I’ve spent more than a little space on this blog defending lecturing. The irony of that situation is that I don’t do very much of it in the great scheme of things anymore. Since I’m a historian, there are a lot of facts that I feel obliged to cover in my survey classes. Nevertheless, I lecture a lot less than I used to do when I started teaching because I’ve developed other teaching priorities besides pouring facts into students’ open ears over time. With respect to my upper level classes, I hardly ever lecture at all. Most of the sessions in most of the courses I teach are unscripted, reading-inspired classes filled with discussions and a very wide variety of planned exercises.
This helps explain why I’m so fond of Peter Knupfer’s new article in the teaching section of the Journal of American History (subs. only). He offers an entirely different path towards removing the sage from the stage, one that depends upon faculty expertise and lots of access to the professor. Here’s a small taste:
My iteration of the seminar was not about my research, however. Indeed, it was deliberately oriented toward a different object, asking a different question: “whether,” as Gilbert C. Fite has asked, “as teaching scholars we are trying to train professional historians or attempting to increase the general level of historical understanding in our society.” I centered the seminar on two problems: How does history serve the public? and How do historians select and communicate with disparate audiences? The seminar’s work products were keyed to the answers to those questions and took the students into the community. The first question is predicated upon the beliefs that history is useless if it is not shared, that it has a public purpose beyond the interests of a close circle of friends or family, and that it seeks to improve the world at large. That is why the projects in this course were explicitly not family histories or explorations of a student’s particular past.The second question pushed the students to develop their own historical questions and to define their intended audience; this was a learner-centered task that cast the instructor in the role of consultant, not of sage on the stage.
I already run our research seminars at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but unlike Knupfer, I haven’t been making nearly enough use of local resources in those classes. His article offers many suggestions for doing this that are both technologically adept and pedagogically sound.
On the other hand, anybody who know’s the slightest thing about the digital humanities really won’t find anything all that new here. And that’s the really important political point that I want to make about this article. Too many people who attack the “sage on the stage” have no idea what professors actually do all day. In my case, my survey class is only a third of my teaching work. Most of my classes are already a lot closer to Knupfer’s already than to the stereotype that MOOC enthusiasts put forward to advance their agenda.
The great irony here is that most commercial MOOCs want to replace lecture classes with more lecturing. In disciplines that are generally less lecture-centric than history, I suspect there’s a very good chance that a Coursera MOOC will have more lecturing in it than whatever class it happens to replace.
But that, of course, is not the point. The point of MOOCs is to
disrupt destroy higher education for the sake of millionaire tech investors, not to actually teach anybody anything.