Last year I had the tremendous pleasure of listening to a magnificent speech by actor/comedian Stephen Fry when he accepted the 2011 lifetime achievement award from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Erudite, personal, moving, it was a dynamic experience, and reminded me again of the pure pleasure of listening to and learning from someone else’s words. It exceeded even some of the other electrifying listening experiences I’ve had, including those by the great poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Mark Strand. In his now-famous speech, Fry said,
“If there is a proud boast that can be made by any educated person, and it’s an awful word, it sounds so elitist, it sounds so smug, so self-satisfied, to describe oneself as ‘educated’. But if there is a proud boast that any of us can utter, as Cambridge graduates in my case, as Harvard graduates or undergraduates in your case, it is ‘I won’t be told. I will not be told. I will be shown, I will be inspired, I will be led. But I won’t be told.’”
It seems that no one wants to be “told,” and that’s why the traditional college lecture format is under fire. This past year, American Radio Works conducted a useful series of discussions as part of their Tomorrow’s College series that focused on the problems some students experience learning from traditional lectures. Reporter Emily Hanford wrote, “research conducted over the past few decades shows it’s impossible for students to take in and process all the information presented during a typical lecture, and yet this is one of the primary ways college students are taught, particularly in introductory courses.” Students complain that they cannot maintain focus during an hour-long lecture, and some faculty (myself included) have frequently noticed that many students have difficulty managing the information coming at them during a lecture. Physics professor Joe Redish argues that professors are essentially lazy in that “lecturing is just the way a lot of professors have always done it…a lot of [them] are not excited about the idea that they might have to move out of their comfort zone” and try new methods.
Sadly, criticisms of the lecture format often focus only on the worst stereotypes of bad lectures, in which bored, passive students are simply “told” information by the professor, who drones on and on without inflection or enthusiasm. But that’s hardly the case in a good lecture, which does more than “tell” information. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker writer Jason B. Jones wrote in his post “What Is a Lecture For, Anyway?” that he came away with a different understanding of the use of the lecture after his experience listening to a lecture by the Hasbro Company:
It now occurs to me that this makes room for a slightly different conversation about lectures in the classroom: Not one about whether they “teach,” or whether they’re great at transferring information, but one about whether a lecture, done well, can elicit ongoing attention and interest from students. That aspect of what Dan Cohen calls academic theater is, I think, underrated-and is something that can probably be improved with practice.
“Eliciting attention” was one of the major goals of the great oratorical endeavors of the 19th century, including the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements of the 19th century. These public lectures were inherently democratic, a way for interested citizens of most economic and education levels to connect with new ideas explained by experts in their fields. A good speaker on these lecture circuits had to be dynamic, passionate, and inspiring– sort of like a good college professor, whose job it is to not only dispense information, but also “elicit ongoing attention and interest from students.” In fact, a good lecture is the earliest form of educational interactivity, in which the buttons that are pushed are not on a computer keyboard, but in the minds of those listening.
Interactivity, though, is not the only way to learn, and it may not always be the best tool to teach students how to deal with different situations. One aspect of the lecture experience that we have neglected to consider in our zeal for technology is the listening part. Listening, no matter how much we might diminish its importance in favor of participation, is a crucial social tool. For example, countless websites extoll the need to develop good listening skills to improve all kinds of relationships. In addition, many career advisors argue that professional success depends upon active listening skills, the art of processing and culling essential information from oral discourse. Today’s students need to learn how to listen just as much as they need to learn how to use technology and interact in groups. In fact, I would argue that learning to listen actively will improve their ability to do both of those things.
That’s one reason I have not abandoned the lecture format. I’m the first to admit when something I’ve done in class doesn’t work for students and modify my teaching methods accordingly. But I’ve seen some tremendous benefits of the lecture for students who have difficulty in their courses, because sometimes students need interaction with a professor who is an expert and can synthesize complex information and answer questions. For example, when I teach the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, I can distill into my lecture the many different, competing, and complex theories that explain the emergence of genocide in what had previously been considered a civilized culture. I cannot and should not expect my undergraduate students to read all of the pioneering work of Raul Hilberg, the magisterial syntheses of Richard Evans, the meticulous argumentation of Christopher Browning, and many others-that’s my job.
While I could certainly record the lecture on YouTtube, my students would not be able to ask me questions during that lecture, and I would not be able to respond to those questions and seize upon what used to be called a “teachable moment.” I would not be able to immediately show connections between the lecture and other subjects we had covered in the class when answering a student question. There is no interactivity in the recorded lecture-but there is in the live lecture. When students see me make connections, they learn that it’s possible for them to do so as well.
Therefore, I’m not happy about this wholesale attack on the lecture format. We have a tendency in education to throw out the baby with the bathwater every time new ideas emerge. This results in a continual see-saw of methodology, with faculty members scrambling after the latest trends to prove that they are conscientious educators. We need to remember that those who criticize the lecture format are, ironically, simply lecturing at us, their fellow educators. Like Stephen Fry, I too will not be “told”-instead, I will respond to each of my classes with the combination of tools at my disposal, including the lecture, this year’s favorite scapegoat for student learning difficulties.