End notes

Sometimes no notes are the best kind for lecturing.

You can tell a lot about a university instructor from the notes that he uses in class. When I was an undergraduate my friends scoffed at profs who dragged out yellowed sheaves with text that had been pounded out on a manual typewriter decades before. By contrast, they revered those teachers who lectured brilliantly with no notes whatsoever. I never wanted to be the former, and now I am working at being the latter.

When I gave lectures as a graduate student, I prepared detailed notes for every class with full sentences and key words in bold. Just starting out, I was deathly afraid of seeming unprepared, or, worse, forgetting where I was and not knowing what to say, or worst of all, of running out of material before the class ended. Like all grad students, I feared deep down that I was a fraud and would be found out at any minute. I would psych myself up on the way to class by assuring myself that I was well prepared, and if I was going to be exposed as a fraud, it would not be today. So my notes offered a kind of security. I didn’t just read from my script, but I had the script there, just in case. In fact, if I got too nervous and forgot what I was going to say, I would read a few lines from what I had prepared and that would get me back on track.

That practice continued when I became a professor because, again, you want to make a good impression, and nothing makes a worse impression than seeming inexpert on the topic you’re supposed to be an expert in. Or so I thought. But a few years in, I had an experience that changed my attitude. I was preparing to teach a play I had not taught before and was pressed for time. I simply did not have the hours to prepare the kind of notes I always prepared before. And so, in desperation, I made only a brief outline for each of the scenes I wanted to talk about and the main ideas I wanted to address. As I went to class, much of my old grad-school anxiety came back, and I feared the worst. But to my astonishment, the class went better than any class that year. Without detailed notes, I spoke more freely about the play and students picked up on it. Since I was not so bound to my notes, the students felt more free to raise questions and make contributions, because they sensed they were not interrupting me.

That class marked a gradual turn in my teaching style and over the years I have come to rely on notes less and less. Even when I had notes prepared from years past — not yellowed but well-used — I relied on them less frequently, and in many classes, I had an old lecture prepared which differed significantly from the lecture I had come to give. Now, when I teach a new text, I often make only annotations in the margins of the book itself to remind myself of key points and talk without notes at all. It turns out that I actually know quite a bit about this subject I have spent my life studying, and finding enough to say simply isn’t a problem anymore. Moreover, not reading from notes leads to not standing in one place and sometimes not standing at all. And with their prof more relaxed and informal, students feel all the more willing to engage with with the text at hand. It’s less a lecture and more a guided conversation which is what I always wanted anyway. The new format actually takes more time because there is much more questioning and discussion.

Teaching in this less formal way has meant a change to the way I give exams. Since the factual material presented in class comes less systematically and more organically, I can’t rely on having covered a specific set of facts in any given week or even any given term. So my new exams will have fewer questions about specific knowledge and more questions that invite the application of a range of knowledge and skills. Such tests may be a little harder for students, but I’m hopeful that the more lively classes will better prepare them for these kinds of evaluations.

All this has worked in my case, and has come as a part of a process of constant reflection on how I want to teach, but I hasten to point out that a no-notes approach may not work for everyone. I’ve had profs who stuck close to their notes and were riveting. I’ve had others who should have had notes to stick to.

But as for me, it has been 15 years since I gave my first lecture, and I have never felt less like a fraud.