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Painted reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia

It’s that time again already. The University of Edinburgh’s Open Studies programme for 2011-12 is available and recruitig.

This year I am teaching Harlots, Harpies and Harridans, my course on infamous women. We’ll look at various women with bad reputations, such as Isabella of France and Marie Antoinette and consider why they have the reputations they do. This is always proved to be a fun class with lots of discussion and ideas, and a few laughs along the way.

In January, I’m teaching The Tudors. The course covers the end of the Wars of the Roses and goes right through to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. The Tudor monarchs and their intimates are always fascinating and they are particularly popular at the moment. The course will show my students that the truth is far more interesting than the Tudor fictions which abound at the moment.

An unusually practical post

This year’s twenty weeks of teaching came to a close on Monday night. While I can’t deny that having my Monday evenings (and Sunday afternoons and evenings too) back is very welcome, I’ve enjoyed teaching a great deal this year.

I started teaching with OLL (as it was then- it’s now Lifelong Learning) in 2005. I taught a course on Elizabeth I and another on the Six Wives of Henry VIII. The room I was to teach in didn’t have PowerPoint facilities. It was in the Classics Dept, where I’d studied, and they didn’t use such things there, at least not then. Nor did I have any slides for the ancient projector. I was later informed that I could borrow slides overnight from the Fine Art library but I would have to return them promptly in the morning. This was no use to me was I lived and worked out of town and wasn’t in a position to make a twenty mile round trip detour, within their office hours (not early) and still arrive at work on time. I put pictures on the handouts and printed them in colour (at my expense- the office would only do black and white). It was just about enough.

PowerPoint was soon available in all the rooms- the university deciding the upgrade was needed, thankfully. Much as people lambast “death by PowerPoint” I can assure you that it’s a much slower and less colourful death without it. I’m actually very fond of PowerPoint, although there is a certain skill to using it. I hope I’ve if not mastered it, at least become proficient. I’ve certainly learned from my mistakes.

Gillian’s Top PowerPoint* Tips

Some of these will be more relevant to those teaching historical topics but most are universal.

  • Simple designs are best. I tend to use plain white backgrounds with an ornament in the upper right and left-hand corners or a pale, graduated background colour. Avoid patterned backgrounds, flashing text, fancy transitions, overly bright colours. It’s the content of the slide that’s important, not the slide itself. That said, don’t be afraid to use the occasional flourish.
  • Keep the text to a minimum. I used to be guilty of putting loads of text on slides. This not only creates more work for you but it’s boring. Your audience will stop listening to you and read the text instead and if they do that, your presence is rendered pointless. Why not just email it to them and have done? Useful text on slides: names, dates, quotations. Don’t be tempted to fill all the space.
  • Lead the presentation, don’t be led by it. Anyone can delivery a prepared talk, the skill is in responding to your audience. I try to encourage participation and discussion and sometimes this means that it’s better to skip ahead in response to something a student brings up, or even to skip back to a previous slide. Don’t be afraid to take the few seconds to find the right slide to facilitate further discussion.
  • Choose your images thoughtfully. There are a plethora of images for some of my classes (e.g. Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette). Be a little savvy in choosing the ones you want to use. My students don’t need to see every painting of Elizabeth I I can lay my electronic hands on. Pick ones that back up your point (the Armada propaganda portraits), are chronologically relevant (the earliest surviving portrait- the Lady Elizabeth at thirteen years old) or interesting in their own right (the Sieve Portrait). These images invite discussion but help to keep it from veering off at tangents. If relevant, use non-contemporary images, just remember tell your students when the image was created- it’s not always obvious!
  • Use the notes facility in PowerPoint. You don’t necessarily want to read from this while delivering your presentation but having the notes there will make life much easier if you revisit the presentation at a later date. Don’t underestimate your ability to forget the significance of a certain picture or the year someone was born. I prefer to use paper notes when delivering the class but these can be difficult to match to slides later. Also, in my case, they can just be difficult to find later.

*Initially I used OpenOffice’s presentation software which does the job nicely and for free. I’m sure there are several alternatives which have more or less the same functionality as PowerPoint. I really like Microsoft Office though. Sorry.

Do you use presentation software? What tips would you give?

Teaching & Learning

Summer must be coming to an end: the Open Studies 2010-11 programme is out.

This year, I’m not offering my old faithfuls, the Six Wives of Henry VIII and the Life & Times of Elizabeth I. I’ve had great fun teaching them over the last few years but felt that I, and potential students, needed a change. Instead of the biographical Tudor courses, I’m offering a more historical one: The Tudors. This course amalgamates elements of both the older courses but is focused much more on the historical factors such as religious change and cultural life. It starts on 27th September and runs for 10 weeks, 6.30-8.30pm on Mondays.

Holbein study of a young English woman

In January, I’m teaching my favourite course again: Harlots, Harpies & Harridans! I’m delighted it’s back on the programme as it was great fun to teach last time round. It’ll be on Monday evenings at the same time as The Tudors was. It will cover lots of the women that I talk about on this blog and more besides.

As well as teaching, I have some learning planned for this coming year too. I have exam results on Wednesday morning for a professional qualification. If I have passed (and I desperately hope I have!) I will be finished that for good and focussing on history, writing and bookbinding properly again. Therefore, I’ve lined up a couple of things:

Starting in about 3 weeks, I’ll be attending Glasgow Met’s bookbinding course. I went to their introductory course in the third term (April-July) and really enjoyed it. This course is at a higher level and carries some SQA credits (which means if I pass, I think I can claim to be a qualified bookbinder!). Glasgow Met has the most amazing bookbinding department with all sorts of fantastic equipment. It’s a huge shame they are no longer offering the HNC in bookbinding since there’s obviously demand: their evening bookbinding courses are regularly sold out and have waiting lists. Perhaps they’ll change their mind?

Handwritten notes

In April, I’m going to an Open Studies course as a student. I’ve booked my place on a fiction course as I’ve been doing some work on, and getting rather excited about, a novel I’ve been brewing for a year or two but made little progress on. My writerly ambitions very much lie in non-fiction but this idea has been taking shape and it’s at the stage that I really want to read it so I figured it may be about time I wrote it. I am fairly sure that even if I finish it, only a handful of my closest friends will be subjected to reading it. It’s set in Renaissance France (but you guessed that) so even the research is fun.


This year’s courses at the University of Edinburgh’s Office of Lifelong Learning are on the website now. These are arranged by tutors and OLL staff many months in advance but when they are published for students to sign up to, and really easy to find since they use marketing services from sites as https://the-indexer.com/digital-marketing-agencies/ so they can reach more people.

I’m teaching 2 courses this year:

The Tudors (replacing my Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I courses). This is more history-based compared to the others which are largely biographical. I’m looking forward to it.

More excitingly though, my Infamous Women course is running again. This was huge fun to teach a couple of years ago and I’m thrilled it’s on again in January.

Painted reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia