You may have heard me mention that I’ll be taping a course for The Teaching Company‘s Great Courses catalog. This week, I went up to Chantilly for my first practice session. (Incidentally, I’ve been asked not to talk publicly about the content of a course that’s still very much in development; fine with me, as I expect the course will be mutating as I write it. So I’m not going to tell you what the course is about. Yet.)

I’ve used Teaching Company lectures for the kids. In fact, right now my thirteen-year-old is enjoying Black Holes Explained (which I bought on sale, by the way–each Teaching Company course goes on sale at some point during the year). Some of my favorite scholars have done courses for the Teaching Company. And hey, Bill Gates is a fan. So I was tickled to be asked to do a course myself.

I’ve been working out a detailed outline for the course over the last few months, and this practice session was an introduction to using the teleprompter and slides. I was also supposed to experiment with moving around as I lectured, instead of standing in one place.

What a weird experience. There was NO ONE in the studio. For practice sessions they don’t use cameramen, just three cameras set on wide angle. Each camera has a teleprompter, so you end up, more or less, explaining things to the teleprompter. Which doesn’t really have facial expressions to tell you whether or not it’s bored and confused. Instead it has a little red light, and when the light goes out you’re supposed to turn and speak to whichever of the other two cameras has the red light. Kind of like chasing Tinkerbell while trying to remember your next lecture point.

When I tape the course itself there will be cameramen–as there were when I did my audition lecture. That was actually harder in some ways because you’re lecturing directly to three guys whose faces you can’t see (and they can see YOU, which made me ridiculously self-conscious). On the other hand, the cameramen do signal when you should switch from one camera to the other. I spent way too much time talking to the wrong camera.

I’ve done a lot of teaching and a lot of public lecturing, and never realized just how much I rely on facial expressions to adjust my lectures. I speak from notes, but the notes always have far more material in them than I deliver. I pick and choose as I go, depending on the reactions from the listeners, and I never deliver the same lecture twice.

This doesn’t work for Teaching Company lectures. In the first place, you don’t get any reactions. In the second place, that particular method lends itself to mistakes: you make overstatements and understatements, which you can compensate for if you’re talking live. Not so much on a course that’s frozen on DVD forever. (Inevitably this will produce letters that begin, “Dear Dr. Bauer, I was appalled to hear you make such a gross mistake in the beginning of your lecture and I will never buy or read any of your materials again.”) The third problem is the teleprompter, which only has four or five lines of your notes at any given time scrolling past you. Not really possible to glance down the page and decide what to address next.

So I’m back home, working on my history and middle-school writing projects, and also on these Teaching Company lectures: setting them in concrete, cutting the notes down to what I’ll actually say. Feels very odd. I’m going to have to deliver the lectures to my office wall in order to make sure that I’ve got exactly the right words for the teleprompter.

Oh, and that ten pounds? Well, I won’t be wearing THOSE pants when I deliver the actual course lectures. In fact, I’m thinking of asking for a body double.

Showing 4 comments
  • Lyn

    Interesting! For all the Teaching Company courses we have used, I guess I have never thought significantly about delivery from the professor’s viewpoint. Can you have a live audience in the studio during the taping, or is that verboten? As far as practice (ahem), you could always assemble a group of Virginian WTMers to practice on. 🙂 (I know, I know, we wish!)

    Good luck in your Teaching Company endeavors! We’ll be watching for your series. 🙂

  • Tiffany

    I have been using Teaching Company for years. Some of their videos are produced before a group of people. Perhaps you can bring in a couple of your students for extra credit to take notes and make faces at you. My favorite professor was George Wolfe (Biology back in 2002) and the most useful was Basic Math by Dr. Siegal which starts its first lecture with “Adding is counting things that are the same”.

    Btw, in addition to the 10 pounds the camera gives you, you do not want to know what my wide screen T.V. does to actors.

  • A Daring Adventure

    Oh, Susan! Hugs to you!

    But honestly, I cannot think of a better person to have lecturing for The Teaching Company. Your lectures are just amazing. And you’re so personable!

    Don’t worry – your friendly, interesting, warm tone and demeanor will come across through the cameras, even though you cannot have an audience provide you with immediate emotional feedback. This is why you’re perfect for this project.

    I’m SO thrilled that you’re doing this. I agree that Teaching Company videos are phenomenal – and I agree with them that you’re a fabulous choice. It’s a match made in heaven. So hugs to you as you power through it, even though it isn’t going to be filmed with an audience. Don’t worry- your warmth will communicate through the camera to the people watching the video. You’ll be GREAT.

    And don’t you dare – with the whole weight thing. You’re TINY, Susan. Teensy tiny. Don’t even go there!


  • Madiantin

    Wow, that’s so nifty that you’ll be doing a course for the Teaching Company! I’ll be looking forward to that in a few years once the 5yo is old enough. Thank you so much for going through all this effort.
    As to the 10lbs – I thought I heard somewhere that you’re a runner? Does that help? =)

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