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In Defense of the College Lecture

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
430

As a university professor, I am aware that a sizable number of students will lapse into instant narcosis the moment their professors take the podium. There are usually two reasons for this: poor lecturing or poor listening.

Folks:

The posting below looks at the continuing importance of the college lecture and the role that good students listening can play in its success. It is by Fred D. White is an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University and is from the My View section of the Friday, September 20, 2002 issue of the San Jose Mercury News. Copyright ? 2001 mercurynews and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.bayarea.com Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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IN DEFENSE OF THE COLLEGE LECTURE

By Fred D. White

 

Why has the college lecture been getting such a bad rap recently? William Honan, in a recent New York Times piece, ``The College Lecture, Long Derided, May Be Fading,'' argues that students and faculty alike are cheerily sending the lecture down its road to extinction. No less august an authority than U. of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin insists that the ``computerization of intellectual life'' has made the lecture obsolete.

I could not disagree more.

As a university professor, I am aware that a sizable number of students will lapse into instant narcosis the moment their professors take the podium. There are usually two reasons for this: poor lecturing or poor listening.

Poor lecturing results from unskilled delivery or from material that fails to engage -- such as rehashing of what's already in the textbooks. Colleges, alas, have their share of poor lecturers, which is a shame because a training program could help otherwise gifted new faculty hone up on this venerable and powerful pedagogical tool.

But poor listening habits are most responsible for bringing down the lecture as a learning tool. The situation is paradoxical, because lecturing is one of the finest ways I know of for developing listening skills in the first place.

First-year college students need to regard listening as a skill (or an art) that must be exercised daily, and with deliberation. One of the keenest experiences derived from the lecture is that of a rich audio-visual interplay: The lecturer presents an insight; engaged students will not only understand it but also assimilate it, make it their own.

Dr. Rodin pits lecturing against mentoring, but why not see these modes of teaching as complementary, mutually reinforcing? And if you're going to pit the lecture against the Internet, you'd best begin with the classroom itself. Four walls, linear seating and its resulting protocols (raising your hand to speak, not speaking unless spoken to) -- how Old World compared to the multi-sensorial Net! But a gifted lecturer stimulates multi-sensorial response.

It is beyond dispute that educators should search for new ways to engage young minds, just as it is beyond dispute that the Internet is a revolutionary learning tool. But let me mention just a few things about the old-fashioned lecture that I consider equally indispensable.

As an undergraduate at the U of Minnesota in the '60s, most of my courses were lecture-based -- and I almost always loved them, even when the lectures were tedious, even when the professor droned. More often than not, they set off intellectual fireworks in my head. I would write notes excitedly -- not taking dictation (the most useless kind of note taking), but trying to capture insights that were spewing forth from my nascent critical consciousness. This is what it means to listen well in college.

What is more, I knew that I was in the presence of a scholar -- not just a teacher, but someone who actually contributed to the body of knowledge being studied. That is a powerful ethos for an educator to project onto a young adult, especially when the professor, in the course of her lecture, explains to students what her research specifically hopes to accomplish, what the dissenters have had to say, and so on.

Ironically, the least useful classes for me at the time were the discussion sections, conducted by teaching assistants who were knowledgeable for the most part, but lacked the gravitas of professors.

The lecturing professor also conveys a personality and is not just an oral conduit for information that could have been obtained from a website or book. Even in formal, no-feedback-from-class lectures inside cavernous auditoriums, a skilled lecturer often is quirky, charismatic, surprisingly inventive; in short, memorable.

To give just one example: My anthropology professor, E. Adamson Hoebel, lecturing in a 500-seat auditorium, used to sing tribal songs to us in their respective native languages; would enact a ritual dance; would augment his lecture with slides and recordings. Three lectures a week, and every one of them ended with applause from us brain-bedazzled sophomores.

All of the newer strategies (mentoring, conferencing, small-group interaction) are valuable, but that is no excuse for abandoning the lecture, which humanizes learning in a way that computerized learning cannot.

Listening to lectures is not passive -- it is active, and it is interactive, to use the arch-buzzword of computerdom. We interface with the lecturer's brain to assimilate understanding in our own brains. Note-taking is an excellent strategy for linking one with the other.

The name of the game is intellectual excitement: That isn't just a teacher up there lecturing, but a shaper of knowledge itself. Students are not just the passive, plebian receptors of this knowledge but a new breed of assimilators -- and soon it is going to be their turn.

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Fred D. White is an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University. In 1997, he received the Louis and Dorina Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence, and his textbook, "The Well-Crafted Argument,'' was published earlier this year.

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? 2001 mercurynews and wire service sources.

All Rights Reserved. http://www.bayarea.com