So Kate wants me to defend lecturing. I guess I will so that I can explain another point that I got out of yesterday’s online teaching panel, but I’m not willing to defend all lecture all the time and I’ll never defend reading anything at your students. [If I don't want you to read your conference papers, why would I want you to read your lectures?]
Lecturing is the best way to convey a lot of information in a limited period of time, just like discussion is the best way to encourage critical thinking from students. A good class will include a mixture of both (and a few other things), the ratio being a function of what stage the course in question appears at in the history curriculum (survey, upper-level, grad, etc.).
My question for anyone who thinks lecturing is by definition evil is this: What are you going to replace it with? If you’re teaching an online course, you can replace lecture with videos of people lecturing (which presumably has no advantage other than convenience and still runs into the labor problem with online education that I mentioned yesterday). Otherwise, the new method of conveying historical information is inevitably going to involve a lot of reading.
History is a literary discipline. I teach texts of all kinds all the time and I can tell you with absolute certainty a lot of today’s students have basic reading comprehension problems with even the simplest ones (assuming you can get them to do the reading at all). Therefore, much to my chagrin, I have to teach reading skills, which I do in all my discussion sections. Once the first text is done, students can then apply those skills to all future texts because reading inevitably gets easier the more they actually read. [Funny how that works, huh? Practice makes perfect.] On the other hand, a general lack of help with reading required readings might explain why the dropout rates for online courses are often so incredibly high.
Unfortunately, with online classes so heavily represented among the offerings of community colleges and for-profit schools, online history courses make students do more of what so many of them don’t do well already. Moreover, the professors who need to be teaching these kinds of skills are even less accessible than they would be than if they were in a face-to-face course with 200 students in it. “I tell them I won’t read every comment,” said one of the presenters yesterday, and then he added just to us “in order to preserve my sanity.” It’s easy to see why. Besides, how are you going to walk them all through the text at once if the class is asynchronous?
This is where the human connection of face-to-face teaching is so important. Learn online and you may never even know what your professor looks like! Take a class from a good lecturer and they’ll entertain you, they’ll react to your reactions and they’ll offer to see you in office hours if you have any additional questions. You can even bring your assigned reading with you when you go.