Sunday, November 6, 2016

A test of teaching and phobias of public speaking

 While I was in Switzerland this past week, I asked my Postdoctoral Fellows, Dr. Christina Smith and Dr. Abdelkrim Toumi, to cover my lectures in Fluid Mechanics (PHYS 4120) and Planets and Planetary Systems (PHYS 3070). Below, Christina describes her experiences with the Planetary Science Class.

By Dr. Christina Smith 
This week I am dipping my toes in the waters of lecturing for the second time. I am covering lectures on the shapes of planets and the strength of bodies vs gravity.

Preparing lecture materials is a time consuming process, even if you have previous notes to work from. From deciding what materials go in and thoroughly researching them, to putting them together in a way that makes sense to people unfamiliar with the topic. Ensuring that you pitch the subject at the right level is also a very tricky aspect: if you pitch it too low, you risk not challenging the students and if you pitch it too high, you risk the students not following the material and not learning the important aspects of the subject that you want them to gain from your lectures. You also have to be aware that there is always the chance that students may not be familiar with concepts that you assume prior knowledge of - this happened in lecture one of the two I covered so I ended up adapting lecture two with a 10 minute introduction to that particular concept to make sure we were all on the same page.

I decided to go down the route of combined lecture notes on the board with images and diagrams on a powerpoint presentation. My ability to draw pictures leaves an awful lot to be desired so I thought it'd be best for all involved if there were clear diagrams for me to refer to. I also knew that I needed to write notes up on the board so that I didn't speed through the material too quickly and also allowing the students to keep good notes. Doing this also has the added benefit of keeping me consistent, clear, and reduces the chances of me going off on tangents.

I do get a little nervous when public speaking - less so than I used to be as it's an important skill to have, especially in this business, and practicing is the only way to improve this. It used to be that I could barely give a 5 minute presentation without going red in the face and shaking from head to toe. Then, after doing 1-10 minute presentations in internal symposia and the like within my former department, I tackled conference poster presentations, internal seminars, outreach talks, and science talks. I also spent some time teaching with groups of initially 5 students all the way up to groups of 70. Despite this, before the end of my PhD I had still never given a talk longer than 30 minutes. At this point, I was *persuaded* to give a science comedy stand up set at BrightClub Manchester. This was only 10 minutes, but to this day it remains the scariest public talk I have ever given. Usually in talks you just want to inform or advise or potentially persuade, but in this talk I had to *entertain and inform*. To a paying audience. No big deal, right? Yeah... 

I managed it though! People laughed a lot, told me afterwards how much they enjoyed it and I have a copy of the video to remind me that I did it and I did it well. Since then, public speaking is much less intimidating than it was then.

So today I gave my first of two lectures. One of the things that occurred to me as I was lecturing was how awkward I felt turning my back to the students when I wrote notes on the board. It feels very wrong to not be facing the audience at some points, at least to my mind. I also find it a little clumsy that no matter where I stand, I know I'm blocking some part of the board. Add to that the fact that I can't reach the top of the whiteboards without straining on my tippy toes as I'm slightly more vertically challenged than most lecturers, I suppose (I decided to wear heels this time to alleviate this somewhat). It's also surprisingly tiring to be standing there in front of an audience, explaining and teaching and writing notes for an hour and a half, and trying not to make any mistakes as you go. I don't know how school teachers do it all day every day!

My second lecture went much the same as the first - students turned up (hooray!), wrote notes and asked and answered questions: all good things! I didn't go off on any tangents, I stuck to the script I had prepared and hopefully it made sense to them as we were going through. I managed to cover all the material I had prepared, so hopefully it went well.

It's good experience (hard work too!) and I'm glad I've done it, but I'm looking forward to concentrating full time on my research!

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