March 15, 2005

Ecoutez et Repetez Beep

If anyone asks me if I can speak French, I tell them I can still do dialogues from my high school ALM textbook, the ones where we used to listen to the dialogues on a tape loop and repeat them at the sound of the tone. My rather dotty high school French teacher would generally react roughly the same whether we collectively mumbled or precisely reproduced the French on the tape, unless you were dumb enough to say “Pair-ehs” instead of “Paree”.

“Michel, Anne, vous travaillez? Euh, non, nous regardons la television. Pourquoi?”

“Il est laid, ce bebe! Eh, doucement, c’est moi!”

Very useful stuff, that.

Scott McLemee writes about recent claims that the lecture is vanishing from the armamentarium of academics, and I can’t help but think in part that the essay by Stanley Solomon that McLemee is reacting to assumes that what people in education departments say about pedagogy is in fact what is actually happening pedagogically in university classrooms. This seems a bad assumption to me: I sometimes feel that the scholarship written by specialists in education on pedagogy exists in a separate, parallel dimension, as if it were about a university in a Borges story. The assumptions of such scholarship, and its prevailing statements about what is or is not a best practice, at least have an oblique relationship to everyday teaching practice in most departments and by most professors.

In practical terms, I suspect almost every academic lectures, even at the smallest liberal arts college where discussions are considered the pedagogical norm. I prefer discussion formats but there are plenty of times where I lecture, and even classes that I design substantially around lectures.

If lecturing has gotten a bad name, it’s because there are some consistent flaws in the way that some professors do it. First, and obviously, some professors are just hopelessly boring in their lectures, whether or not the content of the lecture is well-constructed. This is not a personal judgment: I think almost anyone can learn not to be horribly boring. Faculty are boring when they stick too tightly to a pre-written text: you can’t be interesting if you’re just reading something aloud, and in any event, I think reading a pre-written lecture sometimes suggests that you don’t really have a confident command of the material. Faculty are boring when they ramble disjointedly about nothing in particular: that’s the opposite problem from just reading a fully written lecture. Faculty are boring when they don’t communicate or connect with their audience, when the lecture is not constructed to and for the students in the room, but someone else entirely.

A lecture like that is very much like my old high school French class, and it deserves to be slagged on. Yes, there were and probably still are academics who commit those sins. No, there's no reason to mourn if that kind of lecture, which really serves no use, disappears.

I think an even more common problem is the failure to make a strategic decision about why and how to lecture within the overall plan of a course. Some professors schedule lectures simply to schedule lectures, and then look to fill the preordained calendar with things to say. My rule of thumb is, if there’s a good, compact, and usefully engaging reading that covers background material well, I’m glad to assign it and to use that as my method for delivering that content. In modern African history, I don’t feel for the most part that there is any textbook that serves that purpose in a way that I am comfortable with. So I take on that job myself. It would be a mistake to just get up and just repeat what an assigned reading had said, but that’s what a lot of academics do.

It’s also a mistake not to call upon what you’ve said in lecture later in the course, either to expect to see it used on exams or papers, or to carry it through into discussion. That too is an issue: lectures that just seem to hang out there in isolation, never being put into any kind of practice, an ordeal for their own sake.

Probably you can overcorrect for these problems. There’s a boundary where being engaging starts to slip into a contentless song-and-dance routine, where entertainment erodes education. There’s some usefulness to repeating and emphasizing what was said in the readings. There are topics which you feel obligated to cover in a lecture that are hard, for intrinsic reasons, to connect to the rest of the content.

And yes, some people really are just extraordinarily gifted at lecturing, not to be imitated by the rest of us. One of my colleagues here in Political Science is pretty famous with generations of Swarthmore undergrads for his lecturing skills. I’ve never forgotten some of the material I learned from lectures by Bruce Masters at Wesleyan University, where I was an undergraduate: he just had a way of compressing immense amounts of detail into highly memorable, well-organized, entertaining packages.

I actually suspect that the real problem out there is not that the lecture is disappearing, but that most faculty have no idea how to manage discussions so that they don’t just turn into meandering bull sessions or self-confirming smugness. I think that’s a much harder pedagogical nut to crack than the placement and delivery of lectures.