by Margaret Jane Ambrose
The New York Times has recently published two articles that offer two very different takes on the lecture and its future in the classroom.
The first article, Are College Lectures Unfair? by Annie Murphy Paul, starts with the observation that there is growing evidence that the traditional lecture, as a “specific cultural form,” is biased towards affluent white males. From there, it moves to a whole-hearted endorsement of an active learning pedagogy including flipped classrooms, check-in quizzes, and hands-on, in-class activities. Paul makes salient points throughout with noteworthy studies that indicate students do in fact learn more when exposed to active learning pedagogies.
The second article, Lecture Me. Really. by Molly Worthen, pushes back against the idea that the lecture has no place in a university setting. Worthen displays a fair amount of scorn for what she sees as the “active learning craze” which is “only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.”
But Worthen’s argument is not just dismissive. She points out that the humanities have a particular reason to suspect this new fad: that it is yet another attempt to conform the humanities into the ill-fitting mold of its more popular sibling, the hard sciences. Worthen also defends the lecture as not merely the recitation of an encyclopedia article; rather a good lecture is something that engages the students’ minds in active listening and reasoning, and demonstrates for the student what a well-reasoned argument should look like. All of these skills are not only important for learning, but also for life and meaningful participation in a democracy.
Reading these two articles side-by-side, one can’t help but think that both make sense in their own way even though they paint two very different futures for the lecture and its place in academia. As someone who had a great many wonderful professors who were truly artists when it came to the art of lecturing, I am saddened at the thought that lectures may one day become a relic of the past. A well-delivered lecture can be inspiring and can grow the mind in any number of intangible yet exponential ways.
On the other hand, I have also been on the receiving end of any number of poorly delivered lectures. While these were arguably valuable lessons in patience, memories of these rather painful experiences leave no doubt in my mind that there must be better ways for students to learn. I also do not think Worthen did an adequate job of recognizing the implicit bias in the lecture form. While she did note that some minority students might be at a disadvantage, she glossed over this important issue by admonishing that if we abandon the lecture format because some students find it difficult, we are doing them a disservice.
I don’t mean to split the baby here, but both articles are instructive, and together they paint an important picture for the future of instruction: that instruction shouldn’t be stagnant. Thinking about students’ learning needs is positive, but it is also important to take a long view of what those needs are. Paul’s article demonstrates that new studies are showing that students learn more when active learning is incorporated into the classroom. It also illuminates a long-standing issue of bias in the classroom. Worthen’s article demonstrates the need to think about not just student retention of the information being conveyed in the classroom, but also students’ future ability to learn, grow their own minds, and think for themselves. When students leave the safety net of their increasingly coddled university existence, the lessons that confront them won’t be presented in neat packages specifically designed to maximize their learning.
These articles have made me, as an instructor of legal research, think about the differences between the hard sciences and the humanities, and what lessons I need to impart to my students. With the limited time I get with my students, I have to wonder if it is even possible for me to teach students active listening and life learning skills. These articles have also made me reflect on my own abilities as a lecturer and as someone who can devise constructive learning activities to incorporate into the classroom. Perhaps in the end, I have split the baby because I think the answer lies with each individual instructor to determine what they do well and determine what type of instruction a particular situation or subject matter calls for.