The Art of Lecturing & The Lecturing of Art

There go my fingers again, skittering over the keyboard, hopping from letter to letter like a child avoiding puddles on a pavement, staying ‘dry’, making leaps, making sense, trying not to make mistakes.

I wake up every morning, and go to bed at night with a mind full of responsibilities, challenges, problems, anxieties, ideas and regrets, but writing in public is not the best place to deal with these. It’s better to keep a slightly lighter heart in public I find. Best to dig a little deeper, or perhaps ‘dig’ sideways, in search of something to say that may be of interest to someone other than oneself.

The talk that I gave last week in Berlin was adapted and shortened from a lecture I gave last year, and which I had also published (in another form) as an article. This week, given the experience of Berlin and of the publication I was able to return, more informed, to the original lecture and gave it again, on two occasions, to undergrduates of two different colleges. In both cases it went well.

After 20 years of giving lectures I am still always looking to improve them, to make them satisfying, enjoyable and productive for myself, and to create a truly inclusive, informative, genuinely interesting and inspiring event. I continue to experiment with every aspect of giving lectures, but seem to have more or less settled on a kind of compromise between structured preparation and spontaneous event. I do have a script, and follow it, but loosely.

I find that you keep peoples’ attention by really speaking to and with them and avoiding speaking either at them or to yourself, the room, or to some abstract realm like history, posterity, your noble subject itself etc.

A good lecture may be a one-sided conversation but it is a conversation no-less. This means that you must be aware at every moment of the other person, even if, in the case of the lecture, the other person is 100 or 200 persons.

Talking to the audience is talking with the audience and, crucially, registering, sensing, feeling whether they are following and absorbing your points, and adding and subtracting, repeating and clarifying accordingly, to make sure that they are.

Sorry to be unscientific and esoteric, but quite how you might just ‘have’ or develop this special ‘feel’ for lecturing I do not know, but I believe it may be the deciding factor determining who gets to lecture, who enjoys lecturing, whose lectures are attended, enjoyed and effective etc. As per last week’s blog, I think it helps to start out with a desire (or desperate need) to be heard and understood, to have a passion for communicating, for sharing ideas, a love of words, language, writing etc.

I have heard educationalist experts decry the lecture format as out of date, old fashioned, egotistical and ineffectual. I was told on more than one occasion that it had been “scientifically proven” that students “only concentrate for the first 12 minutes of any lecture”. Well, I just have to disagree and say that I have found the lecture to be a very exciting and productive format and one which, I am certain, students can concentrate upon and can enjoy and learn from. It all, of course, depends on the lecture, the lecturer, the lecture theatre etc. etc. and how well all of this is deployed.
(I should perhaps add the caveat here that the science I understand best is the so-called ‘Pataphysics‘ of artist Alfred Jarry who described his invention as ” the science of exceptions”).

Like everyone else, I have good and bad days at work, and come home every day utterly exhausted, whether I have been teaching for 1-2 hours or for 4-5 hours. Nevertheless, I regard all of my opportunities to teach in an art school as opportunities to uphold the standards of the subject (the subject of art and its education), and so, each lecture, it seems to me, should aspire to be a work of art, i.e. it should be carefully researched but delivered in a way that engages an audience; it should be clearly motivated by the artist’s/lecturerer’s personal passions and sincere enquiries, but relate to and reach out to the passions and enquiries of everyone in the audience, and thus relate to, touch upon and illuminate  the widest range of histories and theories of the subject – art.

A lecture (or, for that matter, a seminar, a tutorial, feedback-writing etc.) should also be inventive, risk-taking, challenging, imaginative, crafted, performed etc. etc. yes, all of the things you would want and expect from an art work, you should be able to find in your art lecture.

There were so many things I wanted to write about this week, and I always feel a little sorry for the themes and ideas I have set-aside or omitted, but this morning, deciding to acentuate the positive – as the old song goes – has led me, and you, and my fingers, all over and around the keyboard, to land us HERE.



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