29 September 2012

On a busman's holiday

I have delayed posting this for some time, because I don't want to point the finger at anyone, publicly. I debated whether or not to post it at all. As it stands it is merely opinionated commentary--a legitimate form of expression, but not one which can claim the interest of a reader. I am actually posting it to supplement my posting on a MOOC--where I have paraphrased and condensed some points, including events which happened after I wrote this version. Sorry--you didn't need to know that, did you?


I am on holiday; for once on a tour organised around a topic--the history of classical Greece. I won't go into more specifics for reasons which will become apparent.

On the whole it has been excellent. The site visits have been informative, and there is no substitute for going to the real locations. The organisation and the food have been almost exemplary. And the company of the other members of the party has been excellent.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the lecturer.

As I sat in the first lecture on the first morning, I berated myself for not having brought my trusty observation sheets with me. Had he been a student, I should not have been able to sign off on any item on my list. That is not in itself a problem (see here, for example), and indeed some of the things we are obliged to check would have been clearly inappropriate, such as "embedding functional skills". (It doesn't matter what that means.)

I note, re-reading the earlier post, that I commented then:
It was not about the tutor's technique... It was about "strategy", or really values.
And therein lies the difference. The lecturer started the session with the air of the whole thing being slightly beneath him--to think that it has come to this, to be hired by a package-tour company to lecture to a group of elderly people... There was evidence to support this, because he had clearly done very little preparation, despite--or perhaps because of--his apparent familiarity with the material. I say "apparent" because other members of the group who are more familiar with it than me have been more disparaging about his scholarship.

He did ask us who was in Greece for the first time. Otherwise he asked us no more questions. He said nothing about himself and his background, other than that this was the sixth time he had done this particular tour, and let slip references later to up to fifty years of visiting the eastern Mediterranean. He did decide not to undertake introductions, which was a fair call, probably; he obviously defined his role as an "expert" rather than a full-scale teacher. But it would have been interesting if he had shown just a small proportion of the interest in us which he clearly expected we would have in him. A show of hands on who were the old hands? On who spoke or read Greek? Considered themselves well-informed about the architecture, the history, the culture...? Five minutes would have sufficed.

He said he would get to know our names as time went on, and he did do that. (I could have said that he achieved this principally by counting us onto the bus, but that would be even snarkier than this account is already. Credit where credit is due!) But he missed out on so much information which could have been useful to a more confident and less arrogant person; there were people in the group with expertise from their professional backgrounds and travels who could have contributed fascinating material, which in practice was only shared with two or three others chatting over dinner.

Although I was not expecting and would not have wanted reams of paperwork, it would have been useful to have a list of titles of the lectures. However, it became apparent that in his view this was one long lecture which he would deliver in a series of chunks. Throughout the rest of the week, there was only the most token obeisance in the direction of a clear start and finish (except a sort of peroration in one talk given on the coach, but that was more about drama than structure).

He did supply a reading list; it was badly formatted and the bibliographical format was not standard. Who cares? Well, publishers and dates are quite useful. Perhaps more important, it had been corrected in long-hand and then copied without being re-typed. This clearly sends a message to the "class" that they are not worth serving properly; it amounts to an expression of contempt.

No visual aids. Well, he did have a carrier bag with some copies of picures from books, laminated, so he could hand them round. Given that all but the first of the talks were given on the coach, there might be something to be said for that, but the logistics of distribution and the number of copies, and their labelling, needs some thought. There was a single copy of each page to be shared sequentially among two dozen people, even if most of them were couples and would look at the page together.

He had prepared two pages on a flip-chart, though, showing a time-line. They were sloppily printed in marker pen, but they were big enough to read and he had covered them up with a blank sheet so they were not distracting until deliberately revealed.

So no presentation package, probably because of the setting of the talks, but also because I don't think he has the necessary skills to develop a slide-show. That might also account for the hand-written corrections on the book-list. Even so, the most important thing he could have achieved through a presentation, he could also have achieved for himself with a handful of 6x4 cards--a structure. But the consequence was that, together with a voice which sometimes descends into a mumble, and some irritating mannerisms, it was almost impossible to follow what he was talking about.

It is an egregious delusion that just because you know (or think you know) a lot about something, you can lecture about it. Even in an open-ended situation where the intention is to inform and perhaps entertain, where the group will not be assessed and they are free to take it or leave it at their discretion, where the language of "objectives" and "outcomes" is inappropriate--even then you need a structure. And when you are inclined to ramble on in a kind of drunkard's walk from one topic to another with little evidence of a theme, you definitely need a structure. I know because that is what I do, left to my own devices.

The simplest device of notes or a set of cards, each with only a key word or phrase on them demands some degree of planning. Cards are of course more flexible because you can re-order them, or take one out when you have answered a point in response to a question, earlier than planned...

So all this is very very basic. For most of the week I have been juggling hypotheses about what is going on. Is he merely incompetent? He is incompetent, but not merely so. His failings can be superficially rectified with advice, should he be inclined to accept it. But there is I think more to it than that; there's a fundamental self-absorption which suggests he hasn't got a clue about how other people respond to him and his work, and he doesn't care. (Apparently, nor does the company--I am led to believe that there has been critical feedback about him for years, but he is still employed.)

Beginning teachers are often very concerned about their own "performance" to the extent of not being able to pay attention to the students' performance; that's a natural stage which is soon overcome in most cases, and in any case their self-consciousness often makes them eager to seek and respond to feedback. For whatever reason, this guy is stuck...

But... all this does not extend to other aspects of his public role. Mingling with guests at social functions he is a little stiff and has to try hard to be charming. I empathise. I'm pretty inept at that, too: but then I don't set myself up to do a job which requires such skills. Tonight was a supposedly special dinner--characterised only by having to sit at long tables rather than self-selected small ones, and he was in "host" role. He was clearly not comfortable but he pulled it off quite well--better than I could have done, certainly. But his performance in making a simple vote of thanks for the organiser was largely about him and his next destination.

Something happens to this guy when he assumes the mantle of teacher or authority figure. What, why, how?

Thank goodness for local guides!

[There's no definitive answer, of course. But if you are tackling "the role of the teacher" on a post-school and adult education teacher training course, I think you might find this case-study stimulating.]

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