Old wine in new bottles.

7 03 2012

It’s hard for me to write about lecturing because I still think I have a lot to learn. Perhaps because of my TA experience, I’ve always been much more comfortable talking with people than talking at them. Nevertheless, I’m a historian. That means my job is to convey a lot of historical information to students. Over time, as I’ve come to realize that a lot of students need help in the basic skills necessary to do anything useful with the historical information that I’m supposedly conveying to them, I’ve substituted work on skills for additional facts. However, there are some compromises that I am unwilling to make.

Even if I cut back on the number of historical facts I cover due to discussion, tech or whatever, I’m going to have to lecture at some point. After all, you can’t count on everyone to do the reading (let alone understand it). And as I wrote the last time Kate requested a post about lecturing: What are you going to replace it with? You can’t poll students on this question because most of them will recommend showing movies all semester, or perhaps just giving them an “A” now and letting them sleep in until graduation.

The key then is to make sure that you lecture well. I got this from the comments of the Chronicle piece that started this whole discussion:

But what’s silly is to say that “lecture” is flawed, or “Powerpoint” is flawed. It’s equally problematic to say that “social media” is the answer, or experiential forms of learning, etc. etc….Those, again, are tools, mediums. One could imagine ways in which they are used very well. One could imagine ways in which they were used very badly and contributed nothing to the learning environment.

As an undergrad, I never had a class with fewer than thirty people in it. Therefore, my education consisted of listening to a lot of lectures. Some of them were very good. Some of them weren’t.

How can you tell a good lecture from a bad lecture? I’ll let Plashing Vole begin those festivities:

One of the useful things about a lecture is that you’re eyeball-to-eyeball with your audience. I can tell when people are texting, listening to music, checking Facebook, Tweeting or simply zoned out.

That’s only true if you’re actually looking at your students when you’re talking. Keep your head buried in notes and that won’t work. Read off PowerPoint slides and that certainly won’t work. Sometimes I forget things that I know I should remember, like the other day when I couldn’t come up with the title of Michael Harrington’s most famous book.* I care a lot more about such lapses than my students do.

In general though, I know my own survey class material well enough now that I can simply use the pictures and minimal text on my PowerPoints as prompts to remind me what I want to talk about. Then I talk about it, looking at the class the whole time. While hardly original, I developed this skill after starting to do book talks, because I recognized that a general audience has to be engaged with the material if they’re ever going to buy your book when you’re done. It’s the same way with undergraduates who you (presumably) want to be invested enough in the material in order to pass your class.

Kate has a more cynical take on lectures than I do:

[W]e keep on lecturing because—as a colleague reminded me this week—when we don’t, we’re often assumed by either administrators or students to be reneging on the deal that trades student college costs for academic face-time.

I lecture not out of fear, but out of necessity. I lecture sparingly in upper-level classes because there’s so much else that can be done to promote critical thinking. In survey classes, there is far too much ground to cover so that students have something to think critically about. There is no viable alternative to such methods. That’s why so many of those much-vaunted high tech start-ups are just taping other people’s lectures and delivering them over the Internet.

Old wine in new bottles. Not all of it has spoiled.

* The Other America. I got it about five minutes after I couldn’t come up with the name the first time I mentioned him. Memory is funny that way.



One response

7 03 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I’m not sure I have a cynical take on the practice of lecturing, so much as that I think we need a much more open conversation with administration about why lecturing is rusted in to the way in which university learning is planned, resourced and marketed.

I wrote my post after sitting in on a really inspiring lecture given by a senior colleague to a packed theatre of 300 first year students: funny, smart, well organised, engaging, thoughtful. All boxes ticked. I’d just read the Chronicle piece and found myself thinking: OK, so what exactly is wrong with this experience?

I’ve also had the privilege of watching many colleagues lecture in my role as a peer reviewer of teaching practice, and again I’ve noticed that most are really good. Students (who are generally not aware that I’m there) seem to be genuinely engaged — although sometimes in similar multitasking ways that I observe in meetings. That is, there’s a bit of Facebook going on, just as there’s quite a bit of email checking in professional meetings. But distraction/boredom isn’t the overwhelming impression that I get, sitting up the back.

But the other prompt was a strategic planning discussion in which colleagues were advocating “transforming the way we teach”, a phrase which is an almost hypno-suggestive trigger to start me checking my email under the table, because we have heard this too many times without any practical acknowledgement of the structural reasons why this reform is hard to achieve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: