Instructor Insights

Lectures as Performance

In this section, Dr. Jeremy Kepner discusses how he views lectures as performances in which he takes his audience on a journey that covers significant ground. The waypoints on this journey are strategically mapped, but how he gets learners from point to point is largely improvisational. He also shares two strategies for engaging learners during these performances.

"The marker of a good performance is when the people who have attended my lectures feel like the material all held together and that they’ve covered a lot of ground on the journey I’ve taken them on."
— Jeremy Kepner

Taking the Audience on a Journey

When I plan a lecture, I think about the journey on which I want to take the audience. I ask myself, “How far can I take this audience in the time that I have?” I use slides as waypoints and strategically spread those waypoints far from each other. My explanations during the lecture connect the waypoints. Many times, people complain when they view my slides in isolation because the steps between the waypoints are too large without oral explanations.

Each time I give a particular lecture, I connect the waypoints in a unique way. No two iterations of a lecture are the same, because I respond to the cues I get from the audience about how they are receiving the material. I also improvise when I remember, in the moment, related material I want to include. It’s a performance. The marker of a good performance is when the people who have attended my lectures feel like the material all held together and that they’ve covered a lot of ground on the journey I’ve taken them.

Engaging the Audience

Today instructors compete with laptops, cell phones, and social media for students’ attention. Lectures have to be engaging.

Sometimes I use humor during a lecture to engage my audience. I share funny anecdotes about mistakes I’ve made in my own work. One of the anecdotes I share is that in 1992 I was part of a team that created the first modern website. Our website was the first to have dynamic content. Up to that point, every other website was very static. We had a beta release of software called NCSA Mosaic, the first browser.

We had a database in the back engine, and we wrote all this Perl code to connect the two together. When you clicked on something and created a query, it would go to the database, come back, and dynamically format in HTML. It was the first modern website by any stretch of the imagination. No one did anything like it until three or four years later.

After building the website, we thought, “This is stupid. This is a lot of work just to view documents. This will never catch on.”

I call it my $10 billion mistake.

I also engage the audience by emphasizing the novelty of the course material. D4M is at the leading edge of technology. I tell the people in my audience that they’re not going to find this information in textbooks right now. Most people really appreciate an opportunity to learn at the forefront of the field.

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