This Year’s Reminder That the Lecture is Not Dead

You know you inhabit an odd corner of the social media world when it goes viral over a New York Times column entitled “Lecture Me. Really.” And yet, I think it says something that a significant number of the academics I know on Facebook and follow on Twitter resonated so strongly with this argument from historian Molly Worthen:

Molly Worthen
Molly Worthen – University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

I’ve written plenty about the value of the lecture, so let me just sum up some of Worthen’s points — several of which should be familiar to my readers, and a couple of which are important additions.

First, “Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is.”

It’s frustrating that Worthen still needs to make clear that “A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article.” Or as I put it in an earlier post, the lecture is not an “information-delivery device”; it is fundamentally an act of performance. “It tells truth,” I wrote, “not like a geometric proof does, or a scholarly monograph does, but like a Shakespearean monologue or a Chopin piano recital does — inviting a response from the audience that goes deeper than cognition.”

This is hard work. (As always, I suspect that people aren’t opposed to the lecture itself, only to bad lecturing.) Worthen prepares detailed notes and rehearses them, then paces, gesticulates, and interjects questions throughout the lecture itself. “When the hour is done,” she reports, “I’m hot and sweaty.” And the effort is not just physical and mental: “Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor.” (A good lecturer, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco told her, “conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about.”)

Second, complaints about the lecture coupled with enthusiasm for supposedly more “student-centered” learning are nothing new.

It takes a historian to counter the air of inevitability that surrounds so much written against the lecture by would-be educational reformers. As Worthen points out, “humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time.” Just in the 19th century, educators as dissimilar as John Henry Newman and Charles Eliot fretted about lectures producing passive learners. “But, in the humanities at least,” replies Worthen, “a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.”

This emphasis on “attention” leads to the most important insight from Worthen’s piece.

“Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” While technological and other factors make this work all the harder

Hogarth, Scholars at a Lecture
William Hogarth, “Scholars at a Lecture” (1736) – Wikimedia

if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice….

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.

In the process, the lecture “prepares students to succeed in the class format that so many educators, parents and students fetishize: the small seminar discussion.” Lecturing teaches students the importance of note-taking, not as “verbatim transcription” but as a combination of listening, synthesis, analysis, and even argumentation: “A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.”

(This points to my overriding problem with the vogue for a “flipped classroom.” It’s pointless to expect students to have done the preparatory work outside of class — whether they’re engaging with a recorded lecture, narrated PowerPoint, YouTube clip, or textbook reading — if they haven’t been trained in how to pay attention, absorb an argument, and actively engage with new ideas.)

Read the full piece — which also touches on the place of technology in the classroom — here.

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