Lecturing in the flesh
It is close to madness to leave Cambridge in the middle of term. Coming to Buffalo meant, for a start, that I had to miss one of my first year lectures (though here I was rescued by a kind colleague who agreed to stand in for me). It also meant that every morning I dragged myself out of bed to deal with the 50+ urgent emails from back home, reviewing minutes of meetings, agendas and a host of admin. documents (let alone the queries from students, who quite reasonably expect an answer whether you are at your desk or not).
There was also the nagging question of whether I would manage get back to the university in time for my lecture of 10.00 a.m. on Monday if I took a flight from Newark on Sunday evening . . . scheduled to get to Heathrow at 6.45 a.m.
Buffalo weather at this time of year tends to be cold and windy -- and threatens to disrupt any travel plans. In fact the streets were still littered with the corpses of the trees that had not survived the blizzards of mid-October. Apparently these storms were particularly destructive because they came just a couple of weeks too early, when the leaves had not yet fallen. So the weight of snow on the branches was crippling – and indeed did cripple, beyond repair, more that 70% of Buffalo’s trees, which are now waiting to be hauled away. For me it was one of the most powerful arguments for being worried about climate change…never mind about sea levels, if snow just two weeks early in the season can do THIS….
But my immediate worries were more parochial.
Before I left, I had in fact been so anxious about getting back in time, that I had taken the precaution of videoing the lecture. I didn’t want the hundred or so students to be completely let down if I was still crawling round the M25, just when they were expecting to learn more about gender in classical Athens.
My Faculty has recently equipped itself with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment. So in some ways the whole procedure was very simple. I was set up in a room by our excellent computer officer, with a camera and microphone in front of me and off I went.
At least in theory.
Actually it proved very hard indeed to sustain an hour’s lecture entirely independently – with no reaction from any audience at all. It brought home just how interactive lecturing is. Even if the audience isn’t asking questions all the time, you depend on all those signs of interest, boredom, puzzlement, amusement to focus and nuance what you say – to turn it from a solipsistic performance to a teaching experience.
When I told colleagues what I was doing for plan B, in case I didn’t make it for my Monday lecture, they had a predictably cynical response. Why do we bother to turn up to give lectures if we could video ourselves when it’s convenient and just have it played back to the students? It sounds obvious, until you actually try it . . . Being there in the flesh really does make a difference.
Anyway, despite a delayed and fearfully bumpy ride from Buffalo to Newark (gusts of 60 mph are not very nice when you are in a 75 seater plane – expertae crede), I made it onto the London flight and was back with an hour or more to spare. Even in a slightly bleary state, I think I was a lot better value than on the video.