Lecturing as Storytelling

As an experienced teacher but inexperienced lecturer, it has come as a certain kind of revelation recently that in order to improve my lectures I have had to focus less on content and more on narrative.

Two main things led to this revelation. First, was Raul Pacheco-Vega’s article on “Syllabus-writing as storytelling” on the University Affairs/Affaires Universitaires website.  I had never really thought about it before, and Raul rather casually noted that “with every lecture, I tell a story. I also tell a story with the entire course.” It didn’t quite pack the same power as a religious conversion experience, but it was enough to open my eyes to thinking about lecturing in a new way. Prior to this, I primarily asked myself the question: What do I need to communicate in this lecture to address this week’s topic? I treated the lecture instrumentally. My main concern was related to what students would need to know for the exam. Raul’s article started to get me thinking about form, rather than content.

Second, I started thinking about what made my seminars so effective (to the extent that they are reported to be by my students, at least). Without knowing it, I had always structured my seminars loosely as stories, and our primary engagement was with texts, which carried with them their own story-like structures. Certainly, like all seminars, there was an element of “topic-of-the-week” disjointedness, but my goals and practices were oriented toward helping students build a narrative out of the seminar, whether in terms of what they took away or, more literally, in the paper they had to write. I realized that if this was what helped make the seminars so effective, I wasn’t carrying any of this over to my lecture courses.

Thus, I’ve been focused on my lectures this term as storytelling, as a specific narrative form. This probably isn’t news for some, but like I said, it was news to me.

In hindsight, it also feels like a colossal failure not to have made the connection before. My interests in literature, art, and ethnography would seem ready-made interests to connect to lecturing. But, on one hand, I’ve only given a few lecture courses, and I see myself as a novice in the genre. And on the other hand, I only started lecturing after I left grad school – the stakes were too high, the pressures I felt were that I had to perform well right away, and (of course) who had the time to figure out how to lecture when I have to focus on what to lecture, on top of trying to research, research, research, publish, publish, publish… The rat race of academia, like any other form of labor, has a reward system. And there was a certain sense that as long as I was teaching competently, I didn’t have to worry about teaching well. But now I’m on the NUS Educator Track, and the reward system is different. And I also realized that what I imagined were time-saving and labor-saving approaches to teaching – trying to focus on an economical approach to content delivery rather than narrative – were, in fact, making my life harder, not easier.


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