Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tenured Blues or ... Lecturing

Over a series of blogs, I've tried to ask a series of questions for which there are not ready answers. In this blog I want to begin to address lecturing ... one of the concerns that people seem to have with faculty is their supposed reliance on lecturing which is viewed as an outdated, low energy, boring way of teaching. I'll do that but in order to keep this blog reasonable in length, I'll cut off and write a part II another day. I'd like to begin, however, before I get to lecturing, by recapping what this series of blogs is about.

It is about questions I have relating to what we might think of as some individuals' perceptions of what I do in my job. My questions are inspired by critiques of the professoriate that have been circulating in the popular press, largely in editorials. There critiques are not large in number and some of them can be dismissed out of hand and simply ill-informed and hence inaccurate. That is what I have done in the past. Why bother to write about -- or argue or discuss with -- someone who represents a tiny informed minority view? I elected to write a response to comments made by Richard Gwyn, a man I met years ago and for whom I have a lot of respect in large measure because I have a lot of respect for him.  In an op ed he wrote (linked in an earlier blog), Gwyn offered a series of harsh critiques of the work of professors. These don't amount to a logically coherent or consistent argument, unfortunately, but rather seemed more to recycle complaints that float about from time to time. In short order, some of his criticism included:

  • Professors don't engage public issues
  • Professors spend too much time researching and devote no time to their teaching 
  • Student costs are too high and students have too much debt
  • Lectures are a bad way of teaching and students get more out of videos

What I tried to show in my previous posts were that professors were, in fact, pretty ordinary people doing an ordinary job that took most of their work week. In other words, rather than shirking responsibilities to students, most of the faculty I know spend the majority of their time on educational matters (preparing for class, evaluating student work, meeting with students to offer supervision). It is not high profile work, but is is necessary. Papers don't mark themselves. I also tried to show that professors are not shrinking violets. A great number do engage public issues (weather with regard to literacy issues, immigrant settlement, tax matters, public history, environmental policy, etc.). Exactly how Gwyn missed all this engagement is a bit confusing to me and does not, in fact, bode well for his research, but ... the fact is that faculty are all over the place doing all kinds of things. Again, many of them might not be limelight things ... but so what? Moreover, engaging the public sphere takes time. The very research that Gwyn condemns, in fact, is precisely what makes for effective public engagement. I don't know about your or about Gwyn but I when I listen to someone ... I prefer to listen to an informed view; not an off the top or even passably "I watched the news last night" view. Informed views based on solid research don't necessarily make for good TV, but they also are what public policy needs. 

The other thing I intimated that we need to recognize is that faculty respect democratic processes. They are not looking to set themselves up as the font of all wisdom. They prefer to provide options and let the democratic processes of the country work. This amounts to a form of engagement that is based around providing information. My colleagues do it all the time. The fact that Gwyn or other commentators don't bother to read their views, however, does not mean that they are not doing it. 

I also suggested that the debt issue was a red herring. Most faculty think that student debt is too high.  In other words, they agree with Gwyn so exactly why he should fault them for agreeing with him ... is another matter that I find a bit  confusing. 

But, let's address another point: videos are more useful then lectures. I don't want to go overboard on this. Lectures are one method and one method only of teaching. Some faculty are quite good at it -- a colleague of mine who  teaches here in the Classics Department draws "rave reviews" and students contend that his lectures really are wonderfully educational. But, this does not mean that videos are not important to education; or that education is an either/or type of thing. I personally ask my students to watch videos (usually feature films but occasionally short documentaries). My students use them in presentations. But, no one that I know sees the options as watch a video or attend a class. And, this is my key point: the problem with Gwyn's argument on this point is that he has set up a false opposition. No one that I know of sees lectures as some sort of ordinary, boring, guy stands in front of the room and talks in monotone all year and students parrot back what they heard-type of thing. 

Let me lay my cards on the table and tell you what I tell the students in my intro class each year: lectures are useful but they are not the end of education. An effective approach to education combines a variety of instructional techniques that is aimed to move students above and beyond simply being passive recipients of messages that come from a central location (be it a lecture of a video). In my academic unit, we work together to design a range of assignment, to make use of a range of media, to organize discussion exercises, and find ways to have students contributing to their own and their colleagues education. We lecture. But, we don't stop there and to suggest --or, rather imply -- that we do is only to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of what actually goes on in the classroom. In my intro class -- where there is a bit of lecturing -- we devote about 50% (give or take depending on the year) of our time to student-led discussion. I'm not looking for a prize ... virtually all of my colleagues do the same thing. Some can't get to the 50% mark to which we in Canadian Studies are close but that is not because they *prefer* to lecture. It is a question of resources and time. Virtually everyone I know who is lecturing extensively would prefer a different combination of educational approaches, but need to work within the available resources. 

The first key point I want to make them with regard to lecturing is that the image of the professor as lecturer and that is it is out-dated. It is a sign of someone who actually has had little experience with post-secondary education today and has not bothered to ask either students or faculty about what actually goes on in the classroom. 

The second key point I want to make is that lectures are time consuming to create. They are not -- or, should not be -- a person standing at the front of the room using worn notes from a decade ago to repeat the same thing that they said last year and the year before and the year before. That does happen. Most of the people I know who lectured that way (particularly in History and Political Science, the disciplines that Gwyn, ironically, likes) retired some time ago. That was one of the ways I was taught when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s. I found it boring. I think the guy at the front of the room lecturing found it boring. It was what happened them. It is not -- by and large -- any more. 

Again, I can use myself as an example but any of my colleagues will support what I am saying. Lectures are some of the craft. They often involve multi-media (I use maps, stats, cartoons and artwork as well as occasional video clips).  They don't just begin, but rather begin with objectives: "here is what we are going to talk about." They include periodic breaks for brainstorming or discussion (I do try to limit this to one time per lecture because I don't want it to get old). They might also include key words or concepts, alternative perspectives on issues under discussion (so that students don't have to copy what I am saying), extra readings so that students can follow up issues in which they are interested, and conclusions that hit the highlights and key points for students so they can review notes to know if they have "got it." 

A good lecture can take a long time to put together.  My intro lectures take a few hours because they are subjects about which I have been teaching for a long time and because I know my subject. The time is usually taken up review my notes, thinking through communicative problems I might have had last year, and looking for current examples from the news with which students might be familiar (for instance, if I am talking about environmental policy, I might talk about ... say, the tar sands where I used to use the cod crisis).  You can, however, do the math. Imagine that I need to give, say three lectures per week during the school year. I have now already used up nine hours time just getting these three lectures (on subjects I know well) and I have not even gone in the classroom. 

Occasionally, however, a lecture can take a very long time to put together. Every once in a while -- usually once or twice a semester -- one needs to teach a subject with which one is less than familiar. How could this happen? Well ... that is a good question. I teach at Mount Allison University and the truth of the matter (as I noted above) is that there is only so much money that can be put into education. I don't make the decisions about staffing. They are made by someone else who is at a higher pay grade than me and I live with me. What this means is that those of us who run academic units don't always have the instructors we would like to have -- the expert who would be Grade A in the class on that particular subject. There is nothing horrible about this. It happens (sometimes people are on sabbatical, for instance or ill.) And, the general subject might be one with which I (or, some other faculty member) am familiar. The problem is the details. And, there are other obligations. Sometime a course needs to be taught because it is important to what students are learning in their major. A couple of years ago, I had to teach a course that I had never taught before: Regionalism. Clearly an important course in Canadian Studies. It needed to be taught; there was no one else to teach it ... I taught it. 

The result was that the lecture took longer to put together than they do for, say, my intro course. That is fair enough, too. Instead of three hours, I might have been spending six, checking facts, looking over scholarship that I had read but not thought of in terms of a course, reading over census data, or looking up information on regional cultural traditions that I knew existed but now needed to be able to explain to others. One lecture, however, was, for me, a real show-stopped. It was on a subject that was important to regionalism and involved some scholarship I'd read in passing over the years but my reading was enough to know that it was important and I needed to teach it so that the course addressed an important subject. It took my 19 hours to put that lecture together. And, to be honest, I was quite proud of it. You can, I am sure, see my point. Even if one is lecturing ... lectures are not just standing up and talking off the top of your head. They are serious modes of educational engagement that use diverse media and, when taken seriously, are remarkably time consuming. The students who go this lecture got a 1.5 hour lecture; disguised in that were the 19 hours that I had put in to get ready for it.

Why tell this story ... in part so that people know what a lecture is all about. If the lectures you have received seem more like the old-fashioned ones I got in the 1980s ... I am sorry about that. In my classes and among my colleagues, however, I can assure you that we work to set a high bar. We  strive to be accurate and current (both in terms of information and scholarship) to provide data to students, and to raise important issues even if we need to devote considerable time to them. Lecturing, in other words, is about much more than what happens in front of the classroom for an hour or an hour and a half. 
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