In Praise of Lectures

by Tina Blue
February 14, 2001

          One of the best things about becoming a sophomore at Penn State in 1969 was that I was able to enroll in the large geology lecture class. No freshman had a chance of getting into that class--it was way too popular.

          I no longer remember the professor's last name, but I remember that his first name was Larry, though we would never have called him that. But since Larry is the only name of his that I remember, I'll take the liberty now, thirty-two years later, of calling him "Professor Larry."

          Professor Larry lectured twice each week, for one and a half hours at a time, in an auditorium that seated 2000 people. Two thousand seats, but his lectures were always standing room only.

          None of the 2000 students enrolled in his class would dream of missing one of his lectures, though he never took roll, didn't learn any of our names, and would not have recognized any if us if he had come across us on campus. (His was not exactly a "student-centered" class.)

          No one enforced attendance. There were no penalties for absence.

          Except, of course, that you'd miss a really great lecture.

          The reason Professor Larry's lectures were standing room only was that not only did all of his students attend religiously, but they brought their friends as well.

          That's right. Students who were not even enrolled in his geology class would drag their fannies out of bed twice a week for a 9:30-11:00 a.m. lecture on rocks.

          You might say Professor Larry was a real "rock" star.

          It's not that we all took geology because of an unusual fascination with rocks. No--we heard about his course from other students. He was famous on campus for delivering lectures as energetic and entertaining as they were informative. He could have sold tickets to those lectures.

          The labs, taught by TAs, were considerably less interesting. Actually, the one I had was downright awful. From what my friends told me, theirs were, too.

          But we didn't care. Just as avid fans will camp out all night in freezing weather to score tickets to a concert or a sporting event, we were willing to put up with some discomfort to ensure our seats at Professor Larry's lectures. (When the lectures got impossibly overcrowded, a TA might challenge you to prove you were enrolled, and if you had no proof, you might be asked to leave. We always carried our official schedule with us to his class, just in case.)

          Professor Larry's lectures were quite a show, but they were more than just a show. He was a hell of a teacher. He could make us understand anything.

          So please don't tell me that lecturing is an inferior form of teaching. And do not tell me that students hate lectures. What students hate are dry, boring lectures that give them no reason to care about the subject.

          Students, most of them at least, love good lectures.

          I know. I teach largely by lecture, and most of my students love it. In fact, one of the things they say, directly to me and also on the course evaluation sheets at the end of the semester, is that it is a tremendous relief to be in a class where the teacher teaches them, rather than allowing endless "discussion" that almost always ends up being shallow and pointless.*

          Who wants to listen to the empty blathering of someone who doesn't know anything about the subject? It's especially bad these days, because most of our students arrive at college with little actual knowledge in most subjects.

          Sure, discussion can be a great way to learn, but first you need to know enough to be able to discuss the topic intelligently. When we read a book on a subject we wish to learn about, or watch a documentary on PBS, The Discovery Channel, or The History Channel, we don't resent the fact that we don't get to chime in every few minutes with our own take on the subject. We are just trying to accumulate information and a certain degree of understanding.

          I run my English 101 class as about 80% discussion, because in that class I am training the students to apply their analytical skills to topics they do know enough about to discuss. Usually they are surprised to find out how little they have thought about a subject they believed they had a firm opinion on. In fact, I always say to them, "You know more than you know you know, but you think less than you think you think."

          In a situation like that, students need to get their opinions out there and to struggle to refine them against sharp, logical arguments.

          But in literature classes, many--probably most--of my students are pretty clueless at first.

          Certainly, I ask probing questions to help them find out what they already know or can figure out about a work of literature just by paying close attention and using common sense. (For an example of what I mean by this, see my article "Eavesdropping on a Poem: How to Understand What You Can Understand").

          But a lot of what I must do in a literature class is to fill their heads up, and quickly, with knowledge that they can bring to bear on works they encounter in the future.

          Usually, somewhere about the eighth week of class, actual discussion (as opposed to questions asked of me or questions that I pose to them) will begin to develop spontaneously, with students addressing the literature, and even one another, rather than just focusing on me. By that time, they've accumulated enough information about how literature works to apply it to new works as they encounter them.

          But most students I know, especially the really bright ones, don't want to listen to ignorance hold forth, and they don't want to be forced to talk about a subject before they have had a chance to learn enough to be able to say something worth hearing. Fools don't mind blabbering when they have nothing meaningful to say, but intelligent students are pained when they have to do so.

          That is why discussions tend to get hijacked by the most shallow or the most pompously self-absorbed people in a class. Some will try to turn every discussion into a confessional therapy session. Others will take a discussion class as an opportunity to parade the half-dozen bits of arcane knowledge they carry around to demonstrate their intellectual bona fides.

          But the best students will just sit there and fume over the boring waste of their time.

          When I was a student I habitually cut classes that were heavy on discussion, but I loved those classes where a knowledgeable professor actually told us cool things about his subject in a way that integrated the material and provided context.

          I started teaching in 1972, right about the time when education became so student-centered that it virtually forgot that there was also something out there to be  learned. It's even worse now, with students being encouraged to believe that nothing at all matters unless it is about them or unless it "relates" to some emotionally charged aspect of their lives. The sheer delight of learning for its own sake seems foreign to modern American educational philosophy.

          When I was just starting out as a teacher, so much was made of the importance of discussion and the inadequacy of lecture that I felt guilty that my classes so often developed in the direction of lecture. On the other hand, I was appalled that other young teachers were encouraged to feel proud if there was a lot of talking in their classes, even if nothing of import was being said, and even if there was no point or direction to the discussion.

          Then one night, after I had been teaching for about five years, I saw a PBS presentation in which Christopher Plummer, using Vladimir Nabokov's actual lecture notes, portrayed Nabokov delivering a lecture to a class. His subject was Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

          It was mesmerizing.

          Plummer played Nabokov not as energetic, but as quietly yet deeply fascinated by his subject.

          Well, I am fascinated by the subjects I teach. I am also as lively and entertaining as Professor Larry. People sometimes bring their friends to my early morning classes, too, and once a young woman had two friends help her get to my class when she was suffering from pneumonia, because we were going over Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and she couldn't bear to miss any of what I had to say on that novel.

          I don't feel guilty anymore about lecturing to my classes.

          I won't pretend that all of my students like my classes and learn from them. But I know that most of them do, and the ones who don't are usually those who have no desire to be in any class. It wouldn't matter whether I ran the class as lecture or discussion--they wouldn't like it anyway.

          But since my evaluations run about 95% highly positive, and since one of the things the students say they like best is how much they learn from my lectures, I am not going to abandon the style.

          Oh, sure, I occasionally encounter some administrative pressure to switch to a format that emphasizes discussion, but, hey--I'm hard of hearing to the point of being virtually deaf. **

          I'm merely doing what I can to accommodate my disability.

          Heh, heh, heh. 

          * For more on this topic, see "The Dismal Discussion Class."
    ** If you are interested in articles on coping with deafness in a hearing world, check out my website "I'm Listening as Hard as I Can!"