Reflections of a new lecturer…

I’ve been in my post at York now for almost 4 months.  We are readying for the start of the summer term (when I’ll be teaching on the first-year Excavation module at the sites of Harewood House and Boltby Scar), and it coincides with me becoming quite reflective recently about my experiences as a new lecturer.  This reflectiveness has been prompted by many things, including a review of my teaching evaluations from the spring term (all positive, thankfully!), preparation for a talk at the Institute for Archaeologists’ (IfA) conference on Friday (of which more below), and most especially, constant interrogation by academics at various stages of their careers on how I got my job.

Such interrogation is, I believe, generally driven by well-meaning curiosity and good-humoured teasing, but its impact on me mirrors what I’ve always found most difficult to negotiate about academia.  This is the critical self-consciousness and exposure that one encounters on a daily basis when doing anything from teaching, to chairing meetings, to merely walking down the corridor to get a coffee.  It is a feeling of being perpetually on display—and hence perpetually on the cusp of laying bare your weaknesses and (intellectual) deficiencies.  I had a conversation last week about this sensation (what, I suppose, is effectively the impostor syndrome) with someone I consider to be one of my great mentors.  We discussed the hyper-self-awareness and consequent exhaustion that can come hand-in-hand with being, literally, a form of exhibition.  Given that I study issues of presentation, I’m already conscious of the power of display.  It’s interesting now to consider myself as one of those displays, having a kind of visibility (which is admittedly pretty inconsequential in the hierarchy of academia!) that can have ramifications on myself and others.

Motivated by these reflections, I dug through my digital archive on the weekend to track down a critical review that I was required to produce of my first ever teaching experience as an MA student in Anthropology back in Canada.  At the time (almost a decade ago), I lectured to 400 students (400!) in UVic’s Anth 100 (Intro to Anthropology) course, and I subsequently collected and analysed nearly 200 feedback forms.  I had to produce a 5000-word assessment of that experience, and amidst all those words, I found I had written the following:

“This experience was both conflicting and emotional, exhausting and philosophically taxing.  Indeed, the most acute observation that was returned to me via the evaluation process was one student’s simple statement (which was later reiterated by the Anth 100 instructor): “ask yourself if you could really bring that much energy to every lecture.” Reflecting on this, I am not certain if I could.  As I stood at the front of the lecture hall, I suddenly began to fathom the feeling of exposure, of vulnerability and impotence which is, perhaps, reminiscent of the experience of the anthropological subject.  As cultural critics have observed (e.g. Clifford & Marcus, 1986), to be this subject, to be the Other, to be the one open to the scrutiny and criticism of an audience, is dehumanising.  The irony, of course, is that while I was trying to sculpt a humanising pedagogy (after Freire, 1982), I simultaneously felt stripped of my humanity.”

I like to think that I still bring great energy to my presentations, but it is always pushing up against that sense of being rendered naked and alien in the process.  I am particularly conscious of such a sensibility this week, as I am scheduled to talk in a session on Graphic Archaeology at the forthcoming IfA conference in Oxford on Friday.  The last time that I spoke to a comparable audience (a majority of non-academic practitioners in 2009), I had a traumatic—and hopefully one-off—experience.  It entailed an audience member interrupting me in the middle of my talk (which centred on experimenting with modes of archaeological presentation and discussing the affordances of old media) to tell me that they couldn’t understand anything I was saying.  The implication was that I was being purposefully arcane and impenetrable; however the reality was that I was just being me: that’s how I speak.  The problem, of course, was that in exhibiting myself at that event, I learned that being me wasn’t satisfactory in certain circumstances.

Barring the emotional effect this experience had on me, from an intellectual perspective, it was revelatory.  This is a point that I’ll aim to discuss at my talk on Friday because such barriers in communication (sometimes manifesting in outright disgruntlement) are not uncommon in fields like archaeological visualisation, where specialists from many backgrounds come together to produce disciplinary outputs.  Tensions between specialists have a long history in the sciences—this is nothing new—but I think there are severe consequences if we disregard them or, alternatively, accept a status quo which entails exposing others and being exposed in the absence of any effort to adapt, actively challenge or renegotiate these practices.  Our Visualisation in Archaeology project brought to light some major disconnects between specialists that, I believe, have profound ramifications for the field—many revolving around poor dialogue, unfounded presumptions about disciplinary tools/skillsets, and fear of change.  Archaeological visualisation is evolving (as has always been the case), and as hinted at by Grant Cox in a fairly contentious talk at the CAA conference last month (which itself revealed the very communication barriers that I mention above), we can choose to expose ourselves as stagnant or we can proactively experiment with our various forms and means of exposure to create something different, something novel, something more meaningful.

I suppose it’s the latter path that I’m hoping to follow as a new lecturer too.

10 thoughts on “Reflections of a new lecturer…

  1. The references from my 2003 paper cited above:

    Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Freire, P. (1982). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

  2. Great post! I know the feeling of lecturing and pouring out a lot of energy. It is exposing. I put of lot of myself in my lectures and talks. But without that we are no more than robots. It’s our human response to the past that makes us archaeologists. The best lecture for me is one where I get to challenge my own assumptions through the responses of the audience.

    Being exposed doesn’t hold any terror for me as I’ve never really cared much what other folk think of me. I just accept I’m an idiot with limited ability but with a strong personal relationship with the past. If anyone thinks I’m better than that then I’m greatly chuffed.

  3. Sara
    Your description of the audience member who could not understand what you were saying reminded me of one of my favourite PoMo moments when a dreadfully PoMo person (an educationist) lectured a conference audience about the need for people working with Indigenous people to make their work relevant to the people they were working with. Alas the lecturer gave this homily in pure PoMo jargon the like of which I would be unable to reproduce. They seemed unaware that in the audience were some of the very Indigenous people who would have benefitted from some of the plain speaking being advocated, to say nothing of the benefit to the non-Indigenous non-PoMo people also in the audience. At this stage self reflection is everything.

    After seeing the impact of your talk in Armidale all those years ago, I can well imagine that commentators on your work would ask whether you could carry that energy into all your lectures. I am sure you do, but when you get to the third year of teaching the same topic and it is one you have moved on from, the difficulty increases. After 30 years, I thought it was time to retire!


  4. Thanks so much for your comment, Don. But I can testify to the fact that you’re both an incredibly inspiring speaker and brilliant at what you do. The perfect combination, I think. I look forward to learning more from you about balancing it all :)

  5. Iain – thanks for your response. I don’t consider myself to be a ‘PoMo’ person at all; but I obviously have an academic way of speaking, which is something I’m trying to stay aware of. I’m hopeful that in 30 years I’ll be doing new & different research that I could teach on & stay inspired by. Tips are welcome! :)

  6. I was not “accusing” you of being PoMo (it came as a surprise to me when the co-author of our 1996 book told me that it was Post Modern!). Rather I was congratulating you on your self-reflection. As for the rest, the point is that not all your talks will be about your latest research. The “repeat” lectures are the ones where it is difficult to keep up the enthusiasm. My biggest tip: never go into a lecture thinking you can just use the notes from last year. It is always tempting especially when you are engaged in some far more interesting research topic. Towards the end, I forgot about that, and I hated my lectures.

  7. I didn’t take it as an accusation at all :) Thanks so much again for your commentary – I really do appreciate it. And I completely agree about the pitfalls of reusing material. Your input means a lot!!

  8. I keep telling myself that the only way I could progress further with my “presentations” would be to bring on a gospel choir to back me up. And maybe impersonate some kind of Southern gospel preacher. I’ve used “Playboy” covers & centrefolds, clips from “Mad Max,” snapshots from Monty Python’s “cheese shop” skit… and no riots have ensued. And what’s more: I have yet to be banned from any and all conferences. I must’nt be doing it right.

  9. April Nowell spoke to a sell-out crowd at the SAA on “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder”. Used all the sorts of things geoff is talking about, to great effect.

  10. A great post and, everything else aside, I am moving up north to Glasgow and will be in York now and again because my friend Robyn is there (post doc? know her?). We should hang out!

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