Co-presenting UCL Economics: Behind the scenes of a unique privilege

The acronym “IRL” – which stands for “in real life” – is one that has drawn much mockery toward the community of video gamers it comes from. It may conjure images of figures shrouded in darkness who haven’t left their bedrooms for days, illuminated only by the blaring white light of the alternate reality they inhabit, so entrenched in it that they have to specify when an event is taking place “IRL”. Yet today a similar phrase has worked its way into common English: “in-person”. Though its origin is out of the necessity created by the pandemic rather than gaming addiction, it implies the same thing. People’s default way of life is no longer “in-person”. We are entrenched in a different world – one where your commute is from the bed to the laptop, where the room behind you could become a Hawaiian beach (who needs a holiday?), and where your childhood, entertainment, family, love life, education, and hobbies are all contained in the glass brick in your pocket.

As a student, it can be infuriating. When all we want is for a subject to come to life, to feel like it is connected to the world we see, that subject shying away behind a screen can be enough to make even the most passionate among us feel useless. So this summer, at the two open days held at UCL, our Economics department stood up to the metaverse. Led by Professor Nassehi, we co-presented a taster lecture and his signature UCL Economics Walk, taking the subject and placing it right before people’s eyes, in-person.

Let’s take a trip backstage and find out how we did it.

First on our agenda was the Economics Walk – a journey through the rich economic history that still stands on the streets around Bloomsbury. As with all great battles, the fight begins long before swords are drawn – thorough preparation is key. We spent many days planning, rehearsing, and fine tuning all the elements of lecture and the walk, from the questions we would ask the audience, to the route we would take, and the even the way in which we would speak. While it was incredibly tiring, believe me – nothing trains you to keep your energy high like shouting out Keynes’s life story while standing on the streets outside his house on the hottest day of the year!

Friday morning: showtime. Being an open day at UCL, campus was bustling with prospective students and parents alike. As the crowd gathered in Drayton House grew larger and larger, the nerves kicked in – to both look after and present complicated ideas to over 40 people in public was something I had never done before. But once we set off along busy Gordon Street, anticipation gave way to resolve. Here was Drayton House, Lenin’s balcony, Keynes’s front porch, all in glorious July sun – this was a chance to discuss with people the most revolutionary ideas right where they were conceived. What I did not expect was how equally interested the crowd would be. Of course, the inevitable questions from anxious parents about UCAS applications and personal statements would materialise, but just as many worrisome thoughts were pushed aside by curiosity at what we had to say. As we ended our journey in the grand lobby of Senate House, both parents and students approached to give us their sincere thanks for making their open days a little more open.

The next day, well rested and recuperated, we prepared to give a taster lecture on the economic history of the world within our lifetimes. Walking up to the Christopher Ingold building, I was clueless as I admired the long queues outside – “I wonder what event is so famous that it has people queueing up fifteen minutes before it starts,” I thought to myself. Then a thought dawned on me: were these queues for us? I was more than a little intimidated as Professor Nassehi, who seemed perfectly in his element, approached a parent.

“May I ask what you are queuing for?” he requested in an innocent tone. When they replied they were here for the taster lecture, he smiled.

“I really hope you enjoy it!”

Whether or not they enjoyed it in the end, I certainly did. It took 10 to 15 minutes just to get the enormous audience of 500 into the lecture hall, but once they were there, the task was easy. We had prepared well, our content was excellent, and the audience was eager to respond to our questions, even asking their own, a few of which I was able to field myself.

If you are reading this and are a co-presenter awaiting a similar daunting task, here are the top three most important things to keep in mind:

  1. Whatever you present to the audiences, present it honestly. Think of the aspects of your topic that you are curious about, the parts that shock you, or that you simply find hilarious. Convey these emotions to the crowd! No matter how loud you think you are shouting, no matter how exaggerated you think your behaviour is, it does not come across as brash but simply adds to your passion in what you are saying.
  2. Do not fear – the audience will be interested. You may start with forty and end with two, or you may have just two who even bothered to show up. Whatever the case, they are there to be taken on your journey, to witness your message. By the end, you will be surprised as to how many genuinely enjoyed and understood you.
  3. It gets easier once you have started! The more you do your research, the more you rehearse your parts, and the more you appreciate the opportunity, the more you will relax and enjoy the ride. No matter how strict Professor Nassehi may be with the details of your presentation, when the day to present comes, I can tell you with utmost confidence that he will be having the time of his life in front of the audience and will support you unconditionally whatever goes wrong.

Having the opportunity to co-present with Professor Nassehi was a privilege in many ways. It was an obvious privilege to represent the Department and to be a part of his world-famous Economics Walk. More subtly, it was also a privilege to draw people out of the media matrix we all inhabit, to interact with a live audience, to not have to worry about fitting 500 faces on a laptop screen, but rather to see their smiles and frowns “IRL”. It is not often that students get to speak to the masses with weight behind their words, especially outside the comfort zone of a YouTube video or a Zoom call.

To all future co-presenters, I wish you good luck!

By Suraj Sridhar, as part of the CTaLE project “Enhancing the research-education nexus” funded by the UCL Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences.

All photos credit of Kirsten Holst Photography


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