Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Another Defense of the Lecture


I am currently working with the tech people and my academic dean at Messiah College to put together a mini- iTunes class tentatively titled "An Introduction to Everyday Life in Early America."  The course will mostly focus on eighteenth-century evangelicalism, the social world of the Enlightenment, social mobility, and consumerism.  It will draw from the lectures and discussions that will take place in the British Colonial America course I am teaching this semester.

During a production meeting yesterday we realized the the Messiah College Registrar had the class scheduled for a seminar room rather than a traditional classroom.  While I have taught this class as a seminar before (there are about 15 students enrolled), I thought that a more traditional classroom with desks, chairs, a lectern, and a screen might work better for the iTunes project.  We got the class switched.

One of the reasons I wanted to move the class to a traditional classroom was because I still believe in the lecture mode of teaching.  When I say "lecture mode" I am not suggesting that I will spend the entire semester talking at the fifteen students who are enrolled.  I rarely lecture this way.  Most of my lectures tend to be presentations of material interspersed with questions and student participation.  But I still believe that there is a place for a professor to stand before a class, filled with passion and enthusiasm for the subject, and tell short stories about the past.  I also think that this makes for a better iTunes presentation.

I am writing about this today because I just read Chris Gehrz's defense of the lecture at The Pietist Schoolman.  Chris calls our attention to an essay on lecturing by Richard Gunderman, a medical school professor at Indiana University.  Here is the crux of Gehrz's post--a combination of his analysis and Gunderman's article:

(Gehrz): Read his whole post, but let me pull out one point that seems especially important: that there is something unique about “the physical presence of the lecturer and the unfolding of the lecture in real time” that makes a difference in how students learn. Once we understand that the “core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information” (since there are other ways to do that — e.g., reading), then we can see that:
(Gunderman): The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners. Is the lecturer enthusiastic about the topic? Why? Could I get enthused about this, too? How could I use this to take better care of my patients? Is this the kind of doctor or nurse I aspire to be some day?
A great lecturer’s benefit to learners extends far beyond preparing for an exam, earning a good grade, or attaining some form of professional certification. The great lecture opens learners’ eyes to new questions, connections, and perspectives that they have not considered before, illuminating new possibilities for how to work and live. Without question, it also helps learners who pay attention earn a better grade, but it manages to make the topic take on a life of its own and seem worth knowing for its own sake, beyond such narrow, utilitarian advantage.
And Gehrz continues:

Most of all, I’d have resonated with the stress Gunderman placed on “delight” — not simply that of the lecturer (though that’s essential), but also of the learners, who are “not merely sitting and passively listening. Far from it, they are challenged and engaged, actively thinking and imagining right along with the lecturer as both struggle toward new insights…. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.”

Great post.  I am glad to see that Chris has returned from Europe and is back into the swing of things at The Pietist Schoolman.

1 comment:

americanorchard said...

A very sound defense of the long-maligned lecture. While it can be overused, a good lecture has great value. And it is no more "passive learning" than reading a book. Both require active concentration and processing from the listener/reader. I have found it curious that some of the same people who have been berating the lecture for years, are now championing the video lecture format delivered via internet, when it is called a MOOC.