Red Herrings Overboard

Many of the criticisms directed at information technology in the classroom get hung up on a misattribution issue. Eric Rauchway makes this point very effectively: the problem with bad PowerPoint presentations is often not the software, but the presenter.

The professors who get up and drone their way through slides would get up and drone their way through written notes if you took away the technology. There’s some truth to the point raised by Kid Bitzer in the comments to the Rauchway thread, that PowerPoint exacerbates or aggravates some of the underlying issues that a mediocre or poor lecturer carries into the classroom. Still, dealing with the technology is just a case of treating a symptom, not the disease.

I’ll also leave aside the other contributing problems that make bad lectures even worse than they have to be, such as classrooms with two or three hundred people in them.

I think there a few really basic things that professors who make significant use of lectures in their teaching can do to improve them, whether or not they use any kind of presentation technology.

1. A lecture is not the right vehicle for problematizing a subject, exploring the finer points of scholarly debate on a particular issue, or indulging in the kinds of qualifiers and asides that are a part of scholarly writing in many fields. There might be a moment in a lecture where a student’s question or comment catalyzes a useful digression along these lines. You might build a lecture around describing two major competing schools of thought. But a lecture is a compressed format that requires clear, declarative statements. I know this was the first lesson I struggled to learn coming out of graduate school, because I felt like boiling issues down to some core principles was committing some kind of intellectual sin. Discussion is a good format for muddying the waters, lecture is not.

2) Don’t use a lecture to repeat or duplicate an assigned reading. This is a mistake in several respects. It wastes the time of those who did the reading, it incentivizes others to skip the reading, and it raises the question of why the classroom exists in the first place. A lecture that addresses a reading should be a dynamic response to that reading: putting it in perspective, going beyond its terms, comparing it to material that was not read. Lectures should be used more often to explain and explore material for which there is no useful single reading. Readings and lectures have to be complementary, not redundant.

3) A lecture needs to have a theme, a central idea, and you need to come back to it repeatedly. You can do that elegantly through what pedagogical specialists call “spiraling”, where each return to the theme is slightly different, or builds up. But a lecture that’s just a grab-bag of all the stuff you can think of about a topic makes for a lousy performance and makes for lousy pedagogy. A clear theme, repeated elegantly, is more engaging to listen to and it’s far easier to retain some useful knowledge from listening.

4) Performance counts. Maybe that comes down to vivid language, maybe it comes down to a great anecdote, maybe it involves humor, maybe it’s about great use of props or technology. Don’t be ashamed of a bit of schtick. At the very least, you’ve got to be excited and engaged by the material you’re covering. If you’re bored by it, or sound bored by it, it’s inevitable that the students will be as well. Performance is generally not spontaneous, either: it should be as much a part of preparing a lecture as anything else.

5) Personalization is important. This is one reason I find Horowitzian demands for a completely neutral, affectless classroom so completely clueless. I’m not saying that a good lecturer gets up and rants at students about his pet political beliefs, but if you’re not putting your own distinctive views of the material out there, you’re not giving a good lecture. If you’re just reading off a generic, lowest-common-denominator description of knowledge on a particular subject, you might as well just distribute your outline to the students and save them the trouble of coming to class to hear you read that aloud. If there isn’t some benefit to hearing you, a particular individual scholar, interpret the subject matter, then there isn’t much point to having a classroom in the first place.

6) A good lecturer has got to learn to pay attention to body language in the audience without being over-attentive to it. At first I can remember being incredibly anxious at the least sign of a student appearing bored. Over time what you learn is that there are some people who appear bored when they’re sitting and listening even if they’re actually highly engaged, and there are people who look perky and attentive who are actually busy daydreaming about going to the beach. After a couple of weeks with a given class, you should learn to watch the students who have responsive body language, who can tell you something about whether the lecture is going the right way or not. Use those students as your “standard candle” to decide whether or not to stop or change course in a lecture. If you’re not prepared to try some other approach to a topic or to take another tack altogether, once again, you’re undercutting the whole point of having a real physical classroom with you, a real physical person, in front of a real physical audience.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Red Herrings Overboard

  1. jpool says:

    I find this really useful. Thanks.

  2. Fats Durston says:

    What s/he said.

    I definitely still feel (#1) an uneasiness when I skip qualifiers and debates, the “sin” of which you speak.

    An awful lot of students (how they’re treated in other classes?) seem almost bewildered (#2) when the lecture topic doesn’t rehash the reading. Although I never do it as well as I like (add #3), I try to use lectures to explore how multiple readings engage with a particular theme.

    Really need to work on #3.

    What’s your take on the give-and-take lecture–one that intersperses easy and tricky questions with the original material?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I work qualifiers and debate in now, but basically as an aside, whereas when I started, I’d sometimes make these convoluted lectures that were about nothing but an epistemological jungle.

    Rehash works only if you make it value-added, e.g., you explain or explore or respond to the reading. If you just restate it, I think students eventually either stop doing the reading or stop turning on their brains during a lecture.

    I think give-and-take if I understand you right is how I lecture most of the time–I’ll work up to a tricky question then throw it out to the students, work with it a bit, and then take the reins again.

  4. Fats Durston says:

    epistemological jungle.

    Ahem. Epistemological rain forest.

    Rehash works only if you make it value-added, e.g., you explain or explore or respond to the reading. If you just restate it, I think students eventually either stop doing the reading or stop turning on their brains during a lecture.

    Oh yes–I always attempt not to merely replay the readings–throw in some primary/secondary documents (whichever the reading wasn’t) to reinforce or complicate, but sometimes fall into the rehashing.

  5. philosoraptor says:

    This is an inspiring post and reminds me of what I *should* be striving to do more frequently. I’d like to hear a bit more from you, though, about whether (on your conception of what a lecture is for) it matters whether the students, or a significant number of them, have done the reading for that day. I guess I’m still focused on your second point.

  6. G. Weaire says:

    The “lecture and readings” question is a bit tricky for me, in the one course that I teach where it matters. (Obviously, beginning language instruction means that you have to rehash stuff, over and over again.)

    Some students have a learning style where it helps them to have a textbook that reinforces the lectures, and vice versa. Others, obviously, don’t. I receive strong pro and con opinions whenever I ask the question on evals.

    My uneasy compromise is to have an optional general textbook available for those that want it, alongside the assigned (all primary) readings. Even though I don’t plan my lectures to coincide with the textbook, it does give them a lot of the same information in a different way, if that’s what a particular student wants.

  7. hestal says:

    Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell what you told ’em, is the process I followed while teaching nearly fifty years ago and in many business presentations (oral and written) ever since. I think it worked well; at least in business I closed the deal more often than not.

Comments are closed.