This month, Dr. Woolf reminds us of the value of a thoughtful, passionately-delivered lecture as it teaches us the important skill of listening.
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The lecture as a form of instruction does not enjoy the highest esteem these days. In higher education in general, this traditional pedagogical tool has few champions. There is, though, something of a paradox here. While the lecture is seen increasingly as an inefficient and anachronistic mode of instruction, Ted Talks enjoys increasing popularity. That is despite the obvious fact that Ted Talks are simply short recorded lectures. In study abroad the status of the lecture is rendered even more problematic given the emphasis (properly) placed on experiential education.
The stereotypical soporific lecture also looms large in our collective vision: yellowing notes recycled every semester and delivered unrelentingly to an indifferent and semi-comatose audience. The problem with that stereotype is not that it does not exist, but that it invites us to judge the medium by reference to the worst examples of it. We would, by comparison, have little good to say about television if the Jerry Springer Show was used as a representative product of the medium. Some lectures are undoubtedly bad: ill-prepared, repetitious, dull and uninspiring (I know this as I have given some of them); so, however, are some site visits, books, seminars, on-line courses, podcasts, blogs, and what you will.
There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about books. There are terrible books and there are great books, and many variants within that spectrum. Lectures are, likewise, not intrinsically boring any more than seminars or on-line courses are intrinsically interesting. The medium is not the message.
But, what is a good lecture? We might have difficulty in defining one in the abstract but we know when we have been there. It is decidedly not defined by technological bells and whistles or by the use of PowerPoint; how many of us have sat through embarrassing silences while a harassed speaker struggles to make it work? When it does work, how many of us have noted with sinking hearts that it is the text of the talk that the speaker is about to deliver or, as equally hideous, that it consists of indecipherable charts, graphs or statistics? It was precisely this that led General James N. Mattis of the United States Marine Corps to the wise conclusion that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” (April 2010).
In contrast, I have been to many great lectures and there is no magic formula or common characteristic that links these other than the power of intellect combined with the power of personality. Malcolm Bradbury, a novelist and scholar of Anglo-American literature, gave lectures of fairly minimal cohesion in which he frequently deviated from the topic (that he had usually forgotten within about five minutes of the beginning anyway), and wandered into streams of consciousness that were almost entirely marginal to the title of the lecture. They were also extraordinarily engrossing and inspiring glimpses into a great mind that could synthesize and integrate knowledge in ways that were profoundly innovative.An alternative experience was offered by Melvin Friedman, from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. His lectures on James Joyce, for example, were models of organized thought: clear road maps through very challenging material. They were also precisely one very large cigar-length: the duration coincided precisely with the amount of time Melvin needed to smoke, chew and deconstruct the drool-encrusted cigars to which he was addicted (you could do that in those grand, distant days).
As I think back on these two great scholars – mentors who changed my life – I realize that the common qualities their lectures had was a combination of their personalities, passion for the subject, and humane instincts that compelled them to share their special insights. That creative synthesis of performance, integrity and intellect enriched our lives within and beyond academia.
A good lecture is a form of performance imbued with the personality of the person delivering it (an analogy with stand-up comedy or a sermon make sense). Through inflection, transmitted enthusiasm, rhetoric and body language, the material and the manner of delivery can inspire the listener to creative introspection; it can engender peer discussion, and signal new areas of potential investigation. In short, the lecture is a kind of intellectual entertainment with demonstrable power, at best, to be inspirational. It is, also, a kind of theatrical event (good or bad), a shared academic experience, and a form of purposeful social interaction.
In that respect, it differs profoundly from on-line learning. That is not to suggest that one or the other is intrinsically preferable but that the medium serves different objectives and has different outcomes. Eileen Pollard of Manchester Metropolitan University argues that: “The problem of putting material online is that just because you get a certain number of hits … it doesn’t mean that it equates to engagement”. The value of the occasion and the communal experience created by a lecture is, she argues, distinctive and palpable: “In a lecture you have real people in real time, real space and you can gauge the level of their engagement … we still like to go to things, sit next to others and experience a one-off event”. (Cited by John Elmes, “Why live lecturing benefits from ‘fear’”, Times Higher Education, December 4, 2014, p. 24).
The most compelling reason for advocating the live lecture as an educational tool is, however, that it is the pedagogy that best teaches key transferable skills: to listen creatively and constructively. In study abroad we value highly, reasonably enough, participation and engagement and we usually measure those through the ways in which students act and speak. That said, the capacity to listen, evaluate and translate the spoken word into a personal record (and thus to own it) is immensely valuable in all of our personal and professional lives. We can only process and interpret what we hear if we acquire the capacity to listen. There is a significant difference between active listening and recording (through notes) and hearing, which is for most of us involuntary.
In art history we need to be taught to look at a painting rather than simply see it. In the same way, we need to learn to listen selectively and creatively, to make informed decisions about the crucial aspects of the presentation and those that are incidental to the whole. We also need to evaluate what we hear: to choose to agree or disagree, to adopt, adapt or discard. In the live lecture, the strategic necessity to practice key skills of listening and writing precisely cohere.The lecture is a performance in which the audience can judge the credibility of the material by the degree of belief communicated by the speaker: it is a communal event leading to the potential for further peer review and analysis; it is a one-off occasion requiring intensive listening – what we miss has gone; it is the form of pedagogy that best teaches students to select, evaluate, and recreate a significant body of spoken language in their own words. Live presentation requires students to combine analysis and selectivity simultaneously and swiftly. To achieve that complex action, we need to learn to be constructive and focused listeners.
These are essential skills that are in danger of being disregarded in single-minded and facile enthusiasm for any kind of spoken participation, whether ill-informed or not. Most courses award some kind of grade for “participation”. It is relatively simple to evaluate that by the degree to which students speak. It is much harder to measure participation that is not spoken. Nevertheless, thought is a form of personal, private participation that is, surely, equally important. In a lecture, a student is required to think and listen if they are to gain any benefit from the experience. The level of noise students generate is no measure of learning.
Of course there are tedious lecturers droning on in inconsequential fashion. There are also tedious books, seminars, site visits, online courses that may induce a state of quasi-paralyzed stupor. The problem is not the medium; it is the message. Dull and irrelevant is not a product of the form of presentation but of the intellect that created it.None of this is intended to suggest that innovative methodologies have not greatly enlivened the classroom over several decades. It is not my intention to denigrate or deny the benefits of those changes but rather to suggest that in embracing the new we should not ignore the value of some traditional methodologies. If we relegate the lecture to a secondary and largely archaic pedagogy we are impoverishing education by denying students the opportunity to enhance critical abilities that are necessary to function effectively in academic and professional life.
“Be quiet and listen” is not a negative injunction but an invitation to acquire those skills that are required of a well-educated person. A good answer to the accusatory outburst (much loved by indignant adolescents) “Don’t lecture me!” might be that old standby (much loved by harassed parents): “It’s for you own good! Just you wait and see!”