‘Writing Lectures Week After Week is Good Training for Novelists’
When I first met Sara in 1993 she’d been a History lecturer at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus for a year. As an honors student I was working hard to make some sort of career in academia and/or the literary and music worlds. Sara, on the other-hand, was busy writing and researching collections of 2,000 word (50 minute) lectures for her Medieval and Early Modern history subjects (30-40 lectures per subject). From early on she acquired a reputation as an interesting, highly competent but no-nonsense lecturer given to dead-pan asides about some of the more weird, wonderful and ghoulish details of Medieval history. Her knowledge of both the overview and the detail of her subject matter – i.e. 1,700 years of European history – was encyclopedic and she routinely did her own translations of texts from the Old English.
I got to know her better in early 1994, when I was offered a job tutoring in two of the subjects she ran. I remember feeling completely out of my depth for the first few months. Although there was a Medieval dimension to my PhD research I was mostly looking at literary and philosophical texts. It was a massive task for me to become re-acquainted with European history from Rome to the French Revolution. Luckily, Sara was always available with an encouraging word, copies of her lecture notes, or copies of key essays or historic documents that she wanted discussed in the tutorials. Across the three years I tutored for her I learnt to augment the performative aspect to teaching (which other Humanities lecturers had also taught me – all-be-it informally) with effective and interesting ways of structuring lecture content. Some of those structuring skills also went into my PhD work.
Sara’s motto was to make classes entertaining to students: ‘bring the historical material to life by telling vivid stories’; ‘insert interesting quotes by historic personages’; ‘take time to describe setting’; ‘pose rhetorical questions frequently, i.e. the kind of questions students might be thinking’; ‘introduce poems and popular sayings from the era being covered’ and so on. She also taught me to illustrate abstract concepts with well-chosen details and to use humor, irony, absurdity and occasionally various shock tactics to maintain interest – techniques, it must be said, also used by novelists. To Sara, academic lectures should be written incorporating techniques used by what we these days call ‘creative non-fiction’ writers – delivering a history lecture was not the same, to her, as writing an academic essay on history.
I learnt these things gradually, during twice-weekly meetings in her office – an office packed wall to wall (and right up to the ceiling) with hundreds of books on Medieval society, history, culture etc. However, it was not for another six years – when she started doing occasional talks for my Novel students enrolled at Bendigo TAFE – that I understood how the discipline of writing 50 minute lectures (approx 2,000 words a piece) week after week for entertainment hungry undergrads also taught her the work habits of the novelist.
‘I’ve realised that unconsciously my typical chapter length is around 2,000-2,500 words – the same word count as a typical 50 minute lecture,’ she told the students of our 2005 Novel Writing class.