Briefly Noted: “Is the Lecture Dead?”

In a recent essay in The Atlantic Richard Gunderman discusses the recent pedagogical trends in medical, dental, and nursing schools.[1] One trend is that the traditional “lecture” is going the way of the deceased patient. Yet Gunderman believes there may yet be life and hope for the academic lecture.

Medical educators increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the lecture, but they’re not the only ones.  “Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.” These newer techniques include the use of laptops, tablets, and other technology in interactive group formats. Moreover, this is not simply a choice individual instructors or institutions have made. As Gunderman notes, “The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures.” Some schools are even put on probation for not adhering to this criteria, apparently spending too much time on “passive” approaches to learning.

In the wake of all this progressive and interactive learning one asks, “what then of the lecture?” Gunderman believes, recalling Mark Twain’s words, “widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.” Ineffectiveness is not inherent in the lecture; it is inherent in the poorly delivered lecture. Surely just as there are boring, ineffective lectures there are boring, ineffective study groups. So Gunderman believes educators “must attempt to understand better the features that distinguish effective, engaging lectures [and lecturers]” rather than “disposing entirely of the lecture as a means of learning.” Thus the fate of the lecture is more a matter of the lecture’s purpose and the lecturer’s acumen and passion.

Gunderman encourages educators to ask a basic question: “why am I lecturing?” This question connects administrators and teachers to a more effective means of evaluation. The “why am I lecturing” question evaluates both the lecture and the lecturer. For as Gunderman argues, “the core purpose of a great lecture is not primarily to transmit information . . . The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the hearts and minds of learners.” Because of this sort of teaching, students raise new questions, connections, and possibilities in their own minds. Hence education is far more than disseminating information and tracking its consumption. Education is, then, a very human endeavor; good lecturers and good lectures recognize and strive for this.

Gunderman thus notes the qualities of a good lecturer and lecture. First, “a great lecturer tells a story.” Second, great lecturers enjoy lecturing (use “teaching” if you still dislike the term). “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.” (There is “group study” in good lectures!) Third, good lecturers lecture in person. Gunderman recounts, as examples, two lectures: one given by Randy Pausch (professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon) in 2007 (while he was dying of cancer), and the other by Steve Jobs in 2005 at Stanford University. They did not record their lectures on high-tech gadgets, about which they both knew a little bit, and they did not simply read their notes. Instead, Pausch and Jobs spoke passionately, personally (to their audience), and reflectively about their respective subjects. Their lectures were effective because they caused their audiences to think about their lives “from fruitful new perspectives” and likely without boring their audiences. Gunderman, then, challenges medical educators, and by extension all educators, to think twice before pronouncing the lecture deceased. Rather, “the lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources.”

Kudos to Richard Gunderman, wherever he is. The lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources, and it ought not be sent to the pedagogical morgue on account of its most boring and tedious practitioners. As teachers, we must work hard to evoke from our students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. To be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

May teachers everywhere, and especially professors of theology, lecture as if their hair were on fire. May they tell the Great Story passionately, personally, and reflectively, and in so doing inform, energize, and inspire their students.

[1] Richard Gunderman, “Is the Lecture Dead?” in The Atlantic (Jan. 29, 2013).

Briefly Noted: James Pierson on the State of American Higher Education

Who knew? Noteworthy conservative critics such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball no longer stand alone in their critique of American higher education (for dismantling core curricula that stand at the headstream of Western tradition, desperately seeking to be politically correct, emphasizing the trendy over the proven, and allowing liberal thought to have a stranglehold over the academy). James Pierson’s recent article, “What’s wrong with our universities?” (The New Criterion) examines three recent liberal assessments of the state of the American University, and prospects for the future.[1] The liberal critique is interesting, according to Pierson, precisely because it joins critiques long-held by conservatives.

Pierson first discusses Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids­­-and What We Can Do About It (Henry Holt & Co., 2011). This book is written with “the premise that higher education has lost its internal compass and can no longer fulfill its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans” (19). Writing from the standpoint of the pre-1960s view (old-school liberalism) that democratic education and liberal arts should operate in tandem, the authors observe several ills in American higher education: emphasis on faculty research rather than on teaching, the multiplication of superfluous administrative posts, and the depreciation of the liberal arts. Although the authors’ observations are helpful, Pierson argues, the authors do not offer much evidence to substantiate their claims (20). Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting indictment of American higher education and offers some controversial proposals for remedying the ills.

Second, Pierson treats Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (U. of Chicago Press, 2011). Arum and Roksa claim, in the light of a good deal of complex data, that “college students are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors are passing us by in measures of achievement and rates of college graduation” (22). As Pierson states, “though burdened by the social science excess of data and methodology, Academically Adrift is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students” (22). Although the authors’ diagnosis of higher education is nothing new, their proposals for improvement are focused and helpful.

Third, Pierson discusses Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010). Taylor published this work as an expansion of his 2009 op-ed in The New York Times. In line with other critics, Taylor is troubled by the emphasis on faculty research at the expense of classroom instruction. The primary distinction of Taylor’s book is his analysis of the impact of the “Great Recession” on America’s universities (25). The negative of the book, according to Pierson, is that it does not provide a robust constructive proposal.

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first installment of a new series at BtT. “Briefly Noted” will consist of brief notes about ideas, literature, and events that might be of interest to our readers.]

[1] “What’s wrong with our universities?” The New Criterion 30 (Sep. 2011): 17-25.