What makes a good lecture?
The last lecture was very much work in progress right up to the last minute. I had it mapped out and pretty much written (bar the last ten minutes) by the time I got to DC on Friday night. On Saturday I went into the office and went over the lot, made the powerpoint better and got the last ten minutes down on paper.
This last bit was the story of what had happened to the Roman sarcophagus from Beirut, believed to have been once occupied by the emperor Alexander Severus and brought back to DC by Jesse Elliott in the late 1830s (in the picture above). He offered it to President Andrew Jackson as a last resting place -- who instantly refused it, because he didnt fancy being buried in an emperor's coffin. Surplus to requirements, it was put on display on the Mall, until the mid 1980s, when it was sadly moved to storage.
This was all a great symbol of some of the big themes I'd been talking about over the last few weeks, pulling together issues of republicanism and monarchy, contested identications .. etc etc ..
In fact, for me, all was going well until about 4.30 on Saturday when I was swinging my legs under the desk and inadvertently disconnected the power supply from the computer. Luckily the autorecovery programme kicked in for the lecture, but not for the bloody powerpoint, which reverted to the form it had been in some time around lunch time. That was another two hours catch up... in the process of which I realised that the end wasn't right either (far too preachy).
So after a great dinner (thanks Sarah and Sheila), I had to get up at 6.00 on Sunday (today)..tinker with the powerpoint and make the end a bit more to the point, more humble and more funny, before clearing up the apartment to vacate, packing up the books from the office to be shipped to the UK, meeting my old friend William for lunch, test driving the powerpoint at 1.00 and turning up at 2.00 for the lecture itself.
Then, virtue rewarded, it went better than I could have ever hoped. In fact, at the end, people got up on their feet and clapped. A 'standing ovation' I guess (not much you can do, but be grateful and gracious and very very pleased... lectures don't have encores). But it did lead me to reflect on what made a good lecture (or lecture series).
In this case, I think what really made the difference was the fact that I was still working on each lecture until the day before (or even the day). So when I gave them, they really were very live in my mind. There are all kinds of wonderful and brilliant things that people can want to get over, but unless the thought processes that gave birth to them are still active and raw, they just wont come across in a lecture format. (As we all know, giving the lecture the second time is never the 'rush' that the first time is. It's more like reading the script.)
But it's a question of the audience too. The great thing for me about the Mellon audience was that they really bought into 'the project', so -- corny as it might sound -- it felt like we were all going somewhere together. And that made a huge difference to my own input.
But now it is back to earth and to term and regular teaching -- and forgetting standing ovations. But thank you Washington DC, very much indeed.