your cool in front of a class. No matter how worthless the mouth-breathers that seemingly dominate the class are, there is always at least one student who was like you. Address the class to that student.

  18. I was in the same position this semester, teaching in a large auditorium for the first time (80 students). And I was given the same advice, the "performance" thing; developing a "persona", entertainment, etc.

    Frankly, I can't do it; at least, not deliberately and all the time. (I have an almost exclusive focus on explaining content.) If you can, great. But if it doesn't come naturally to you--if it is forced, or rehearsed--it will look that way. The funny thing is, an observer from our Teaching Center who has seen me do both has told me I'm a better lecturer in this large group setting than with a small class.

    It helps that I have zero stage fright. Twenty people or 150, it's the same to me. Young students are "primal": they have well-tuned instincts for fear, insecurity, dominance. If they feel you're insecure or afraid, they may well take advantage of it. So don't let them. The main message to convey when you take over is that you're in charge, you're the expert. It's your show, on your terms.

    I'd concentrate on the basics: check out the room in advance, especially the technology. Have a friend go there with you to see if you'll need a mike (I used one at first, then dropped it.) Make sure you can operate the projectors efficiently; you don't want technical incidents to crimp your style.

    The other thing I'd keep in mind is that it's your class now. Your mentor has her style and personality, and you have your own. I wouldn't even use her slides or notes, except as a basis to prepare yours. If you think what you have prepared can be delivered in five minutes, prepare more. And then more. I always have about 65 minutes of content structured in my mind for a 50 min class. So I don't have to rush, and there are no awkward empty moments; it's full-time engagement. I write about half the pages in advance (the day before, for an elementary class), and the rest are problems (examples) I solve in real time, slowly and asking questions as I go along. If all the content is "canned", I the chances they'll disengage are greater. And they answer, often correctly. Again, it's the same whether it's 20 or 150. The people in the back rows with the laptop open: I don't care about them.

    I don't stand behind the document camera, I try to walk around as much as possible. And I'm completely in control of the timing: I start on time, and finish on time, plus/minus three minutes at most. For me, that's the main thing: they're always aware that I'm completely in control of both the content and the delivery. (I do make jokes, but as they occur to me on the spot, not planned. About half the time they fall flat, but that's okay.) Of course, that's my personality--friendliness and warmth towards the class develop slowly and selectively with me--not yours.

    1. "Young students are "primal": they have well-tuned instincts for fear, insecurity, dominance..."

      That's right. Modern students are like wolves: if they sense any fear at all, they'll mass for attack.

      And they're like sharks: the slightest trace of blood in the water will send them into a feeding frenzy.

      And they're like rabid vampire bats: they carry filth and disease, and they smell BAD.

      Never imagine what your audience will look like naked. Doing this might cause you to lose your appetite.

      NEVER start the class with "a little joke," unless you're naturally a very funny person. If you crack a joke and no one laughs, you look like a dorkus erectus.

      On the other hand, don't be too serious, or you may unintentionally come off as funny...

    2. Rabid vampire bats. I like that.

      I think of them more like hyenas. Scavengers prone to disconcerting laughing sounds.

    3. In summary, imagine your students are naked primal rabid hyena-bat-shark-wolves. Maybe through in a little Patrick Duffy.

  19. It is absolutely possible to do interactive things with a class that big. Have them work on a question, or predict the result of a demonstration, or something else in groups of 2-3, then bribe them to participate in discussions. If nobody volunteers, then call on somebody. And don't be afraid of the awkward silence when you ask a question. It will usually take several seconds for them then think about the question, and then several more for somebody to get up the nerve to speak in front of the class. Give it at least 30 seconds to a minute every time and if nobody speaks up, then pick someone. Give out hard candy or stickers or something else as bribery (seriously--treat them like kindergarteners) and after a few classes you'll usually get at least a couple of regulars that will participate.

    And as far as preparation for doing this sort of thing--just be yourself. You need to decide what kind of lecturer you're going to be, and that depends wholly on your personality. Keep in mind, however, that it is easier to start out a hard ass and get nicer as time goes on than to start out too nice and then try to re-gain control later. Other than that, once you've got your groove, own it.


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