Great lecturing disasters
Students (and ex-students) dream about exam disasters. I still occasionally wake up with the horror that I've just arrived in an exam room to find that it's the wrong paper (I've revised for Latin Literature, but it's Greek philosophy on the table).
The lecturers' nightmare is about something going terribly wrong when they are trying to perform in front of a hundred or so restless students. Most of these nightmares can come true.
A decade or so ago, I really did turn up to give a big-gish lecture in my Faculty with my sheaf of notes. I should have checked them carefully before, but my kids were playing up or something. Everything went fine until I got to page five of the notes, then -- when I tried to turn over -- there just weren't any more. Maybe it would have been fine if I had been expecting to improvise, but I wasn't. I cant quite remember how I managed (or where those other pages had gone; I never found them).
Then there's the being drunk problem.
No, I don't lecture in Cambridge while drunk. Honest. But when I was in my first lecturing job in London almost 30 years ago I was invited to a big sixth form classics conference in Birmingham. I hadn't then realised what the organisers' game was -- i.e. see how drunk you can get the speakers at lunch. I wouldn't fall for that now, but aged 25 I did. I still remember my talk on Cicero, first off after lunch. It was that split personality kind of thing. Some part of me was floating above the whole scene and knew that what I was saying was not wholly coherent, but the part of me that was actually giving the talk couldn't do anything about it.
The good news on this score is that having a hangover isn't such a disaster. It's only happened to me once, and at a similarly young age (I have learned since). After a very good night in a conference bar, I had to give the 9.00 a.m. lecture with a splitting headache (not to say feeling I was about to throw up). Miraculously the adrenalin kicked in, and for the 40 minutes of the talk the headache disappeared and I felt fine. Mind you, I felt absolutely ghastly again once I'd stopped talking.
Something similar happened last week. I was giving a lecture on the Late Roman Republic to our Part IA group. We had got to the early 50s BC and I was talking about the consulship of Julius Caesar in 59 BC etc. I had made a (for me) reasonably detailed handout for the students, and on that I had made a bad typo. I had written that Publius Clodius Pulcher was tribune of the plebs in 59 BC (in fact, as I knew, it was 58 BC).
As I gave this lecture, referring to the handout, I found myself drawn to referring to Clodius as tribune in 59, though I knew that wasn't or couldn't be the case. Ten minutes from the end of the lecture I thought: this is wrong (what the hell shall I do?).
Ten years ago, I'd have gone away and cried. Last week I said to the students, as we drew to a close, that there was "deliberate mistake" (ha ha) on the handout and that all would be revealed next time.
It was better than crying, but I still didnt feel good.
The students saw through it of course -- and were very nice.