Monday, August 11, 2014

Tenure Blues ... The Merits of Lecturing

In my last blog post, I tried to explain that lecturing is the font of much misunderstanding. Sure, some of it is really boring, but the fact that someone is in front of a lecture hall for an hour or an hour and a half does not mean that that is all there is to putting together a lecture. Moreover, I tried to argue that today's lectures are really quite different than the lectures many of us received when we were undergraduates a generation ago. They are complicated educational engagement that take a great deal of time to put together. There is no "teacher's text" book, out of which we crib notes (at least in the humanities and social sciences). My comments were in response to a comment made by Richard Gwyn to the effect that watching a video is more useful than lecturing.

Let us allow that I am right (not a big leap of faith for me but perhaps one you don't want to make so ... bear with me). Let's allow that the point I made in the previous blog are, more or less, accurate:


  • Lectures are conceptualized as one part of an educational process that includes a range of media, discussion, student input, etc.
  • That good lectures are time consuming to put together 
  • That faculty would likely lecture even less if more resources were available to have smaller classes

I don't see these as radical perspectives, but you can check them out for yourself if you doubt me.  This said, these points do not exhaust what should be said about lectures. I have a number of other points to make, which I will try to keep briefer than my previous blogs relating to lecturing. These other points, I hope, go to the heart of any discussion of lecturing. 

1. Is everyone a good lecturer? Clearly, no. Some of my colleagues (as I said in my previous blog) seem superlative. Others are not. Much of that can be chocked up to personality, as opposed to preparation. Some people are just livelier in front of a room than others. Some subjects admit of a more lively presentation than others, as well. This goes, I will take it for granted, for any particular job. I am certain that there are more entertaining lecturers than I. But, that misses the point: should everything we do in the classroom be entertaining? Should the liveliest lecturer be considered the best?  Should we even compare education to watching videos? I watch videos periodically. I like youtube and watch Jon Stewart "best of" clips. Should we compare that ... to education? Would Stewart compare that to education? 

I think one of the problems with talking about the value of lecturing and comparing it to videos (even instructional videos) is that we run the risk of a false comparison. Sometimes, learning things is less than exciting. There, I said it. Some of my less lively lectures to my intro class involve matters that are remarkably important, say constitutionally guaranteed rights. This is tricky legalistic stuff. To understand it as something more than a sound bit ("I support the Charter!") can require care and deliberation. There are lectures that I give on other subject that are, frankly, far more entertaining or even far more user friendly, but this subject deserves a serious treatment in a way that allows student to fully engage the subject. It moves slow and, in my view, rightly so. There issue of whether or not someone is a good lecturer or not might be more complicated. I don't stack up well compared to a video (it can have high production values, a team of researchers, great camera work, interviews -- tracked down by the team of researchers or agreed to by public figures because of potential audience size -- and other "hooks."). But, is that the test of a good lecture? Moreover, as I said in my last blog, the specific lecture in question is, for the faculty member, never the last word on the subject. We design assignments for students to articulate their own views, have follow up or preliminary readings, discussion groups, etc. I am not at all convinced that we should castigate supposedly boring lectures simply because they appear to be boring because education is just not as much fun as comedy. But that is not the test. If it were ... well ... we would turn out post-secondary education systems over to Dane Cook. And, lest my point be lost, the lecture itself is just one part of an engagement with a subject and so comparing my lecture on the Charter to Cook's "atheist sneeze" (if you have not seen it, it is really funny, look it up) is comparing apples and oranges and we are sending the wrong message. Sometimes learning takes time and energy and is less exciting than the things we do for our past times. Does that make it not worthwhile?

2. Why lecture? If there are other options available ... why give lectures? First, because other options are not always available, at least in the form of videos. We would want our post-secondary educational system bound, as it were, to youtube? Videos, to be sure, can be very helpful as part of an overall educational programme. No one is shooting them down or saying "don't use them." But, if one were to just use videos ... would that not make educational a prisoner to what videos existed? What if the video that does exist is out of date? Or, what if is it is wrong? I actually liked the old The Valour and the Horror videos about World War II, but are they all there is about World War II?

I lecture for a number of reasons but one of the reasons that I do lecture is that I can convey information effectively. Among the things that I tell my students is this: you can get the information I obtained to give this lecture; you can read the books I have read. Over the years, I've read ... dozens of books on the Charter and rights, court cases, scholarly articles, public opinion polls, newspaper articles, watched dozens and dozens of interviews ... in addition to the constitution. And my students could replicate this work; there is no doubt about it. But, why should they? If they find the subject important, they can and should research it themselves and, perhaps, write a paper on it. They can and should build up their own expertise and I say this as well. But, for the students who are really being introduced to the subject for what is really the first time ... I can save them a lot of time. I can synthesize all the different sources of information for them, explain the history, draw in comparative perspectives, indicate areas where lawyers or scholars or politicians disagree; flag the key arguments, clear away myths, etc. In other words, my lecture can save them a lot of time. That being the case ... why not make use of it?

What is more, I can use the lecture to set our discussion of the Charter in a broader framework. I can refer back to subject we have already discussed (say, national identity) and forward to subjects we will address (say, diversity issues). In addition to saving the students a bunch of time, I can also contextual information for them and show who it is connected to other aspects of Canada. A lecture, in other words, as one part of a multifaceted educational engagement can be a very effective way to bring students up to speed on important issues relating to their subject matter, while providing background information, facts, and context.

3. A lecture can do something else as well. It can provide students with a model of argumentation that they themselves can use to (a) develop their own ideas or (b) contest the ideas that I am setting before them. In other words, one can use a lecture to show students what a good argument entails. Lectures convey information but, as anyone who has attended a lecture recently knows, they do more than that. They engage important issues and suggest ways of addressing problems. For instance, imagine we were talking about the "democratic deficit." My lecture might provide important information for students -- trajectories of voting, party memberships, key attitudes toward democracy on the part of Canada, the institutional matrix that supposedly realizes democracy in Canada, etc. -- but I will try to include a specific argument in that information. My argument might address this question: why are Canadians opting out of voting? In mobilizing history, polling data, discussions of institutions, etc., I strive to answer that question. Ultimately, I might be wrong but what I am trying to show students is how one puts together a good argument that addressing this issue. In Canadian Studies we, then, take this a step further (not everyone does; it depends on  the discipline). We ask: what can be done. By showing the constituents of a good argument and the moving to another forum (say, class discussion or brainstorming) we can start to apply the same model of good argument to discard weak argument, understand complexity, and -- ideally -- the students will arrive at both a better understanding (something more than, say, youth don't vote) and a potentially better solution.

4. Do students like lectures? The assumption behind Gwyn's comments is that they really don't. But is that the case? I can understand why some people don't like lectures. They are not for everyone. Different people do learn in different ways (some people learn very well independently and like correspondence courses because of that. I don't. It is just a matter of personality and skills). My general sense is that as students go along in their education, they like lectures less and less and rightly so. Having mastered the background information (or, know how to get the background information), they are now looking for ways to articulate their own views (this is why we move from lecture/discussion to seminar courses).

But, not all students dislike lectures. A number of years ago, I raised the idea of video-taking my lectures for a class and then posting the videos on the web (this was one of the academic issues I periodically raise  with classes to get student views). What surprised me was the general rejection of the idea. There were a bunch of reasons students rejected this idea and it still would have been a lecture through a different medium. What surprised me was that students had a lot of good things to say about lectures. Some might have been patting me on the back to win brownie points but I doubt it, and if you knew our students, you would doubt it too. What they liked, they said, was the ability to get information in a concise way and that a video did not "do it" for them the way a live person did. They also said that they liked the ability to stop a lecture by asking a question for clarification or interrupting the lecture before it got going to ask for further information on something I had said in a previous lecture. A live human being and interaction, in other words, were, for them, important components of a lecture.

Each year I lecture to a large intro class. This class has students in it who will major or minor in Canadian Studies but it also has students in it to take electives or distribution credits. When I ask them about lecturing, I get an interesting response. Since this is not their major or minor, they tell me, they are quite content to let me do the work (that is, lecture). They learn from it (or, don't, as they want). But, they tell me, they have more than enough work to do in their other classes and are looking for a way to approach a subject that interests them (which is why they take my course as opposed to someone else's), but in a way that allows them to keep their focus on their major. Lectures, they tell me, do this form them more than, say, a discussion-based format.

This jives with my own experience in discussion-based educational fora. In my intro course, as I've noted, we have both a lecture and a discussion component. As instructors, we are frequently told that students want to articulate their own views. I can understand that. It also important for education and self development. But, what I have also noticed is that not all students want to articulate their own views on all subjects. In other words, when provided with a discussion format, some students opt-in and participate; others opt-out and sit their quietly.

Let me summarize. No one is arguing that lectures are the be-all-and-end-all of education. They are part of a multifaceted approach to learning geared to adults that extends over a number of different courses and over a number of years. Lectures are one part of that process. To argue otherwise is to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of that process. There are good reasons for including lectures in that process. They concisely convey important information, model argumentation for students, and are appreciated -- indeed liked and favoured -- by some students. Education is not a "one size fits all." What is more, to easily reject lectures, or compare them to videos, is to make a false comparison. Sure, a lecture is not as entertaining as a video but is this the message we want to send our students: do it only if it entertains you? 
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