Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Attack of the Headless Horror (lessons in lecturing no. 47)

So there I was watching the latest episode of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated (Attack of the Headless Horror) on the CBBC Channel...(and I realise that this entry hasn't opened in quite the dramatic way that I'd hoped, but I'm going to push on regardless and hope no one noticed)...and was immediately taken by this week's guest character Rick Spartan: adventurer, explorer and transcontinental archaeologist.

In the opening scene, Spartan was glimpsed energetically hacking his way through dense Amazonian vegetation, struggling manfully towards a previously undiscovered South American pyramid (and OK so it turned out to be [SPOILER ALERT] a disused film-set cleverly modified by his wife in a complex, ingenious, devious and, perhaps, ultimately rather deranged, plot intended to scare her husband out of his archaeologist adventurer life-style, which kept him away on fieldwork for months, but as he didn't realise this at the time [despite the obviously wooden scenery and set design] and she had obviously done such a good job, we can perhaps forgive them both).

Rick entered the pyramid (heroically) cleared the tomb (disrespectfully) only to be scared off at the last minute by a headless warrior spirit with a stomach face (bizarrely).

Cut to an American college where Rick, now settled back in his normal day job (although curiously he evidently has not had sufficient time to wash nor change out of his, by now no doubt rather soiled and sweaty, expedition gear) lecturing to a class of US teens (all listening in rapt attention):

Rick: "listen up - I don't know much about if you want to know what a spleen is go read a book".

Good way of starting a lecture. Assertive (admittedly to the point of being quite aggressive) but also truthful and informative (although clues as to which particular spleen-related books were being hinted at here would probably have helped the class do some background research - perhaps he should have produced a list of 'further reading' - Spleens: a definitive bibliography?)

Rick: "but if you want to know how to escape the clutches of an 800 pound sumo wrestler who's trying to put a poison dart in your back, then you're in the right place"

Excellent - instantly moving on to what you know (research-informed teaching I think they call it) melded with the occasionally semi-surreal (ideal for comic effect or if you want to keep people's attention).

Long silence (warning! - suggests either everyone is shocked, asleep or bored).

Rick "OK, class dismissed"

Good, don't overrun - too many long anecdotes can weaken the message or obscure the central point of your talk (and always end with them wanting more)

Student (nervously): "er....but we've got another 45 minutes left"

Dissent. Must be crushed immediately.

Rick (shouting): "I said CLASS DISMISSED"

Continued and reinforced assertiveness. Good.

Panic as 46 students flee the lecture theatre (there are health and safety issues here I'm afraid, especially as everyone is clearly running in the corridor. Also, as far as time and management studies are concerned, if the college is anything like a UK University, there will undoubtedly be someone with a clipboard timing the lecture and observing that a whole 45 minutes of heating, lighting and valuable air went UNUSED even though it had clearly been booked, allocated and paid for by the college authorities, an oversight that can only truly be rectified by the deduction of an equivalent sum from the lecturer's own fee).

In conclusion, despite the rather chaotic ending, this was a pretty effective lecture. Short, direct, to the point and (undoubtedly) memorable. What more could any student want (well, OK perhaps a few more facts or something that could usefully be employed in an exam)? 

It struck me, however, that this was not the type of public performance that one usually sees from our most popular of popular culture archaeologists. One can only think back to Henry Walton (Indiana) Jones (Jnr), who had a rather curious lecturing style, very much at odds with his alter ego all-action adventurer (or his 'weekend job' as I like to think of it). Previews of lectures glimpsed in both the 1930s and 50s showed that, despite being factual and informative (and I must one day congratulate the screenwriter who crammed so many genuine archaeological references into such a short space of celluloid), Dr Jones's lectures in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "The Last Crusade" and "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" were all curiously monotone affairs: chalk and talk with the emphasis on excessive talk (and if he'd had a beard he would certainly have been mumbling into it). But, I guess, that helped define the extreme nature of his later fieldwork-related Clark Kent / Superman-style transformation: glasses and tweed jacket off, hair ruffled, stubble instantly sprouted before a dramatic 'up up and away'.

The same could be said for poor old Professor Horatio Smith in the 1941 Film "Pimpernel Smith", where the inordinately dull lecture by the (apparently) socially inept academic archaeologist is merely a way of effectively masking the 'derring-do' 'have-a-go' hero who spends his sabbaticals bravely extracting those in peril from the clutches of the Nazis.

As I have yet to battle biblical relics from gun tooting totalitarian psychopaths, nor rescue political prisoners from fascist regimes, nor even indeed loot the gold from a curse-laden South American pyramid, I guess I have no reason to hide an exciting adventuring alter ego behind impenetrably obscure, lengthy and inordinately factual lectures..... what's my excuse?

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