Friday, November 17, 2006

Defending the Lecture


Friday, November 17, 2006

A glance at the current issue of Change: A defense of lecturing

In an essay adapted from her forthcoming book, What Ever Happened to the Faculty?: Drift and Decision in Higher Education, Mary Burgan, a former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, argues against academic reformers who believe an effective professor should be "a guide by the side" rather than "a sage on the stage."
Ms. Burgan, who is also a former professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington, says the "honorable tradition of lecturing" has found opposition in recent years because of concerns over student diversity and technology.

The worriers, she writes, believe that lectures may be too rigid to accommodate students from a plethora of backgrounds. They also suspect "that modern students may be so wedded to the shifting imagery of an ever-more-iconic technology that they cannot attend to talking heads," she says. Many reformers, therefore, suggest that universities replace lectures with seminars in which faculty members "facilitate students' exploration of the material," Ms. Burgan writes. This "rosy vision," as she puts it, leaves no room for "the learned expert in charge of a lecture hall." And most faculty members will reject it, the author writes, because they know that "students are apt to slack off without the support of a structure that makes some demands upon them."

Faculty lecturers, Ms. Burgan says, are irreplaceable. At least in a lecture, she writes, it is easier to witness information going over a student's head: "Students can act out their incomprehension and boredom more successfully en masse than in a small group." Another positive feature of lecturing, she says, "may be the student's relief at having an expert rescue him from mistakes a novice might make along the way -- and also save him the irritation of having to spend his precious time listening to the opinions of classmates rather than a clear presentation of known facts and issues."

Most important, she writes, is that because "excellent lecture sessions raise questions in ways that inspire students to seek answers together," they offer "the possibility of being 'plugged in' to a learning process that is shared in reaching understanding."

1 comment:

Martin Weiss said...

Some of her points are correct. However, as one who has experimented with multiple forms of classroom activity, I believe that some things are best done in lectures while others are not.

Where she is off the mark, in my opinion, is on the motivation for alternate methods. I choose alternatives to lectures because they promote active learning, which lectures seldom do.