Monday, July 18, 2011

The Value of the Delivery

I've been thinking some lately about the importance of the quality of public speaking as it relates to teaching. While teaching is not like delivering a speech at a political rally or pumping up a team before a big game, I take it that how we deliver material is obviously an important component of good teaching. I have one thought to offer here, and some questions to raise.

First, my thought. I know of some professors who play loud music right before class to get themselves pumped up and ready for "the show". I am not the kind of professor or speaker who puts on a show for the class or audience. One reason for this is that this is simply not my personality. When we try to be something we are not, the lack of authenticity may be apparent and serve to hinder good teaching. At least this is so in my own case. Another reason I don't try to put on a show is that I think the centerpiece of the classroom should be the ideas we are discussing, rather than the professor or the students. I still try to deliver my material with clarity, and to avoid being boring as a speaker, but I'm not a coach on Friday night getting his players pumped up, and I don't try to be.

Now, for my questions:
1. What constitutes a good delivery, and how can we develop this skill as philosophy teachers?
2. Is there a set of speaking virtues that the ideal philosophy professor instantiates, apart from clarity?


  1. When I think back to my undergraduate days and try to recall which professors I learned the most from (and why), I find myself coming to the opposite conclusion: the professors I learned most from WERE the centerpiece of my experience of the class.

    Of course, that isn't to say that they focused on themselves more than the material. It's not hard to imagine a professor taking this style too far and becoming a distraction.

    But the professors who engaged me the most were those that were funny, witty, and (yes even) entertaining. They commanded the classroom and respect of the students. And outside of class, the students talked about the presentation as much as the content. The best professors effortlessly communicated their enthusiasm for the material and I can remember being caught up in their wonder. They made me want to be a part of it.

    Professors don't need to be football coaches or motivational speakers. However, I feel that professors are most effective when they can adequately communicate why it is that they are drawn to philosophy with everything they teach.

  2. I think the key is engagement. Different professors will have different personalities and their style will need to be comfortable for them and suited to that personality. (Which is also why some need 15 minutes of quiet meditation before a lecture and others need loud rock music.)

    The students will also have different personalities and different experiences to bring to the classroom. The key is to present the material in a way that gets the students engaged.

    If you are passionate about a subject (and I'm betting there are some bits of philosophy you are passionate about), letting the students see that passion gives them a way into the material. At the very least they can be curious about what you find so fascinating about it.

    I also think there is some value in a presentation style that allows students to see how we engage with the material ourselves. Instead of thinking of it as content, think of it as a process you are guiding the students through.

  3. I teach with showmanship. I like to think that it helps bring ideas to the fore, rather than detract. Who knows?

    I keep two points in mind when I plan my lecturing: (1) students have an attention span of about 10-15 mins*; and (2) sitting down for extended periods of time and listening to someone else makes me sleepy.

    What I think makes for a good lecture:

    (1) Overview. Starts with a quick overview of the whole lecture, so students will know how different parts of the talk fit together; ends with a summary of what was covered.

    (2) Variety. Shifts from straight lecture, to questions, to reading/working out the text at roughly 10/12 minute intervals. The shifts help to refocus student attention. The key is to integrate non-lecture time *into* the lecture. For example, instead of making a point I sometimes spend the time to let students work through the text as a class to make the same point.

    (3) Humor. I like to crack a joke or use an outlandish/outrageous example when student attention is falling but I'm far from my next shift. So long as someone is true to their voice, being humorous enough for a group of captive students isn't too hard. Actually, students love a corny or bad joke more than a good one.

    (4) Silence. A lecture doesn't have to be a constant stream of sound. A few brief moments of quiet can punctuate a point.

    (5) Movement. I stand up and move around. Some people disagree because of the power relations surrounding standing while someone else sits. They may even have a point. On the other hand, sitting or standing in one place reinforces a different power relation (namely, that the students closest to me are the "real" students). In any event, I find movement to help.


  4. The most important thing is to teach in a way that makes the most of what you and your personality can bring to the classroom. My favorite teacher when I was an undergraduate was a very quiet, patient person. I tried to do that when I started teaching...anyone who knows me can imagine what a disaster that was. I'm a loud, energetic person, so, yes, my teaching is pretty loud and energetic. But it is not a stretch and in that sense, not a performance.

    I was involved in speech, debate and forensics all during junior high, high school and college. I did not know it at the time, but it prepared me well for teaching. It taught me that you can over-prepare and lose spontaneity, that one should project and speak slowly, that one should use eye contact, that one should pace material intentionally, etc. etc.

    My persona in the classroom resembles me, but is different in some ways: more positive, more flexible, more forgiving. But the one thing she and I share is that we are philosophers - that's the most important thing. For me, having a classroom persona has been important to maintain a kind of safe distance that protects the students and protects me. It protects them from my tendency to be a very intense philosophical interlocutor, it protects me from the fact that I become very invested in the students over the course of the semester. I'm not claiming that this is or should be the case for others, but it has been important for me.

  5. I think variety is very important here. There are moments when a dynamic, animated, kinetic style is best; others when a low key approach works. Occasionally I'll almost whisper something in class just to get people to try to figure out what I'm saying! I've watched teachers who always conform to what I think of as good public speaking techniques. My sense is that this can be monotonous in its own way -- too 'sales presentation'-y.

  6. Thanks for the input, everyone. I've found that my laid back style works, and that when I do become more animated they take notice. This gives me a way to emphasize a point that I consider to be very important. But the bottom line, I think, is to be as effective as we can be with the styles of teaching that are most natural to us.


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