The Lecture Strikes Back

Lecturing as a teaching style is not particularly trendy these days, but perhaps it is particularly well-suited for the humanities. Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen (UNC) makes the case:

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship…

In the humanities, a good lecture class… keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize…

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

She also addresses some of the ways in which the experience of being a student in a lecture course is underappreciated:

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media… 

This is not a “passive” learning experience, and it cannot be replicated by asking students to watch videotaped lectures online: the temptations of the Internet, the safeguard of the rewind button and the comforts of the dorm-room sofa are deadly to the attention span.

I am somewhat moved by her argument, but I want to be on guard against romanticizing the past.

Yes, it seems like most students nowadays have less tolerance for sitting through a lecture attentively than we did as students, but one explanation for that observation is that most students are not like the students who go on to be professors, i.e., us.

Yes, there is some evidence that “attention span” has declined, but it is unclear that any study that concludes that humans now (as of 2015) have a shorter “attention span” than goldfish is talking about anything relevant to the question of how students should be taught.

And further, as far as I know, we don’t know much about the effectiveness of lecture courses in improving attention, or developing “mindfulness,” or synthesizing information, or following and analyzing arguments.

I’d be interested in hearing from philosophers who do still lecture. Does it seem like it works well? How do you prepare? Are there tricks you use to keep students’ attention? How are your student evaluations?


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