Writing First Year Geography Lectures

I’ve been very quiet in the blogosphere recently. Mostly because I have been preparing new lectures for a section of a first year course I am teaching. I taught first year almost exclusively in my first academic job at Macquarie University, and since I was starting at scratch with topics I had never lectured on before, I experimented with different ways of lecturing large first year classes. Here are my top ‘learnings’.

1. Keep it snappy 

Seems obvious, but first year lectures are not the place to go into a detailed analysis of Das Kapital or the most recent round of climate talks. You have to assume that your class will range from people who know nothing about the topic at hand to students who work in the very area. (I have had refugees in lectures on refugees, managers of multinational subsidiaries in lectures on the global economy, filmmakers in lectures on films in popular culture… you get the picture). You don’t want to bore the people with a) no knowledge on the topic and b) more knowledge than you on the topic, so you have to keep the pace snappy. For me, the main point of first year lectures are to inspire and provide overviews to areas of study they can pursue in detail in second year.

Currently I am teaching a first year Geopolitics module, as this provides some of the theoretical and historical background to the Geographies of Development course I teach at second year. This doesn’t mean you are flitting from example to example in your snappiness: I use lectures to introduce key ideas through a particular extended example. In my current module, we cover key moments in geopolitics such as the birth of the nation state (full lecture), and the Cold War (half a lecture, tied with theories of heartland and organic state geopolitics), as well as introductions to how this applies in current events: geopolitics of climate change (whole lecture), and feminist geopolitics in childbirth (half lecture, with intro to ‘feminist geography’ more broadly). What I mean by ‘snappy’ is that you are not using your class to do grounded original analysis (perhaps like what you might do with a graduate class), you are mostly presenting an introduction to the field through the well distilled results of other peoples work.

2. Don’t Assume: Provide Details

While you are keeping things snappy, you should NOT just make passing remarks to world events that ‘everyone’ should know. The snappiness must still include details for students who a) were not born when the event you think ‘everyone’ knows about happened and b) are from backgrounds quite different from the student you imagine as normal. For example, the current class of 2015 would have been around 5 years old at the time of September 11 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers in New York (see what I did there? I didn’t just say ‘September 11’ — that’s just mum’s birthday to some people). Or for an international student from China, events ‘everyone’ knows about might be framed quite differently — World War II is often referred to as the ‘War with Japan’, for example. I get so frustrated with first year texts that assume that everyone knows Pinochet or even David Cameron (all British Prime Ministers blur into one for me, let alone first years in Australia and New Zealand…).

3. Accuracy, or at least honesty

Because of the aforementioned students who know more than you about particular subjects, it is important that all your facts are accurate. This requires researching examples you know nothing about and making sure you have it straight. I like to use examples from own research as this helps with accuracy and confidence. But if I have to stretch into an area I don’t know, I might use Wikipedia as a first stop here, then look up a couple of articles. I often stick to examples from a textbook if my own experience doesn’t fit, as they are normally referenced to sources I can follow up.

If you are winging an example in response to a question, make it clear that you are recalling facts from your head and ask students for help on the details. For example,

“Good question, an example would be the way that the Vietnam War was fought as a sort of proxy war between the two dominant ideologies in the Cold War. The North…? of Vietnam was under Communist influence — is that right? Does anyone know — anyway, one side was supported by the US in fear of the ‘domino effect’ of Communist influence.”

Chances are, some smartypants obsessed with the Vietnam war will know the answer, or even better, a Vietnamese student may take this as a chance to speak in class.

4. Situating the lecture in their everyday lives

Let’s face it, most of the examples in first year geography textbooks are not particularly relevant to the average student down-under. If we don’t replace those examples with local ones, students end up over-identifying with the US and/or the UK as normal. I have seen this go right through to graduate level, where students in geography survey US and UK literature on transport or tourism and ignore screeds of relevant literature from the Asia-Pacific. To me, it is really important to get students of GEOGRAPHY thinking about geographical difference, so I take every opportunity to point out when something is less relevant to the place in which we are standing. This is something that can only be done in lectures, and is probably one of the primary arguments for keeping lectures as a form of education, in my humble opinion.

In my current context, students are woefully unaware of the Treaty of Waitangi and it’s betrayal, and also issues of feminist concern such as gender inequality in the home and workplace. They are also much less schooled in basic multicultural diversity than other places I have taught. So whether the topic at hand is feminism or the Treaty of Waitangi or culture, I try to insert these issues into the lectures in matter of fact ways.

For example: looking at the history of the nation state and the ‘imagined community’ of a single ‘nation’ in a bounded ‘state’. I take this opportunity to explore how NZ is founded on a document promising biculturalism (ie, two ‘nations’ in one ‘state’) yet throughout NZ history, Pakeha have struggled to imagine this. And to return to ‘details’ and ‘accuracy’ and ‘snappiness’ — I do this through accurate facts and figures rather than vague insinuations: between 1840 and 1975, 29 laws discriminating against Maori were passed by the New Zealand Parliament. Another example: when exploring theories of economics, I use examples from current political parties to situate it here, AND make sure to introduce feminist critiques of economic theory (even if it is not in the textbook), usually using Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand feminist economist who studied the work of farmer’s ‘wives’ and Playcentre mums.

5. Clear and organised presentation

I experimented with using Prezi for a few semesters in 2012. I loved it for the ease of lecture preparation and the ‘big picture’ approach it enabled me to take.  But I returned to Powerpoint on student feedback, while Prezi was great IN class and freed me from linear thinking,  it didn’t teach them the skill of making an argument that often requires linear thinking and organisation. Now, I see the Powerpoints as a resource  for two things. The first is demonstrating how to organise one’s thoughts into a series of sections, and I use ‘Outline’ slides repeating throughout the presentation to demonstrate to students the logic of our progression and where we are up to in the argument. I always use learning outcomes, for the whole module and each lecture, and I make it explicit how these learning outcomes will be met. I tell students to refer back to those when they study, as exam questions or marking criteria for essays will be built around that logic. The second thing is the Powerpoint files (or pdf versions) are study resources themselves, so I put the same care into them that I would for preparing a final draft of an article. They have consistent and aesthetically pleasing formatting with headings and subheadings and professional looking styles.  I also reference carefully, and provide links in the powerpoints for further exploration, since most of them access these as pdfs during revision and other assessments. Students feel like they can achieve learning if there is a clear pathway and structure mapping out their learning.

Outline slide. I move the highlighted bar down to show where we are at each interval.
1 Territoriality and Power Outline slide. I move the highlighted bar down to show where we are at each interval. Summary Slide: summing up with reference to learning outcomes.

There is some evidence that students rate clear and organised lectures as better, yet don’t necessarily learn more. They may even learn less, because if things are a bit unclear, they work harder to unravel it then remember it better. I agree with this in principle, but I would rather provide the learning opportunities in the assessments we set. I carefully plan assessments to match learning outcomes, and I see lectures as more of an opportunity to provide the framework and resources for students to use in muddling through the assessments. I see lectures, at first year anyway, as a time to be boosting student interest and giving them a feeling of fun, excitement, a rush of learning and eye-opening in order to inspire them to do the REAL work of learning.

It can be really hard to make your lecture organised and clear, especially if you are pushed for time and lecturing 3 days in a row or something. In my first year lecturing, I felt like I had to write all my lectures myself. In fact, I couldn’t seem to lecture to a textbook or to someone else’s lecture slides. But as I have become more familiar with lecturing, first years, textbooks and first year human geography, I am much more inclined to start with someone else’s material even if mostly because they have put the thought into organisation. Currently I am rewriting lectures based on a colleague’s first year module on Geopolitics, using the same textbook chapter she based it on, and assigning that reading to the students. While she uses Thailand to illustrate nationalism, I replace all those examples with China, where my research is based. She added a lecture on the War on Terror when that was most relevant, I am adding a lecture on the Geopolitics of Climate Change.  But even then, I am not writing that from scratch. I have found an excellent chapter in an Open University text, which I am assigning as a reading, and I am basing the structure and content of the lecture around that. Those textbooks have usually been through multiple editing, revisions, even editions and can be quite well-structured and clear. I just think how many iterations I go through in a book chapter or journal article, and how much better it is for it. I don’t have time to do that for every single lecture!

Oh and one more structural tip: I like to have a break every 15-20 minutes — an activity or a video or something that changes their focus. Humans can normally only concentrate in 20 minute bursts.

The Video Break.
The Video Break.

6. Be yourself

I get lecture envy ALL THE TIME when I see other lecturers doing their thing. My current object of envy has a calm and collected lecture style with minimalist slides, dry humour, and provocative questions and pauses. In comparison, I feel like a young puppy, full of yapping and excitement and also not very smart. But students respond differently to different lecturers, some will appreciate my enthusiasm and passion for the topics I teach on, and my style of humour (often situational). Others may prefer other styles and hopefully in a team-taught first year course they will get a sense of the diversity of not just topics of research in our discipline, but also of our teaching styles.

I am sure I will continue to learn other things about first year lecturing! Please share yours below!  I will most likely follow up with some posts on course design and interacting with first years as a course convenor/coordinator.

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