Monday, September 15, 2014

Writing Lectures Efficiently (Or, how I learned not to drown in prep)

Here's a little story about my first semester as a sessional employee. The year was 2008. I had just finished my PhD and landed three courses. One was a year-long theory course, one was a year-long poetry course. These were both at my alma mater. I also managed to get one course at a university down the road. I was feeling nervous and excited, maybe even a little smug. Then two weeks before classes the chair at the new-to-me university called to offer me a fourth course. I was in a quandary: should I take the course for the money and the precedence list experience ? Or should I stick with what I had? I called my mentor. "Take it," she advised. Readers, I did.

Fast-forward to early October. I was living in a basement apartment driving across the city to two universities on a daily basis. I was up with the chickens writing lectures and I was up with the night owls writing lectures. I enjoyed neither. I felt like nothing was getting done. I was mired in not knowing anything, not feeling confident in anything, and certain that at any moment my students or colleagues would discover that I was a fraud. It was around that time that my mentor called to check in. Before she could even ask how I was I burst into tears and revealed that I was sitting under my desk literally hiding from my work. She took me out for a glass of wine and told me to buck up. "I advised you to take four classes on not because it is easy or fun," she told me. "I advised you to do it so that you would know you can handle it." (She also reminded me I could have ignored her advice). I bucked up, hurtled through the semester, and did it again the following term. It was exhausting, maddening, and more than a little scary. It was also fun, exhilarating, and emboldening. As it turns out, I could teach four classes, and while it is a wildly heavy and I wouldn't really wish it on anyone, the thing that saved me (& has continued to save me. I've taught about fifty classes since then) was learning how to write lectures in a reasonable amount of time.

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that teaching prep can expand to fill whatever available time you have. Indeed, have been known in years gone by to have spent six hours preparing for a fifty-minute tutorial. Was it the best tutorial in the history of teaching? No. Frankly, if memory serves, it was pretty grim and involved me holding up a copy of Understanding Poetry that my father gave me when I was in high school (thanks, dad!) No part of my formal training as a literary scholar taught me how to write lectures, or to teach for that matter. Consequently, everything I have learned has come the hard way. Good lecture notes and slides (if you use them) last--you can tweak them without having to start from scratch (if you end up teaching the same class again, that is... A rarity as CAFs!)

1) Allot a specific amount of time & stick to it: This is the most important suggestion I have. We all know it is possible to dither and tinker until the day is gone. I set myself a specific amount of time to write my new lecture and that includes doing the reading. If it is a new lecture/text I give myself roughly double the time of the class--2 hours to write the lecture for a 50 minute class. Sometimes I get it done faster, sometimes a bit slower, but having a clear time limit keeps me on track and off Facebook. Consider turning off your wifi.

2) Read actively for the lecture and make bullet-point notes: As I read or re-read the primary material for class I make a list of the central points, key terms, and any associative thoughts I have. I then organize these notes into a really skeletal lecture trajectory.

3) Write up lecture notes: When I started teaching and writing lectures I was so nervous I had to write everything--from "breathe" to "tell joke"--out into a script. Often I didn't look at the script much, but it was a crutch--there if I need it. I found it really useful to have such detailed scripts to come back to and tinker with the times I am able to teach a course for a second or third time (again, a rarity as a contract worker). I title my lectures and highlight the key terms for the students and for myself.

My lecture-note writing style has evolved over time--I've moved to a more spatially organized (for me) means of writing notes. Main points are on the left in all caps, details and explanations are on the right like so:

I translate and narrativize my reading notes into these lecture notes, which means I have actively thought about the text and what I am going to say about the text twice now. In turn, this means I am less nervous and more practices in what I want to say and how I want to say it.

4) Make slides: One of my mentors pointed out that action at the front of the room keeps an audience's attention. You've seen those articles about talking with your hands, right? Same idea. And since I am a bit clumsy my aim is to keep the action at the front of the class course-related and not about me tripping or spilling my coffee (which still happens all the time). For me, slides work well to keep student attention and keep me on track. I only post key terms, images, and quoted passages if we are going to do close-reading. I think of my slides as the third point in triangulated lecturing--the lecture, the primary text(s), the slides. Nothing replicates or repeats itself and there is enough difference in all three components that it keeps me on my toes and the students actively engaged.

Here is an example:

And another:

There's just enough information there to get the students thinking. This also allows me to go off-script and unpack the function of the images in relation to the lecture and our discussion. 

When I am finished I print my notes, save the notes and slides in several places because yes, I have had a computer crash and have lost years of teaching notes because I am a lazy saver (weep!).

This is not a fool-proof plan, and it wont work for everyone. However, I have found that a combination of time limit + having an action plan = less time agonizing over what to say and how to say it.

What about y'all? How do you go about writing lectures in a timely fashion?


  1. This is SO. HELPFUL, Erin. I *still* haven't taught a lecture-based course and these kinds of practical guidelines are supremely useful. People just don't think to unpack this stuff--we really are expected to teach ourselves how to teach. Ugh.

  2. I really wish that it was standard practice to show graduate students and new instructors how experienced instructors and professors prep and teach their classes. You've done this here, and it is ENORMOUSLY helpful. But this is literally the first time that I have ever seen someone else's lecture notes or slides for a course (except when I was myself a student). I like how you've distilled your slides. I need to work at cutting mine down to just key points. (SEE! LOOK HOW HELPFUL THAT WAS!)

  3. I really should be following this advice, as I head into hour 5? 6? of a lecture prep. It's just that finding images rich for discussion, and framing a narrative around them ... is far and away the most fun part of my job.

  4. Hi y'all,

    Thanks so much for your responses. I certainly don't mean to imply that every time I write a lecture it is efficiently dispatched, but having a formula has absolutely helped me. I'd be happy to share / think specifically through any other lecture prep challenges. Like I said, I have come up with this formula through trial and error, not because I was taught how to do it.

    & Claire--I completely agree. Finding the right image/video is so very fun and often when throws my time limitations out the window.


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