Tag Archives: MALA

Lecturing: an unfashionable art

Next Monday, without shame, I’ll be doing something that many people these days frown on, though it has been a valued part of education for centuries. I’ll be giving a lecture, the first in a course of ten that will run weekly until late October. Lecturing! What a shockingly antiquarian practice!

I’m familiar with the usual arguments against lecturing. It’s said to be an incorrigibly authoritarian, top-down, monologic way of imposing an individual’s views on a docile group of listeners. It supposedly discourages independent learning and gives the lecturer a licence to parade his or her ego.

No doubt all of this can too often be true. But need it always be? Is it self-deceptive to think I understand those potential problems well enough to mitigate them when I stand at a lectern?

Many years ago, in The Making of Literature, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that a teacher engages a class actively in the learning process, combining the roles of “a resource specialist, who puts the learner in contact with useable information, and a response specialist, with whom the learner can negotiate and test particular communications.” The format of a lecture may not always facilitate this kind of engagement, but doesn’t preclude it either. Much depends on the nature of the group, particularly the motivations of its members, the knowledge and interest they bring to a session, and their level of maturity.

This particular course of mine is for the Peel (Mandurah) branch of MALA, the Mature Adults Learning Association. Knowing MALA members well, I can be confident that, while I’m responsible for much of the content that we explore together, they will bring a spirit of active enquiry to what we discuss. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for groups of this kind in a previous blog post, ‘In Praise of Older Readers.’

In medieval universities a lecture was simply, as the French-derived word suggests, an oral reading from some text along with a commentary on what was being read. Its purpose was to impart knowledge of the text and instruct the audience in how to interpret it. Today, books are so readily available in so many ways that it may seem needless for a lecturer to read aloud even a few select passages from a chosen text. Why not leave it entirely to students to do their own silent reading? Answer: because well-written words sometimes deserve to be voiced. By reading a passage aloud, an experienced lecturer can draw attention to certain nuances of phrasing. This serves to model the process of interpretation. Marks on the page don’t supersede the spoken dimension of language.

The topic for my course is Myth in Literature and Society. ‘Myth’ signifies a range of things, from mere fallacies to fabulous old tales of gods, superheroes, creation and destruction. Why does the word have such diverse meanings? Why do many myths have long-lasting appeal? Why do creative writers go on retelling and adapting mythical stories? What can myths tell us about the societies that produced them, and what relevance can they still have in our own time and place? In exploring such questions, this course draws examples from literary sources, mainly in the western tradition (e.g. Greco-Roman classical drama, poetry and epic; biblical stories; medieval romances; Shakespearean plays), as well as from cultural practices, ancient and modern.

MALA is still accepting late enrolments. If you’re interested, click on this information.

I’ll also be presenting a different lecture course, beginning the following week (on Wed 22nd August), for the Rockingham branch of MALA. This one is on Historical Fiction. Details here.

In praise of older readers

With each passing year, Australians are generally reading fewer and fewer books of any kind. There’s dismal downward trend – except for one age category.

Part of a MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association – Peel branch) group attending my course on ‘Reading Like a Writer.’

A 2016 Roy Morgan study of our reading habits found that the proportion of Australians who read either fiction or non-fiction declined over the previous five years across all ages from 14 up to 64.

But among those 65 and over, the picture is different: a slightly higher proportion of them is reading books than back in 2010.

Comparable facts have emerged from a reader survey conducted by Macquarie University researchers for the Australia Council, published this year. Almost 40 percent of ‘frequent readers’ (consuming more than 10 books in the last year) are over the age of 60, compared to just 15.5 percent who are under 30.

I wonder how many publishers of Australian books and literary magazines pay close attention to those readership demographics. Most of the people who work in the publishing industry as editors, marketing officers and so forth are much younger than this significant group of mature-age readers, whose tastes and preferences surely deserve special consideration since they are the only group whose consumption of books is not dwindling.

What, then, are the tastes and preferences of mature-age readers? The Australia Council report indicates that only 36% of the over-60s cited ‘escaping reality’ as one of their reasons for reading, whereas it was important for 55% of the 14-29 group. And the older the readers are, the keener they are on literary fiction by Australian authors. More than half of those over 50 (rising to two-thirds for those over 80) say they like Australian literary fiction; for readers under 30 the figure is just a quarter.

None of this surprises me. I write literary fiction in a realist mode, and – to judge by the feedback I receive, and by the audiences who turn up to events at which I talk about my books – a significant proportion of those who read what I write are over 60. And most of them seem to me to be discerning readers, well informed, thoughtful, enquiring and enthusiastic.

I have especially in mind various groups whose members often invite me to speak with them on literary topics in general and my own work in particular: a number of book clubs, library-based circles, professional associations, special-interest groups, and organisations such as MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association), U3A (University of the Third Age) and Probus.

That’s where you can find many of the stalwarts whose support for serious Australian books remains steady while it is sadly weakening among the young.

May these mature readers continue to thrive!