If you haven’t yet followed any of our numerous links to Scott McLemee’s columns in Inside Higher Education you might want to start by checking out this brilliant little essay about the lost art of the lecture (and no, he doesn’t pay us a cent for the links). Apparently the lecture is not only dead, but is widely regarded as
“another form of child abuse, aimed at nominal adults, of course, but still young people presumably subjugated and entrapped in an environment controlled by an authoritarian leader”—leaving them no self-defense except “to fall asleep to escape the painful environment they have paid so dearly to join.”
Worse, my former colleague Ron Barnett is quoted as saying that the lecture:
“keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturers and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond.”
Scott defends the lecture against these charges so well to need no further help. But I would add two points. The first is about ‘active learning’. I am a great believer in active learning; and as a student I was never more active than when listening to a good lecture. Every second listening to Brian O’ Shaughnessy or Richard Wollheim my mind was abuzz, trying to following the train of thought in the confidence that it really was a train of thought and I should be trying to follow it. It wasn’t harder than reading, but it was as hard, and, often, more rewarding. The idea, put around by some educationists, that reading and listening are not ‘active’ is nonsense.
But the other is from my perspective, as the lecturer. Scott’s foil, one Stanley Solomon (whose essay, while purporting to attack the lecture is clearly a defence of it), says that
“The more I studied the advantages of discussion as a replacement for lecturing, the more obvious the evidence of professional benefits appeared, simultaneously with a notable increase in my leisure reading and television watching.”
I demur from this. I have a horror of not giving lectures: indeed in the job where Ron Barnett was my colleague I had no lecturing responsibilities and had to volunteer for lecture series in order not to be bored silly. Lecturing is merely fun, but preparing for lectures is incredibly exciting (if, as I have always been lucky to have, there is ample time built into one’s job to do it). Reading smart people addressing difficult problems and trying to figure out what they are saying, how to convey it to the ignorant, and simultaneously to be showing them how to do philosophy, all at the same time, is the best part of my job. I learn loads from it; and if I lecture well I even learn from my students in discussion.