Teaching by Lecturing

Bruce Charlton has a recent blog post about his piece in The Guardian in support of the academic lecture. He says,

 But when lectures are taken seriously, and conducted in the proper way, they are the best pragmatic way of teaching knowledge to people who want to know.  … when it ‘works’, a good lecture is an experience that may be remembered forever.

I agree. The best way to learn is to discuss the topic with a human teacher who is knowledgeable, articulate, and charismatic. There’s no substitute for having a personal relationship with a teacher.

I just want to add one point. There are many reasons why today’s educational authorities want to denigrate lecturing. But one big reason for contemporary antipathy to the lecture is that it’s a narrative. A person tells a true and compelling story and the listener can’t help but be drawn into it. And the narrative gives order to reality. It transforms a bunch of apparently unrelated facts and skills into a satisfyingly-ordered whole.

And that’s countercultural. It’s counterrevolutionary. The prevailing ethos, in education and elsewhere, is that the individual creates his own meaning. Or, to be honest, he may fail to create meaning, and that’s OK too, to today’s authorities. All that matters is engaging in a process (in this case, a process of “learning”) that is as unconstrained as possible. Metanarratives are oppressive.

It’s true that education retains a certain goal-seeking and reality-based orientation. Developing skills still counts for something, especially in the hard sciences and technology. Furthermore, the faculty, on their own, tend to develop teaching skills and philosophies that retain a lot of reality and common sense. It comes with the territory of taking your teaching job seriously.

But although the Lords of Education still want good “outcomes,” they don’t like the traditional processes. What they really want is for educated people to emerge, spontaneously, from “student-centered” activities. So they naturally look with suspicion on lecturing.

As Orthosphereans know, an orientation toward the true, the good, and the beautiful is inherently counterrevolutionary these days. And a good lecture is just that.

20 thoughts on “Teaching by Lecturing

  1. Modern higher education finds certain kinds of lectures unobjectionable, especially those that articulate the “marginalization” or “oppression” of the speaker. Indeed, modern higher education has an insatiable appetite for such lectures — hence the endless rotation of them, every single one exactly like all the others.

    • Quite true. Bad lectures that either teach leftist moralism or pander to popular vices or prejudices are always popular. But apparently there is an anti-lecture movement in the UK.

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  3. There’s an anti-lecture drive in American academia too (at least in the physical sciences), with lectures being negatively compared to “active learning” (students doing various kinds of exercises and group activities interspersed with the lecture). The uniform advice I’ve gotten from astronomy education books is that pure lecturing is a waste of time–students don’t get anything out of it (from comparing scores on tests coming into the class vs. going out of it). Of course, this is presuming the hundred student lecture format that Bruce himself calls “indefensible”–except there is a defense: What else can we do with existing resources? However, the literature also shows that not just any “interactivity” will improve outcomes. (I had suspected that it would, just because the teachers who jump onto these bandwagons tend to be the more enthusiastic ones who one might think would do a better job no matter what gimmicks they do or don’t use, but no. There’s no evidence that the quality of the teacher makes a big effect.) Even the ones that do still have unimpressive outcomes absolutely speaking. How to teach introductory astronomy so that more than a few students actually learn something remains an unsolved problem.

    • “The uniform advice I’ve gotten from astronomy education books is that pure lecturing is a waste of time–students don’t get anything out of it…”

      I think it depends. A “lecture” could have an audience anywhere from 15 to 1000, and the logistics has a lot to do with the impact on the student. It also depends on the level of the class. As long as they actually pay attention, most students will learn at least something from a pre-algebra lecture, but in an upper-division or graduate real analysis lecture, those not passing a fairly high threshold of background knowledge and skill will get precisely el zippo from the lecture.

      I don’t care what the professional educators say: Lecturing, rightly done, connects minds and is therefore the best way to teach.

      (That’s not to say that other modes of instruction don’t have legitimate ancillary roles to play.)

      • Another big problem is motivation. Most students in introductory classes will not study, and they resent being asked to think. (Tom’s teaching evaluation quotes didn’t surprise me. I often have students ask me for more memorization questions on test, although it usually turns out that they haven’t remembered the basic facts either.) In a sensibly orginized society, they would not be in college wasting their time and money. One reason I, and even other instructors more conversant with the science education literature, don’t go fully for the “active learning” paradigm (we intersperse group exercises with lecture, which I do find to be useful), is that it expects students to do a bunch of reading before class (to make up for all the presenting you’re no longer doing), and there’s no way they’d do that.

      • I presume you’ve heard of the latest gimmick: “flipping the classroom,” in which the students study the subject at home and then do the “homework” in the classroom, under the supervision of the instructor. That just might work for skill-intensive courses such as pre-calculus mathematics, but for other classes it’s just asking for trouble. Students who don’t already know how to study and who lack an inner fire for learning need to have their learning guided by a lecture.

        Many students hate being asked to think because the don’t know how. At least when I teach basic math I can place an emphasis on thinking about the subject by doing the calculations, but that approach doesn’t work for more advanced subjects.

        Slightly off subject, but I’m convinced that the main reason for plagiarism is not dishonesty. It’s incompetence. Those who cannot think clearly cannot write, so they resort to plagiarism to cover their basic incompetence in writing.

  4. When I was an undergraduate the first time at UCLA in the early 1970s, there were many fine lecturers in the humanities. I might single out Steven Lattimore’s lectures on Classical Greek art and civilization and George Abel’s lectures on “General Astronomy.” My main teacher in graduate school, Eric Gans, was and remains a fine improvisatory speaker as well as an excellent deliverer of scripted talks.

    Part of the problem is that listening to a lecture is something that people must learn how to do. As lecturing dwindles in favor of informal discussion and group activity, fewer and fewer people learn how to listen to a lecture and classrooms small or large fill up with people who have no notion how to pay attention and follow an exposition. The convention of how to listen swiftly dies out.

    I propose the concept of “epistemological ecology” to describe this effect. When ideological anti-hierarchy abolished the lecture, mainly because it could, it removed a critical element in the structure of higher education which was connected powerfully to all the other elements. The slow-motion fall of the Jenga tower, which then commenced, had other causes, too, but the expulsion of the lecture was an extremely important one.

    Bonald: A glaring problem that no one is supposed to notice is that open admissions or virtual open admissions has filled colleges and universities with large numbers of students who have no real interest in higher education. They are and will remain unteachable.

    There is, by the way, an excellent essay by Plutarch, usually translated as “How to Listen” or “How to Pay Attention.” In my early teaching, when I was relegated to lower-division courses, I used to put that essay on the syllabus all the time.

    • “Epistemological ecology.” That says it. I’ve been referring to the “atmosphere of ideas,” but you’ve got the neologistic right stuff.

      In the lecture, the order and tradition of a discipline is preserved and handed on to the next generation. By trying to abolish the lecture, they’re trying to abolish our brotherhood of letters.

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    • Bruce: I read your “mini-book” and took real edification from it. The living, breathing lecturer is inimical to the totalitarian mentality because the former is spontaneous and the latter is a death-loving control-freak. The script may be censured or censored in advance, but the speaker is difficult to police. The “Thoth, Thamus, and Writing” parable in Plato’s Phaedrus seems to be about just this although you would hardly know that based on the cumulus of obfuscating commentary since Derrida.

  6. What is the comparison category to lecturing? At first, I was thinking that the comparison category is the Socratic Method. In this case, it seems to me that that SM is superior as long as 1) the instructor is willing to put in the significant effort to do it correctly and 2) the students are willing to read the relevant material beforehand. So, this only works (in my experience) for second-year graduate classes.

    But now I don’t know. Bonald and Tom seems to be talking about, what, lab work? Or is it something obviously useless like breaking the students up into groups and telling them to chat amongst themselves? In-class group projects? Putting the desks in a big circle and letting the blabbiest students tell us about their latest adventures in Vail? Watching Carl Sagan on TV?

    So, SM is a kind of lecturing then? I’m confused. Or maybe sheltered.

    • I would say that the opposite of lecturing is students teaching themselves, under the general supervision and occasional intervention of the instructor. The Socratic method is too directed to be opposed to lecturing, and a good lecture is sometimes a sort of mass-Socratic event, in which a skilled leader draws students in to knowledge by way of skillful dialog.

      • I learned a great deal in my late teens and early twenties, and beyond, simply by being an inveterate reader with a wide range of interests, which the large majority of my students are not, even the best ones. But supposing, out of interest, that Tom reads Jung’s book on the synchronicity principle — how different is that from attending a lecture, at which Jung speaks on the synchronicity principle? Reading an essay or a book-length prose exposition is tantamount to reading someone’s lecture. Indeed, Stravinsky’s Harvard Lectures are the scripts of his Harvard Lectures!

      • This brings up what might be called the axiological function of lecturing: Most people don’t care much about the types of truth we’re talking about until they seem them coming from another human being with whom they have a relationship. This is part of what people mean when they say that “he made the subject come alive.” In some happy cases, the love of learning is thereby kindled. Yet another reason why we need the lecture.

      • OK. Students teaching themselves. Also picking up on Tom’s point, is the key distinction that lecturing pre-supposes that the instructor/author has something, knowledge, to transfer to the students while not-lecturing pre-supposes that knowledge is kinda floating around in the aether for anybody to grab and maybe the instructor is only supposed to communicate that grabbing is expected?

      • Something like that. There is an educational theory (or perhaps a family of related theories) called “constructivism,” according to which students educate themselves, with occasional help from instructors. There is some truth to it, because the student must ultimately grasp the subject for himself. But it leads to downplaying the importance of the teacher.

    • Socrates often lectures in the ordinary sense of the word. In the Symposium, he lectures by rehearsing Diotima’s lecture to him concerning the Absolute Beauty; in the Phaedrus, he lectures directly on the nature of the soul, its pre-existence, and the Forms. So the Socratic Method includes lecturing. The Timaeus is largely a lecture, not by Socrates, but by its namesake, the cosmologist.

      Plato is less like a lecturer than he is like a novelist. The closest thing that he wrote to what we would call lectures are his letters. A Platonic dialogue is meant to be read, possibly out loud and in a group, but just as possibly in solitude and silence. The existence of a tradition of commentaries on the dialogues suggests that those texts were themselves objects of lectures, designed to help readers understand them.

  7. It’s easy to get onboard the anti-lecture bandwagon whenever you yourself don’t possess enough information to put together a good lecture, and/or, you don’t know how to deliver one. I assume that’s a big part of what is driving the stupidity teaching that lectures are valueless or unimportant.

    You university-level instructors (and your students) are the victims of the failure of so called “universal education,” otherwise known as the public education system. Your students don’t know how to listen to a lecture because they weren’t taught to during their more formative years; and they weren’t taught to because, well, see the first paragraph above. Parents (particularly fathers) are also at fault here; their primary role is to be teacher of their children, but far too few of them understand and accept that responsibility.

    As one of our Geography textbooks puts it in the preface, “The teacher should teach, as well as to hear, recitations.” It also points out that the individual teacher must himself furnish his own mind with information enough to teach – which is to say, *lecture* – the subject of Geography. Duh.

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