Webcasts: pace & rhythm

by Paul Maharg on 29/06/2010

Been thinking about this, since we're engaged in a project that incorporates them at Northumbria Law School.  Talking to staff today it was borne in on me yet again how much lectures are culturally more sophisticated events than we tend to think.  

There are many qualities that go towards making a lecture successful.  One of the perhaps neglected aspects of them is the extent to which a good lecturer will vary the pace and rhythm of the lecture, and thereby achieve a more interesting, complex but at the same time a comprehensible structure for students.  It's a highly personal aspect of performance, but in more detail this means that a lecturer will vary pace by a number of linguistic, informational & behavioural signals, some of which can be described as follows:

  1. Slowing down or speeding up rate at which she speaks
  2. Emphasising certain words or phrases, by slowing phrases down or repeating them
  3. Pointing to text in a visualiser or PP presentation
  4. Use of clickers to break the flow of information and engage the audience
  5. Previewing ideas or facts as being important, and possibly giving reasons why either before or after delivery of the information
  6. Previewing the important elements at the start of a lecture
  7. Reviewing important elements at the end of a lecture
  8. Missing out chunks of an information flow, evidential chain or argument
  9. Using body language, eg facial gestures, to show emphasis

By these means a lecturer gives variety in emphasis that gives the lecture depth.  Students are thus given expert guidance in separating the important information from the less important information in a particular area of law. It's really a form of subtle oral story telling when done well.

A lecturer can also vary rhythm in a lecture.  By rhythm I mean that a lecturer establishes a particular relationship between conceptual elements in lecture material.  Typically this will involve a movement from generalisation to detail and back again.  It may also involve moves such as generalisation to qualification to example, then back to generalisation.  There are a number of such moves, and the student audience quickly becomes accustomed to the type of argument or rhetorical moves being made by the lecturer.  There is, in effect, a rhythm established over the period of the lecture.  Some lecturers deliberately keep this rhythm for the duration of the lecture, while some have probably not thought of altering it as it comes to them.  However some deliberately break the rhythm.  Rhythm can be varied in a number of ways:

  1. vary the relationship of the elements in the argument that are the substance of the lecture.  Eg give a generalisation followed by an example, then several qualifications of the point, each followed by an example
  2. break the rhythm of delivery entirely.  An example of this was the practice of one of my law lecturers in giving a five-minute ‘legal joke’ break in the middle of his lectures – which, since the subject happened to be Trusts & Succession, was hugely appreciated.  Of course, this in itself became a form of rhythm. 

Pace and rhythm are of course elements involved in many different activities.  A good example of this, and one that is instructive to present circumstances, is that described by Bruce Chatwin in his semi-autobiographical account of travelling in the Australian outback.  He relates the story of the aboriginal traveller walking in the desert scrubland who was offered a lift by a tourist (if I remember right) driving a 4 x 4.  They travelled on together, until the traveller, appearing agitated, asked the driver to slow down.  When asked why, he explained that he was getting lost, and would not know where he was in the desert landscape.  Chatwin gives a detailed description of why this was the case.  Aboriginal travellers, he explained to the reader, found their way around the desert by creating very long mnemonic poems, which they used in order to memorise the landmarks that they would encounter on the way of a long journey to a recognised place.  In order to place the landmark in a meaningful way, the poem was constructed to be rehearsed at walking pace.  Landmarks such as rocks that looked like animals could thus be paced to appear at certain intervals.  The poem was a form of mapping on to the landscape, one that existed in time as well as in rhythm, form, narrative and other more recognisably literary characteristics.  The jeep's speed destroyed this sense of – literal — pacing.  As a result, the traveller was effectively lost in a landscape that he no longer recognised.  

This story could be interpreted as a warning for everyone involved in changing f2f education: change the pace & rhythm at your peril!  But of course that would be a shallow interpretation.  The real core of the story is the superb adaptation of oral culture and linguistic technology to a problem of geolocation.  Similarly for anyone involved in introducing digital technologies, we need to be aware of how channel choice, speed, flexibility and the curious, neutral flatness of the digital domain affects our sense of pace & rhythm.  Watching staff come to terms with the new landscape I was struck, yet again, by how our narratives are paced to a specific teaching landscape.  The landscape has changed: we need new stories to help us through the strange places we find ourselves in.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 IT Training July 2, 2010 at 12:16

Nice Blog. 🙂

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2 kevin greene July 9, 2010 at 14:47

I’m sure you’re aware of Prezi, but I use it to highlight the points you make here in lectures / classes as it allows a visual reinforcement of the zoom into detail, and then the retreat to overview again.
This allows students the luxury of not having to hold all the relevant information in their head AND prioritise it as it comes in.

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3 Paul July 9, 2010 at 15:17

Yep, agree with that Kevin. Have tried Prezi and quite liked it. The zoom function can stand in for the way we move from detail to generalisation in lectures etc (really the engine of academic argument) and vice versa. Sort of a 3D zoom — ppt is curiously flat, or at least it is when I use it.
Reminds me of a waking hallucination I had when working with hypertext in the late 1980s (too much work, too much coffee) — I was in a stylized medieval garden walking amongst fruit trees and hanging from their branches were not fruit but texts — only not random but seeming to make sense in the way that happens in dreams. It was exhilarating, delightful — like coming across hypertext for the first time.
Honest, it was only coffee…

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