TITLE: Rehabilitating the Reputation of Lecture AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 14, 2010 4:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last week, I followed a links from John Cook to the essay In Praise of the Lecture. This is countercultural among academics these days. As you probably know, lecture is out of fashion. My colleagues in the sciences still rely on them pretty heavily, some proudly and defiantly, but even many scientists speak as lectures are a bad thing. They are dead, boring. Because they don't involve the student, they don't engage the student's mind. As a result, learning doesn't happen. I have some courses in which I lecture almost not at all. In most others, I mix lecture and exercises to create a semi-active classroom. Right now,, though, I am coming out of my compilers course, in which I lecture a lot. Looking back, I know that on many days I need to generate more excitement for my students. Yet the simple fact is that this course material seems to require more lecture than exercise on most days. Whatever compilers textbook I use, I feel as if I need to explain ideas and techniques for a second time in hopes of making them clear. The thing is, lecture doesn't have to be boring. The class periods I recall from my undergrad days were all lectures, and I recall them fondly, with admiration for the speaker and deep appreciation for the subject. The best lecturers roused emotion in their audience and exhorted us to action. A great lecture has a different rhythm from other class sessions. "In Praise of the Lecture" reminds me that this is true. I especially enjoyed Carter's section titled "The Lecture as a Personal Act". Here is a snippet:
Closely related to the idea of the lecture as a moral act is the idea of the lecture as a personal act. True education is always about personal growth toward the Truth. Some would charge the lecture with being the paradigmatic act of arrogance: one person stands there with all the truth while the rest sit quietly as supplicants. But this is to distill the university experience into only one of its moments, as if the slow movement of the pendulum to the right were never balanced by its eventual arc back to the left. To read in preparation and to argue in response are the parts of the educational experience set in motion by the lecture, which acts a fulcrum.
In order for a lecture to work, students must be engaged: not in some active exercise within the class period, but across a broader swath of time. First, they must read in order to ready their minds. Then comes the lecture, which tells a second story. It is a living incarnation of what the author describes. Students see what the professor focuses on, what the professor chooses to leave in, what the professor omits, and what excites the professor. They are introduced to questions that lie at the edges of the ideas and techniques and lines of code. The best lecturers do this in context, so that students hear a story personalized to that time, place, and audience. Finally, students must engage the ideas afterwards. In the humanities, this might take the form of discussion in which everyone in the room, lecturer included, argue their cases -- and maybe even someone else's case -- in order to really understand. That can happen in the sciences, too, but just as important for the science student is application: taking ideas into the lab to try them out, see when they work and when they don't, bend them to fit the peculiarities of a real problem. Only then are they and the professor ready to have a truly enlightening discussion. The biggest problem with lecture may be that it expects so much of the students who hear it. They must read and think before class. They must apply ideas and think after. Building courses around in-class exercises may well lead students to think that all the learning will happen in class and discourage the kinds of learning that happen outside of class. I realize that this likely overstates the case, and romanticizes the lecture, but I still think there is some truth in it. Lecture also expects more of the teacher. It's easy to give boring lectures by reading old notes or cribbing from the mind-numbing slide deck that seems to come as a matter of course with every textbook these days. To lecture well, the teacher must engage the material, too, and personalize it, both to herself and to her students. That's what Carter means when he says that a lecture occurs in a specific place and time. Whether we admit it or not, a lecture is a personal act, whether done well or not. It is and should be unique. Perhaps this is why I feel I have to rework every lecture every time I deliver it. Actually, I want to. That's how I engage the material and make it say what Eugene Today feels and thinks. Even with a course on compiler construction, I change from offering to offering, and how I present the material must change. Besides, every lecture I give can be better. I need to work toward that goal a little every time I give them. I'm not suggesting that every course be taught in a lecture format, or even every session of any course. I will continue to use in-class exercises, discussion, and any other technique I can to make my courses as effective as I can. I'm just saying that lecture has a place, and just maybe it can help us to create the right expectations for our learning environments. In the end, whether we lecture or discuss, whether we use group exercises or clicker systems and multiple choice questions, it all probably comes down to this:
"My students do not learn what I teach them. They learn what I am excited about."
Please forgive me if this comes off sounding a bit too romantic for a computer science professor. The semester is coming to a close, and we are in the Christmas season. -----