This past autumn term, I accepted a lecturer position teaching a databases class in the Masters Program in Computer Science (MPCS) at the University of Chicago. I have been working with databases for more than a decade and graduated from the MPCS myself many years ago but had never taught before. Throughout the course of the term I learned a lot about teaching, public speaking and, yes, even a bit about databases.
Below is a list of four things I learned about public speaking from teaching a graduate course:
1. Get comfortable with silence–when you’re the one leading the room silence can feel pretty awkward. But it’s only awkward if you let it be. When used appropriately, silence can actually heighten the energy. You don’t always have to be presenting information: take some time every now and then to pause and take in the room. It can be a breath of fresh air for both you and the audience. And maybe someone will get the courage to ask a question.
2. Engage with the naysayers—when you’re in the middle of presenting an idea it can be frustrating to have someone disagree or question your assertions, not to mention that it can throw off your train of thought. But more often than not people who challenge you–within reason, obviously–aren’t being intentionally combative, they’re just trying to better understand what you’re presenting. Assuming you’re as prepared as you should be, engaging them will not only provide interesting dialogue for the rest of the audience but will help you further elucidate whatever point you were making in the first place. And in some cases you might be confronted with a point of view you hadn’t considered.
3. Work with people you like–this may not always be possible, but if you ever have the opportunity to choose with whom you’re presenting, be choosy because it will pay off. For this class I was lucky enough to get to choose the TAs and graders I would be working with for the term and I picked people I had worked with before and that I knew would both support and challenge me throughout the course. Having a good team makes the preparation more enjoyable, which shows in your presentation.
4. Have fun–being prepared and knowing the material is one thing, but presenting it in an interesting way is another. If you’re having fun, the audience will have fun too and they’ll engage more with the material. Don’t be afraid to get excited about your content. (Zach Freeman)
I have always valued my opportunity to get an education. From primary colors to calculus, whether we like to admit it or not, the majority of us have been pushed by our teachers to learn matters of the abstract. Likewise most know the sweet reward of their first ‘aha’ moment. This satisfaction makes any new student jump up in triumph. With this in mind–along with more than fifteen years in classrooms–I have compiled a list of things I have learned by simply being a student:
1. Speak up–as far back as I can remember, participation in the classroom has been important. A teacher attempting to facilitate a discussion to a mute classroom gets everyone nowhere and makes the experience that much more demotivating. Even if the subject at hand is not the most stimulating for you, you can make the best of your time spent in class by engaging in the material. Despite the pangs you may get when speaking before a group of people, it’s best to focus on comments or questions you have and voice them! Once I overcame this fear, I even noticed an improvement on how I communicated in general. Because I spoke up more, there were now more opportunities to better comprehend what I was learning. And it made me a memorable face in class.
2. Communicate with teachers—when something had completely lost me in a lecture, I asked clarifying questions. I’ve reasoned that there’s always a potential that my questions are also shared silently by other classmates. Seldom do these questions get answered simply from not wanting to “disrupt” the teacher. Truth be told, nobody but the teacher has more of a say in the speed of the lesson, unless you ask. And if a teacher needs to table the explanation to cover what they already planned, then don’t dismiss your questions. I write my questions down and ask them at a more appropriate time, like after class or via email. By showing my commitment to follow up, I found I was more likely to get the help I needed. In most cases, educators are enthused when their students show interest, and if they cannot answer your question they are definitely capable of pointing you in the right direction.
3. Put in the time to visit material outside of class—we have all known those classmates who fall asleep in class and still manage to ace exams. For the rest of us, we need to engage with material outside of class for a better understanding. Reading through dry things to get a better grade isn’t the ideal for most, but it’s not the end of the world either. With most disciplines, it is nearly impossible to improve your understanding if you repeatedly choose to make studying a low priority. The typical reason a person gets the grade they do is directly tied to their ability to explain and relay subject information. As much as you may give yourself credit for paying attention in class, your ability to comfortably talk about ALL of the class material may still be amateur at best. A powerful remedy is to research on your own. And by researching the material a tad more by reading just one more article, you may be more likely to make sense of things for exams, and in general.
4. Go to class ready to focus–plain and simple, your classroom time is some of the most valuable time you get. Think about it: A devoted amount of time each day during which you are taught. Musicians and translators alike have to continuously make time to practice, or they watch their hard earned skill atrophy before their eyes. The same goes with learning about world history or environmental science. I don’t ever expect to pass a class. I go in willing to receive the grade I earn from the work I put in. It’s always a choice. And the first way I start to tailor my chances for success is by deciding to come to class prepared. I have my mind and my materials ready for what I am about to learn. Class is a vital time to listen to what educators want you to focus on. Milk it! For all its worth! (Ariel J. Wagner, DePaul University Senior, Environmental Studies)