The Lecture Lives. I Would Know — I’m a Professor.

Okay, let’s try this again: the college lecture is neither obsolete nor fool-proof. Like anything, it can be done badly, but rightly understood, it’s still a highly important mode of teaching.

Two reasons I’m thinking about a topic I’ve addressed several times before:

First, Wired just offered another of its biennial critiques of the lecture. Entitled “The Traditional Lecture Is Dead. I Would Know — I’m a Professor,” this one comes from a physics professor named Rhett Allain. For the most part, it’s a helpful survey of new ways of approaching science education. But unfortunately, it includes these two misbegotten paragraphs:

What is the traditional lecture? It is a model of learning in which a teacher possesses the knowledge on a given topic and disseminates it to students. This model dates to the beginning of education, when it was the only way of sharing information. In fact, you occasionally still see the person presenting the lecture called a reader, because way back before the internet and even the printing press, a teacher would literally read from a book so students could copy it all down.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The traditional lecture model worked wonderfully for eons. But it is an outdated idea, something that becomes obvious if you watch even a single episode of The Mechanical Universe. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a college physics course with a professor giving a traditional lecture. Now open your eyes. (I’m speaking metaphorically; obviously, if you closed your eyes, how could you know that I just said to open them? Busted.) Did you envision The Best Physics Lecture EVAR? I doubt it. You probably pictured someone droning on and on in front of a chalkboard or PowerPoint presentation. No way that is more engaging or interesting than an episode of The Mechanical Universe, and if you’re a teacher who uses traditional lectures, just stop and play the show instead. Everyone will be better off.

If this actually were “the traditional lecture,” then I’d never want to give or listen to one. I’d instead join him in recommending that we just watch a show like this.

If Allain were actually defining “the traditional lecture,” then there’s not the slightest chance that such teaching “worked wonderfully for eons.” But the chief purpose of lecture is not for a teacher who “possesses the knowledge on a given topic” to “[disseminate] it to students.” You’d only think that if you believed that education is primarily about information, rather than transformation.

Granted: at first glance, it does appear that knowledge dissemination is what’s happening in a lecture. But anyone who truly knows how to teach in that way knows that at least three more important, more far-reaching effects are possible.

I should know — I’m a professor who just gave a traditional lecture yesterday that

  1. came after the last quiz or exam in the course (so there was little reason for students or teacher to approach it as a time for “sharing information” that might soon be assessed),
  2. was on a topic that is not one of my fields of expertise, and yet
  3. was probably one of the most important class sessions I had all semester.

It came in the last week of Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class, a multi-disciplinary, first-year general education course that incorporates church history, theology, philosophy, and political science into a one-semester sprint through Western history. Our curriculum only requires that we go up through the Enlightenment, but we’re also supposed to help students connect past and present and learn to write effectively and concisely about complex ideas. So after we give our third and final unit exam, we typically take a week to set up a 1000-word final essay that prompts students to reflect on an issue of contemporary relevance in light of their historical studies.

Emerson and Smith, Divided by FaithThis year we decided to focus our attention on racism. To set up the assignment, I gave a lecture yesterday that started with some examples of racialization in 21st century American society (mostly example of real estate sales and wealth accumulation helpfully provided by sociologist Michael Emerson, author of Divided by Faith and now the provost of North Park University), then dove back into our semester’s narrative to explore how white supremacy emerged from European conquest of the Western hemisphere, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Enlightenment attempts to categorize people-groups (e.g., this and this). Tomorrow I’ll follow up with a shorter survey of Christian responses to the slave trade (both pro and con), with students then putting texts from Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, or Sojourner Truth into conversation with works they encountered earlier in the semester as they write their essays for next Monday.

Yesterday’s lecture does help set up that writing assignment, but in no way was I primarily disseminating information. (Nor would anyone who listened think that I was an expert on the subject.) Instead, I’d suggest that three other things were happening:

We were asking questions together.

Yes, at one point in history the lecture did consist of a learned scholar reading a text for students to copy, with commentary offered along the way. And if Allain’s definition were accurate, then the lecture would have been disrupted centuries ago by the printing press. Why pay to listen to an expensive intellectual artisan when you could acquire the information more cheaply and conveniently by simply purchasing a mass-produced book? (By the same logic, let’s simply let students Google or Lynda their way to knowledge and strip universities of all but their credentialing functions.)

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

Reading printed materials happens before and after lecture in CWC (which also has professors meet weekly with much smaller discussion sections), but the notion of lecture-as-reading hasn’t disappeared entirely. In a sense, what I’m doing as a historian when I lecture is to help students to read the past: to give enough context that they can ask questions of that text.

In the broadest sense, we’re asking questions like those Michael has identified as being central to the mission of Christian higher education: “What does it mean, life together? What is life for? Why do we exist?” And how do we calibrate the “moral compass” that is essential to such living?

In yesterday’s case, those larger questions turned into narrower, no less important historical inquiry: When, how, and why race did became a category in Western thought? How was it used to justify injustice and oppression in the early modern era? And how has it since been woven so tightly into the tapestry of American history?

Those would be good questions to ask if all they did was help us understand the past as a foreign country, but they take on special salience because they remain questions that we should ask here in 2017. And given the racial make-up of our student body, they’re questions that few of our students would ask if left to their own devices.

Students were learning to concentrate.

So here’s another way to think about what happens in a “traditional lecture” (at least as historians do it): it can help students learn to concentrate their attention.

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

As Molly Worthen has argued in a much-debated op-ed piece, lectures can thereby serve “as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media…. 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.” In CWC we even go the extra mile to shock and appall Wired readers and require students to take notes by hand, banning laptops, tablets, and smartphones unless such a device is required for a disability accommodation.

But it goes deeper than that. Done well, the historical lecture can cause people as self-centered and distractable as 21st century American teenagers to forget the incidentals that preoccupy their short attention spans and focus on the lives of others made in God’s image and the enduring questions that those experiences raise.

In that sense, the lecture both causes students to forget the present (temporarily) and then engage it more thoughtfully (moving forward). Even if students lost 95% of whatever limited information I conveyed as soon as they left the classroom, I can guarantee that at least one awkward, uncomfortable question I raised will bubble up later in their minds. They might well disagree with me (I hope so!), but they will have had their attention focused on a problem that — if they’re from the majority culture — they could easily choose to ignore.

I was being vulnerable.

Now, while they were in the lecture, they had little choice but to listen to me. (Well, one student chose to walk out and a couple more took a late morning nap.) I did have a degree of authority over them. Partly that’s the result of us inhabiting a fairly deferential culture (a Christian college in the Midwest whose students are mostly women from religious backgrounds that assume men in teaching and preaching roles). And it also derived in part from the gap in knowledge between us. Though in this case my knowledge resulted less from years of acquired expertise than long hours of preparation: as with most lectures in CWC, I’ve simply had a head start on the students in asking and answering the questions.

But if the lecture actually worked as intended, it wasn’t because I was powerful. It was because I was vulnerable.

A few weeks ago, I received an unsolicited email from a student in this same class. The student isn’t in my smaller discussion group; they only know me as someone who gets up every couple of weeks to give a lecture, and I didn’t know them as anything more than one of the hundred faces I scan through while speaking. What the student wrote was a wonderful affirmation of all that I’ve discussed to this point, but I especially appreciated the closing lines:

Another strength I see in your teaching is your vulnerability through your words and actions. The world always places the word “vulnerability” as a weakness, but I see it as a strong characteristic that is vital in order to dig deeper in faith and to be more intentional, relatable, honest, respectful, and selfless with other people.

It’s something I noted in one of my previous apologies for the lecture, in which I tried to argue that the lecture has potential to transform because it starts with someone performing:

…far from feeling powerful, I never feel more vulnerable than when I’m lecturing — stripped of the privacy and solitude my introvert’s soul prefers, exposing the extensive limitations of my knowledge and abilities (wondering if it wouldn’t be safer to facilitate discussion, and redirect attention away from my own uncertainties: “What do you think?”), and (if I’m doing it right) putting some of my deepest loves and joys (and sorrows) on full display for an audience that seems as likely to respond with laughter, derision, or apathy as with enthusiasm.

But that risk is worth it if some uncertain number of students find something winsome about the sight of a grown man showing boyish enthusiasm for the study of the past. If something is sparked in their soul and a love is kindled.

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