Dusty Files and Old-fashioned Methods

It’s that time of year again when lecturers dust down their files, refresh their memories, and stride out to inspire the next generation of freshers keen to take down their every word. Except, it’s not like that any more. That was how it used to be; I still have the files to prove it. Indeed, the first lecture course I ever gave was essentially identical to the one I had myself received as an undergraduate on the subject of Electromagnetism. When the previous lecturer passed over his notes to me, the similarity to what I had taken down more than ten years previously was striking. I tried to ‘personalise’ the lectures, but there is a limit to how original one can be on first year electromagnetism. Maxwell’s Equations are Maxwell’s Equations.

It is curious to think how the world of lecturing has changed. Firstly, students now do not take notes. I was never taught to take notes, but somehow one managed to do it. I look back at those dusty files of my own and I am, frankly, astonished. My writing these days is barely legible, but then I could sit for hour after hour taking meticulous, beautiful notes. Titles neatly underlined in red, diagrams sketched on the spot, equations in neat red boxes. The proof is in the image. Since all lectures were given (back then) using blackboard and chalk I am, frankly, astonished that they could even be read from the back of the lecture theatre.


By the time I got to give my first lecture, styles had progressed: it was handwriting on the spot onto an overhead projector. (Or was it? I really can’t remember if I lectured for a year or two on the blackboard before the OHP innovation came to pass in Cambridge.) I would return from each lecture with the side of my writing hand an attractive shade of blue from smudging what I had written previously; the finger tips were also stained deeply from trying to erase the sketches that hadn’t quite worked first time. It was all done live on the spot. Again, I had to worry about making my handwriting legible, but size of writing was less of a problem due to the magnifying effect of the OHP.

No one thought to provide training for new lecturers. When I first turned up the technician in charge of the lecture theatre reassured me he was sure I would do better than the lecturer whose course had just finished. He was an eminent professor of physics, whereas I was still a mere University Research Fellow who had been asked to step up to fill the shoes of a lecturer who had left at fairly short notice. Entertainingly, said professor had been deluged with 155 paper darts (the number has stuck in my mind) in the final lecture as students expressed their displeasure with his course. (I never did get paper missiles tossed in my direction; the technician was right.)

Not only did I get no training, no one even thought to explain the basic mechanisms, such as where I was to lecture, where I waited before 9am struck or what I ought to do about demonstrations. That first year I was so nervous about my delivery I got up a couple of hours early and literally talked through each lecture word for approximate word,  before getting on my bike to head off to the lecture theatre for the 9am start. The second year I skipped this step as my energy levels were too low to do this. I was about six months pregnant by then (but I had moved up from URF to the grade of Lecturer) and I was more worried about whether the students in the front row, invariably male, would be disturbed by the sight of my baby’s kicks through my dungarees.  I was never at any point given the opportunity to be videoed, nor offered advice until many years later. As I say, times have changed.

As time went on, I progressed from writing on the OHP with no lively demos to break the rhythm. Somewhat later, when I wrote a new lecture course on Waves (also, initially for first year students) I got my hands on some demonstrations. I particularly enjoyed bowing Chladni’s plate. This consists of a square metal plate dusted with sand (labelled as from Hunstanton in the sprinkler I was provided with) which can set up standing waves – meaning that the sand dances into beautiful shapes – when a bow is applied in the right place. When it isn’t, absolutely nothing happens of course. But get it right and the resonance rings out around the lecture theatre, frequently resulting in spontaneous applause. A good feeling, but not a reliable outcome. (Most recently I had a YouTube video up my laptop’s sleeve of course, in case I failed to find the sweet spot.)  By this point I had progressed also to pre-written transparencies and comprehensive lecture note handouts. Handouts, I should have said, were sparse when I was a student. The only lecturer who used them did not use them wisely. He essentially read the text. We all went to sleep, often, I suspect, literally. It has to have been the most boring course I ever attended during my undergraduate years.

Finally Powerpoint arrived. For good or ill I think this will be the last format I have to endure as a lecturer. I have mixed views about it. It certainly means that diagrams can be perfect, that demos and videos are easily embedded and everything should run smoothly. No more finding the smudges have rendered the equations illegible; no more attempting to draw some three dimensional object representing a key physical insight in real time in front of eager students just waiting for you to mess up.  But so much expectation of total perfection from the students, less tolerance over missing minus signs than my generation exhibited, and in some ways a much more passive experience.

My astonishingly neat lecture notes mean that somehow I was capable of listening, watching the lecturer, and transcribing essentially simultaneously. And transcribing what was said in adequate detail that I could use these notes for revision without significant amplification (although occasional corrections were required where I had fallen behind). I am astounded by that virtuosity which I believe was actually a very useful life-skill, although one that I barely have occasion to use by this point. But I also think – and no doubt educators could tell me if I’m right – that the act of hard concentration that this required, the act of taking ideas and writing them down by my very own actions, helped to embed the equations and concepts in my brain. I do not regret this, even whilst knowing there is no way back to this primitive lecturing style.

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3 Responses to Dusty Files and Old-fashioned Methods

  1. Jeevan says:

    Is the trend away from blackboard something specific to physics classes at Cambridge? I think they still use the boards at Oxford.

    Here in India quite a few professors use power point but many students don’t like it especially when the content involves a significant amount of mathematics. There seems to be a certain disconnect when the sweat and toil involved with the actual act of a doing a derivation or proof on board is skipped and substituted for the sudden and slick appearance of the steps on a slide.

  2. PhysicsBear says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your “Waves” lecture course, and still have the immaculately hand-written notes to prove it (though I confess it’s been a while since I referred to them…) Personally, I took notes even in the lectures in which we were given hand-outs, as it was my most effective way of concentrating, and extracting the essence from what was being said. I actively learnt during lectures in a way that utterly escaped me if I merely listened. I discovered that the hard way by not taking notes (and occasionally falling asleep) during a lecture course where we had a comprehensive set of notes handed to us. Much of the subject turned out to be a mystery to me when it came time to revise for exams. I’m quite glad I’m not a student nowadays.

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