Sunday, December 11, 2011

    If You Must Lecture . . . *

    Image found here

    Lecturers seem to get a bad rap these days. Now that registration for the spring semester has begun, it's not uncommon to hear students discussing the relative merits of taking one professor's course over another. One of the most common questions I hear is "Does she lecture?" If the answer is yes, it's usually followed by a groan, and I can only imagine, the student's decision to register for someone else's class. 

    When I was an undergraduate student myself, I often lamented the fact that so many of my professors required hundreds of students to sit in uncomfortable splintered wooden seats at what seemed like an uncivilized hour at the time, only to watch them read dense information off of their lecture notes. Why not just send out the written lecture itself and allow us to read it, to mark it, and to reread as necessary?

    I've always preferred reading to listening, and it seemed a cruel punishment, this forced activity in furious note-taking while the expert read off of a sheet from the podium up front. In fact, some savvy individual made a business out of this practice by selling lecture notes to students. The fact was that no one student could be expected to get every little bit of information out of the lecture, and so we flocked to the note-sellers and paid our $4.50 for the information we were certain we missed.

    This anti-lecture sentiment isn't limited to students, by the way. One of the first phrases I learned when I started teaching at my current college was "Death by PowerPoint." It is a great phrase, and I'm not above admitting that I suffered many small deaths by PowerPoint when I was a college student, myself.

    Now, it would be easy for me to wholeheartedly agree with these anti-lecture sentiments and to raise a flag calling for the end of the lecture as we know it, save for one niggling fact: despite my own negative experiences with many lecturers, I've been lucky to sit in on some amazing lectures in my time. I've heard lectures that changed my entire perspective on a body of literature in under an hour; transformed my approach to personal finance two hours' time; and once, I was moved to tears by a lecture on a particular piece of literature that, up until that day, I thought I loathed.

    So herein lies the question: What makes the difference between a great lecture, and a tedious one? It can't just be listener interest in the subject, as evidence by my own positive experiences with lectures on subjects in which I had no particular interest. It has to be something else, and it is. I had my own ideas about what makes a great lecture, but I sought out some reassurance from my favorite linguist, David Crystal, and sure enough I found his answer to this question:

    Great lecturers understand that a lecture is more than the oral presentation of a written piece. A great lecture is spontaneous speech that brings an expert together with her audience for a session of shared revelation on a topic. 

    When a lecturer engages her audience in a spontaneous speech about a subject, she has to construct her ideas as she goes along. This element of spontaneity ensures that she will not move too fast for the listener, and she is more likely to repeat key concepts throughout her speech. The lecturer is now thinking along with her audience, and therein lies the key: With spontaneous speech, the lecturer is free to connect emotionally with her audience, to look for recognition and response in their faces, and to keep a pace that her audience can follow.

    This results, of course, in the transfer of ideas from lecturer to listener--a far cry from the mere transcription to which so many undergrads resort when they suffer at the hands of a professor who merely reads from her prepared speech. The written word is so different from the spoken word that it seems silly for anyone to expect students to get anything of value out of a pre-transcribed lecture on a topic. On this subject, David Crystal writes:

    "If someone says, 'I dare not talk. I must write it out.' I am tempted to ask, 
    'Then why lecture? Why not send a written account to your friends 
    and let them read it comfortably at home; instead of dragging them all out 
    to a lecture hall to listen to your reading the very same thing?'" (293)

    I propose we throw out the prepared lecture notes. I propose that we trust ourselves to deliver relevant, meaningful content through spontaneous speech on the subject at hand. I propose we give our students a reason to come to class by engaging in a transfer of ideas from expert to student, the experience of which cannot be replicated through shared notes, pre-prepared speeches, or PowerPoint slides.

    We teach in an age plagued by a constant doubt of the value of higher education. I propose we show up and we answer the question "What is the value of a college degree?" by engaging our students in the critical discourse that ought to exist in any college classroom. I propose we give them something they can never get out of books, or notes, or PowerPoint slides: the human element, the process of discovery that is at the heart of what we do as academics. It's time we let our students in on the greatest secret of all: That a real classroom is filled with magic, spun by words, spoken by people, heard, understood, considered, and shared.


    Sarah L. Blair said...

    I totally agree! It also has a lot to do with how passionate the professor is about the subject he or she is lecturing on.
    In all of my Biology lectures, the professor would stand up at the front with his boring PowerPoint and bore us to sleep: Chlorophyll Boreophyll! He'd lectured the same thing so many times he just didn't care anymore and it showed.
    My film professor was clearly very excited about his lectures because he loved movies SO MUCH. His enthusiasm was infectious. He was always finding new examples and actually making new discoveries about films he'd seen hundreds of times. I always looked forward to his class even though it began at 8am!

    Lori Oster said...

    Sarah--I agree that a professor's passion has a lot to do with it, as well. And, if you're passionate about something, you're also probably going to be more confident delivering an unscripted lecture, so bonus #2.

    You have me laughing with your Chlorophyll Boreophyll! comment!

    Anna said...

    I have such a difficult time with the lecture part of my lesson plan. I prefer seminar-style classrooms, but sometimes a lecture is the best (if not the only) way to convey information. Thanks for your tips and tricks!

    Lori Oster said...

    I agree with you, Anna. I find myself lecturing more than I thought I would, but sometimes it really is the best method. I think it's a shame that the lecture has devolved into a method that is generally looked at with disdain, because if done well, it can be so effective.

    I often find myself using euphemisms such as "models" or "mini-lectures" when I refer to actual lectures I give on reading skills. I'm not conscious of it when I'm doing it, but this must be the result of the stigma associated with giving an actual lecture.

    Okay, I've made a new resolve: to fess up to my lecturing ways, and to do it with pride.

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