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03 Sep Posted by in Academics, Faculty | Comments

Like many faculty of a certain age, I was brought up to assume that lecturing would be a key part of my functions as a teacher. Like most grad students back then, I was not really trained much in teaching at all, and what I did involved discussion sections, not lecturing. But I knew that “real” faculty lectured a lot, and indeed one of my first challenges as a new faculty member at Chicago was to do a lecture for 350 students. Scared out of my mind, but not surprised.

Now at this point let me hasten to add, I think I’m largely on the side of the angels on the lecture issue. We should be doing much less lecturing. I don’t do formal lectures at all in my classes, and haven’t for years. I may still talk a bit too much, that’s what Rate My Professor says along with some kind words, and I will watch this in future. But my goal in class is to promote discussion and critical questions, to work through some analytical issues, always hoping that students have done enough work to participate intelligently. And often it works pretty well.

I agree that lecturing can encourage passivity, that some students like it precisely because it involves no work and no preparation. I also note that for a decent reader, one can cover a lot more material by reading in an hour, than by listening. And it may also be that the current generation of students is even more lecture-averse because of a desire for quicker, snazzier presentations.

For all sorts of reasons, lecturing should decline.

But some folks have taken this point to an extreme, urging that lecturing should simply stop, altogether, that all its functions either never existed or have ended. And this is where I really disagree.

So my little footnote on lecturing urges: decline, but not necessarily disappear. Even some of the declensionists admit that lecturing may still help students learn, but lectures should be captured on video (so that students can listen and interrupt and relisten on their own time, which should increase willingness), not inserted into the more participatory regular class sessions.

On a slightly larger stage: what is the possibly continuing role for lectures, whether captured or (possibly in some circumstances) delivered live?

1.   Lectures allow an instructor to package information and analysis in ways appropriate for that particular class and audience, in ways that may not be available through accessible reading materials.

2.   Lectures may help some students who in fact learn better by listening than by reading, though they should never be let entirely off the hook.

These first functions, of course, are entirely compatible with “captured” lectures.

But I would add two more, that argue for circumstances in which lecturing might still be in person once and a while.

3.   Lecturing in person allows presentation of knowledge in a format in which questions can be stimulated and asked directly. Of course captured lectures could allow this through the Internet, but once in a while a real person presence may be conducive.

4.   And above all: lecturing in person may convey a passion for a topic in a way few other modes allow – with all respect for really good writing.

For good, persuasive lecturing has always been an art form, and I’m not sure we should let it go completely. The impact and popularity of the “1st lecture” programs attest to the potential here. Good lecturing can help highlight, synthesize, move and persuade as other forms of conveying knowledge do not.

The suggestions here are: let’s not condemn with too broad a brush. Let’s continue to find ways for really good lectures to be delivered not just through the capture mode, but directly, to an occasional student audience as a change of pace, to lifelong learners who really like a good lecture, possibly in a few other circumstances as well. And finally, let’s maybe admit, cautiously, that once in a while a brief – not whole class – lecture even for regular courses might still be worth an experiment.