This term has involved a lot of lecture writing for me. Planning, writing and teaching two brand-new courses at the same time has been brilliant fun so far, but also lots of work. Talking to colleagues, I’ve realised that not all of us take the same approach to writing new courses – and talking to students, I’ve realised that not all of them know what goes into writing a lecture. I thought I’d share my process and work-flow here, in case it’s interesting, useful or gives you any new ideas. I’m not saying it’s a perfect way of doing things – in fact, it’s very much the process of a new lecturer in her first year of a new job, I suspect. I’d also love to hear about other people’s lecture-writing process: it’s not something I hear about often, and I know you all would give me some great ideas for new things to try.
My first step, which I tried to do mostly in advance of term, was to plan out more or less what would appear in each lecture. My Roman Death has 11 2-hour lectures – which seemed like a huge number of hours to plan at first. I ended up breaking it down mostly into one- or two-lecture chunks: lecture 2 is on funerals, for example, and lectures 4 and 5 are on funerary monuments of various kinds. The two-lectures chunks left me with a bit of flexibility, so that later I could decide how I was going to divide up the huge number of funerary monuments I wanted to talk about between the two lectures.
At the planning stage, I created the first two PowerPoint slides of each lecture, with the lecture number and title on the first slide and a list of key terms I wanted the students to be familiar with by the end of the lecture on the second slide. I saved each one in the format “RD Lecture 1 Intro”, “RD Lecture 3 Funerals”, etc, so that they were all sitting there in an orderly fashion in one folder on my computer, and I could see what topic I had assigned to each week. I was free to rearrange these topics later (and I did!), but it meant I had (a) a reminder of what I’d planned and (b) a place to stick cool images or texts when I came across them.
My next stage was to do some fairly wide-ranging reading. Some of this was reading books that I thought I could set chapters from – and for Roman Death we are very fortunate to have a large number of books that are perfect for undergrads (Catharine Edwards’s Death in Ancient Rome, Valerie Hope’s Roman Death and Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook, and the rather older Toynbee’s Death and Burial in the Roman World). Reading these in full first gave me an idea of how other people had structured similar courses, and gave me some ideas for what to include where.
Then, I started reading for the first two or three lectures. I did these in a chunk of reading to make sure they flowed together, and particularly to make sure that the introductory lecture made sense; now that I’m a bit further on in the term, I read topic-by-topic. This includes books I already know about, checking out books on other academics’ reading lists and in their bibliographies, browsing in the library, and a fair amount of google-scholar-ing and JSTOR-ing.
I read through a bunch of stuff fairly swiftly before deciding on maybe four chapters or articles I’ll set as the recommended reading for the lecture. Not everything works as reading for students – my course has people from all different degree disciplines, many of whom don’t study Latin or Greek, or who have just started the languages for the first time – so anything with too many untranslated quotes is out. I’m also looking for clear, interesting writing that introduces the topic well and doesn’t assume too much existing knowledge. Some of the other material won’t be right for setting as reading, but it often helps with content for the lecture anyway.
Anything that I want to set as reading, I scan or save, and upload onto ELE, our online learning environment.
Sources and slides
As this is an interdisciplinary source-based course, next I go off in search of sources. Normally, I’ve got some good ones from the reading already. Sometimes I can half-remember something that I think will be good, so I can find it online or in a Loeb. I also look through the many many hundreds of photos I’ve taken in museums and at archaeological sites over the years. Usually I have a vague idea of whether I want a picture of the Street of the Tombs in Pompeii or some sarcophagi I saw in the Vatican, so I can narrow down the date of the picture I want.
When I find something good, whether it’s literature, art or archaeology, it goes in a slide. I figure out where and when it comes from, and (if it’s an inscription), provide a translation, which sometimes means taking the time to translate it myself. If I’ve lifted an out-of-copyright translation of a literary source from the internet, I go through it to check that it all makes sense and sometimes update the language a little so that it will make better sense. A also add notes in square brackets to explain any unfamiliar terms.
When I think I’ve got sources covering all the angles I want to discuss in the lecture, I’m done! I’ve found that a 2-hour lectures (with breaks…) is about 45 slides, give or take.
I then add one final slide at the end reminding the students of what we’ll be doing the following week.
Handouts are pretty easy to put together, as I pull all the texts and translations off the slides and copy them onto the handout. Not all the pictures though – I try to save the environment a little there! Sometimes at this point I decide to cut down the text on the slide and include a little more on the handout, if the extract is a bit long.
I save the handout and PowerPoint and upload them to ELE, and then I print and photocopy the handout for the lecture.
How long does all this take?
This is a tough question, because it’s obviously more time consuming at the beginning and tends to get quicker as term goes on. As I read, I tend to see stuff that doesn’t fit this lecture, but will work perfectly in a future week, so I put them in the PowerPoint file for the future week. By the time I got to week 4, I had almost a complete lecture’s worth of material without much extra effort.
But I’d say that on average it takes at least two days to plan one of these lectures. A lot of this course is outside my research area, so the reading takes me a little longer for those weeks; the weeks where I’m more familiar with the content take less time. Other lecturers will doubtless be quicker or slower than me. But I’m definitely looking forward to running this course again, when it will take much much less time to prepare.
This is such a great insight into an academic’s work, and into teaching undergrads. Thank you.
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