How to Give a Bad Lecture

As a full-time stu­dent who has sat in count­less lousy lec­tures for over a decade and a half, I have at­tained im­mense wis­dom on how to give a bad lec­ture.

The key idea is the lack of soul. Every bad lec­ture starts with the re­quest to set­tle down (or the on­line coun­ter­part—“Am I au­di­ble?”). This is the peak of the lec­ture. You must pro­ceed to dis­pense words, weasel words, and more words, stripped of mean­ing, to leave be­hind what I can in­ter­pret only as arid sounds, with no pause for thought, no pas­sion, and no hu­man­i­ty.

The sole strength of the lec­ture is the hu­man touch. Books are more vast and care­ful­ly de­signed to help us learn con­cepts. Videos can have fan­cy vi­su­als that help ideas click in our heads with­out words. A lec­ture has none of those—it’s too coarse for sub­tle de­tails, too spon­ta­neous to be elab­o­rate or vi­su­al­ly ap­peal­ing. But the lec­ture has the lec­tur­er, the sum of a whole hu­man life, their unique ex­pe­ri­ences, goals, pas­sion and mind. This is the sole stilt that sup­ports this shed. Your role as a bad lec­tur­er, is to burn down this stilt and snort the ash­es, be­fore you be­gin your class.

Feel the pages of the ref­er­ence text­book for your course ma­te­r­i­al. No­tice how dead the pa­per is? Don’t be fooled by the text in that book that leaps into life with its con­cep­tu­al rich­ness and the au­thor’s fas­ci­na­tion of the sub­ject. The pa­per is what you must im­i­tate.

Do not ex­plain the big pic­ture or the mo­ti­va­tion to learn the top­ic you are teach­ing. Nev­er as­sem­ble ideas to­geth­er to form a co­her­ent pic­ture. Do not show how these ideas form pat­terns across many fields that broad­en our un­der­stand­ing of the world. Re­peat af­ter me. Won­der is blun­der. Won­der is blun­der. You must in­stead, em­pha­size on which points are im­por­tant from the ex­am­i­na­tion point of view.

Strip out all ref­er­ences to your­self and your ex­pe­ri­ences in the lec­ture. Avoid us­ing the word “I”. Avoid giv­ing your per­spec­tive. Avoid us­ing a con­ver­sa­tion­al tone, opt in­stead for clut­tered lan­guage with a lot of jar­gon. Avoid eye con­tact with stu­dents. Run your lec­ture like a chore. Do not think of your work as the de­vel­op­ment of fu­ture cit­i­zens who shall work on the progress of hu­man­i­ty.

Do not use the black­board. Use Pow­er­Point slides, where you have copied a lot of text from the ref­er­ence text­book ver­ba­tim. En­sure that there is enough text that stu­dents will not know whether to read or to lis­ten to you. Re­state all the con­tent in the slides in your lec­ture. Do not pro­vide any new in­for­ma­tion or add con­text. This will en­sure that the two stu­dents who were try­ing to pay at­ten­tion will lose you as well. If you must use the black­board, ran­dom­ly sam­ple words you are say­ing and put them on the board to make it seem im­por­tant. Do not try to or­ga­nize the in­for­ma­tion in a sen­si­ble fash­ion.

Re­fer to your course in­for­ma­tion be­fore your class. Look at the syl­labus that needs to be cov­ered for the day. Do not plan more than that. Of course, do not be too spon­ta­neous or com­fort­able in class ei­ther. Any ac­ci­den­tal glimpse of the lec­tur­er’s hu­man­i­ty might make your lec­ture re­mote­ly in­ter­est­ing. Fo­cus on the check­point, that is the syl­labus that needs to be cov­ered. Sprint to that goal post, through your me­an­der­ing mo­not­o­ne sus­tained for an hour.

It is im­por­tant for you to cul­ti­vate hazy think­ing. Hav­ing clar­i­ty of thought might lead to your lec­ture be­ing clear. This may ac­ci­den­tal­ly grab the at­ten­tion of your stu­dents. Nev­er use un­am­bigu­ous, con­cise sen­tences. Nev­er stop for paus­es. Nev­er pon­der. Make sure you are al­ways dron­ing in filler words, weasel words, uhhs, ums, ged­dits and okays. Your class­es should avoid hav­ing spaced out beats, and in­stead adopt the tonal qual­i­ty of a mud­dy, con­tin­u­ous buzz.

Nev­er let the stu­dents feel like you may be ca­pa­ble of ad­dress­ing the ques­tions that pop in their head. If a stu­dent asks you a ques­tion, just re­state the bul­let point in the slide that was re­lat­ed to their ques­tion. Ap­pend your an­swer with “Are you get­ting it?”. Done enough times, this will en­sure that the stu­dent gives up on try­ing to un­der­stand the idea. They will say yes be­cause of the pres­sure of ap­pear­ing stu­pid.

It is a com­mon myth that in or­der to be a bad lec­tur­er, you must avoid in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty. Many bad lec­tures can have in­ter­ac­tive com­po­nents, as long as the right kind of in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty is cho­sen. You must en­gage in the most su­per­fi­cial ways pos­si­ble. Avoid ask­ing the class ques­tions that re­quire con­tem­pla­tion. In­stead every once in a while, just broad­cast to your class ques­tions that in­volve rec­ol­lec­tion of raw facts. Ask your stu­dents ques­tions that no one will want to an­swer, as they do not want to speak for oth­ers. These may in­clude: “Do you have any doubts?”, “Are you fol­low­ing me?”, “Am I go­ing too fast?”, “Shall I move on?”. Beat that dead horse so pro­fuse­ly that it starts clop­ping on the floor again by mere force. To add to the re­sent­ment, pro­ceed to com­plain about the lack of in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty in the class. This will en­sure that you will not be both­ered by them again.

Do not take any feed­back. If you must, make sure it is not anony­mous. Blame the stu­dents for not un­der­stand­ing or co­op­er­at­ing. Sure­ly, it must be their fault, that their dull minds can­not keep up with your teach­ing ef­forts. If any­one does muster up enough courage to send you feed­back, make them re­gret it by tak­ing it as a per­son­al at­tack.

This is of course just one set of many strate­gies for a bad lec­ture. The meth­ods I sug­gest­ed are high­ly preva­lent and cul­tur­al­ly ac­cept­ed by the ed­u­ca­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions in this coun­try. Un­like the oth­er fair­ly pop­u­lar meth­ods, this does not re­quire you to be moral­ly void, high­ly ego­tis­ti­cal, big­ot­ed or un­em­pa­thet­ic. Even some­one fair­ly smart and com­pe­tent can suc­ceed with the afore­men­tioned strate­gies.