The Bad Note

diana rigg A lifetime ago, I wanted to be Emma Peel. Oh how I longed for her looks, her London lifestyle, stylish wardrobe, surreal adventures, and cool cat-suit; I envied the way the roads she drove around were always empty, and resented that my idol also had a PhD in physics (and, yeah, her relationship with Steed).

In this, a completely different life, I long to be quite a lot like Dame Diana Rigg. In London, I caught her solo presentation of material from her book “No Turn Unstoned” – an unoriginal title, although new and amusing to me. In ‘real life’, so many years after I first crushed over her high-kicking persona on the telly, I was delighted to be reminded of the pleasure of good performance in presentation. Dame Diana’s book has been described as scholarly, and indeed we were treated to some of the, now hilarious, bad performance reviews from classical Greece, and a subsequent exposition of the bad review in the theatre world throughout the centuries. But her storytelling technique is also enviable, pulling us into her world to the extent to which I currently refer to as ‘immersive’ – where unreality seems real. She did this with just her own voice and impersonations – reading from extracts and occasionally diverting, and enriching our attention with seemingly unscripted anecdotes. She is funny, as well as intelligent. Immersive storytelling, with a dash of humour, is a plausible format for the contemporary lecture. I learnt and retained, much of the narrative, in addition to running through ways in my head, in which I could incorporate aspects of her style into my own teaching repertoire.

The bad note, is a criticism given to an actor by the director – the more famous actors never being given their ‘bad notes’ in public. A common cause of the ‘bad note’ is the desire of the actor to improve their part, and the director’s desire to remove the, often contentious, consequences from the characterisations.

In my own rather modest time as an academic, I have noticed the advantages of performance skills creeping into my job. Lecturing (good lecturing) used to be about communicating concepts effectively; now it is about performing them. Today’s student cohort is drenched in high definition video and computer generated worlds, to say nothing of exposure to the torrent of celebrity lecturers with acting credentials, as well as a PhD in physics. A few bullet points thrown onto a white PowerPoint slide somehow doesn’t cut it anymore. This all leaves those of us with limited thespian backgrounds a bit adrift. We are judged continually on student satisfaction; via class feedback, module feedback, student-staff liaison committees, appraisal and peer-review. But the goalposts of satisfaction shift constantly, and in order to pass muster we need the resilience skills of performance, in addition to taking on-board new learning technologies, and methods of teaching and evaluation, alongside keeping up within our own areas of expertise.

Teaching now centres around a strong element of immersive engagement; I, like many students, can be readily drawn in to any topic presented with enthusiasm and conviction, and higher education needs to address the need for academics to possess performance skills.

With performance, however, comes the bad note. Where we were once judged on our academic ability, we are now also rated on our enthusiasm, and our ability to deliver satisfaction. We need to script not just slides and papers, but the whole show, from student lifestyle to learning outcomes. Whilst this may be no bad thing for learning and teaching in higher education, we have to learn to cope with the constant criticism; not all of us are famous enough to receive our bad notes in private, and often our attempts to improve our parts attract only derision.

Diana Rigg read out some of her bad notes, and suggested that a way to get over them was to share them publicly, and with colleagues, thus removing their sting – and also reminding the authors of bad reviews that their words may be the subject of their subject’s next lecture.