Lectures

When I started my blog a little over a year ago, I consciously decided not to write a post about lectures. And then an opinion piece in the New York Times by Molly Worthen, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill came along. Worthen acknowledges that lectures are out of vogue in educational circles and suggests several reasons why:

  • Anti-intellectualism detesting the “sage on the stage” dynamic of lectures
  • A focus on “active learning” that is easier to achieve in science courses than in the humanities courses
  • A rejection of the humanities in favor of STEM fields
  • A “the customer is always right” attitude that has spilled over into education from the business world
  • Catering to short attention spans and multitasking habits of students

Some of these trends are sad, but others are beneficial. Worthen responds to some critiques of the lecture, and offers suggestions for how to solve some of the problems:

  • Lectures are arguments. A good lecturer presents an argument and the evidence for it. A bad lecturer simply delivers facts. The ability to listen to, understand, and evaluate an argument is crucial, and this skill is becoming rarer when students are exposed to fewer and fewer lengthy arguments because they do not read long, connected prose arguments.
  • Lecturers connect the subject material to students’ lives, including through emotional appeals and the lecturer’s enthusiasm. The connection helps make students care about the material.
  • Lectures encourage students to develop longer attention spans. In order to teach students how to concentrate and listen better, you can assign excerpts from The Zen of Listening.
  • Lectures are active learning. Students who take notes with pen and paper are actively absorbing ideas, synthesizing and summarizing information, and paying attention. In order to teach students how to take notes, you can ban laptops from the classroom and ask a student to respond to your lecture at the beginning of the next class by offering a critique of the argument. At least the former technique helps avoid the temptation to take verbatim, unhelpful notes, and taking notes with pen and paper helps students remember material. The latter technique requires note-taking.
  • Lectures respect students’ intelligence by not dumbing the material down for them and by talking about the important ideas that the humanities are supposed to wrestle with.

These suggestions and responses present an ideal for a well-prepared, enthusiastic lecturer. So how do we get there? What are other strategies we should consider?

  • Organize our lectures around a central question and argument.
  • Include a lot of data and evidence to support the argument, not just summaries of scholars’ findings.
  • Prepare your lecture notes in a clear, detailed way so that if you need to reference them, you can easily find the data.
  • How are you most comfortable teaching?  If your teaching persona is the “sage on stage” who engages students intellectually, emotionally, and authentically, then lecture.
  • Consider what your goal for a given topic is. If the students should passively learn information, is a lecture, reading, or a YouTube video to watch at home the best method of delivering this information?  If you want students to actively engage with a text, is a lecture, class discussion, or group work the best environment for them to do so?  How complicated or difficult are the ideas and texts students are engaging with–is it better to walk students through them with a worksheet or a lecture or class discussion?
  • Consider that, on average, adults have about a 10-15 minute attention span. Indeed, at academic conferences where audience members probably have longer than average attention spans, papers are often only 15-20 min. If you are presenting an argument during the class period, is it best to provide background information (through a video, brainstorming, a class discussion, etc.) for 5-10 min., then have students engage with the most relevant primary evidence (through group work, a class discussion, or stations), and then end the class by laying out your argument through a 10-15 min. lecture with additional information? Lectures do not have to be the only activity during a class time, or the only teaching method you use.
  • Lectures are, on some level, unavoidable. You are teaching the class because, presumably, you are more familiar with the subject matter than your students. If students have a question, you cannot always turn it around and ask them. You must answer it, perhaps at length.
  • How are you most comfortable making sure that your students have the skills to take notes and that they actually take them? If students do not take notes, many of Worthen’s ideals for a lecture are not achieved, and the information will pass through our students’ minds as if through a sieve.
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