On lecturing

I am happy to see this essay in the NYT by Molly Worthen recalling us to the value of lectures. In circles of higher ed, “student-centered learning” and “engaged teaching” have been endlessly recommended, emphasized, extolled, and quite nearly made mandatory across the curriculum – and very often to very good effect, as it’s not at all crazy to believe that students will learn deeper lessons by engaging actively with ideas and methods. But as educators have joined in the celebration of that sort of teaching, old-style lecturing has been made out to be something akin to medieval torture. Worthen is right to remind us that a lecture – when done rightly – can be hugely effective in teaching.

The qualification is crucial: when done rightly. We all have been lucky enough, I hope, to have heard some really great lectures. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They follow a plotline that has unexpected twists, funny bits, and occasions for wonder and reflection. The best of them even have climactic finishes. The lecturer isn’t afraid to get theatrical, to pace and wave arms, and to call out to the audience for response. Worthen approvingly quotes Andrew Delbanco: a good lecturer is “someone who conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about.” Exactly right. A great lecture leaves you wondering how anyone can waste their time thinking about anything else.

Unfortunately, we all have been subjected also to a great many half-baked and even awful lectures. When a professor has a large group of students showing up to take notes on whatever the professor has to say, the temptation is very real to regard oneself as a gifted lecturer, no matter how little one has to offer. I do worry that Worthen’s essay, though right on target in every way, will have the effect of encouraging lousy lecturers to keep at what they’re doing.

Academics tend toward narcissism, and the hardest classroom lesson for us to learn is that it is not about us. A lecture is not an opportunity to show off one’s great learning or cleverness. A lecture is about its content (ideas, events, texts, theories) and about exactly how that content connects with the audience. Sometimes that content connection is best made vivid through “student-centered learning,” and sometimes it is best made vivid through a lecture. But the lecturing needs to be seen in this way as the best method for delivery, and not as a vehicle for celebrating the lecturer.

That’s what I can gather from observation, anyway. I myself am not a great lecturer – on a good day, with a lot of luck, I can attain a “B+” kind of level. But I’m near enough to the task to see what it takes to be a good or great lecturer, and I can see that it takes a lot of devoted attention, a lot of practice, and a rare combination of personal qualities. Lecturing should not be seen as a default, but as something you need to train for and work at like any other valuable skill.

So I hope – but, sadly, do not expect – that Worthen’s essay causes at least some lecturers to engage in some critical self-reflection, and determine whether they really are good at it, or if they’ve merely duped themselves into thinking so.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to On lecturing

  1. Kleiner says:

    Worthen wrote an excellent essay extolling the virtues of an excellent lecture. I have had many of the same thoughts – though not nearly so well articulated – for some years now. I lecture quite a lot, in large part because I teach big classes but also because I think I am reasonably good at it. But it had come to the point where I felt I was “committing” lecture, as if a sin. But my conservative (a tendency to conserve) tendencies then kicked in. If we are to believe the most enthusiastic advocates of “student centered learning” approaches, students in lecture halls are never more than merely passive and docile receptacles rather than thinkers. As such, the argument goes, no one has ever had any deep or existentially meaningful learning in a lecture. But since I take that to be obviously false, their own argument is a reductio of itself.

    Huenemann agrees with Worthen, but worries it might encourage bad lecturers to keep at it. Yes, it would be a bad thing if Worthen’s essay (which I thought hit just about every nail on the head) encouraged lousy lecturers to go on without effort to improve. But that advice goes just as well for those who use the new “student centered learning” approaches. A lecture can be done well or poorly, and so can “active learning” or other student centered approaches that are the fad today. I worry just as much about them. I think there are a lot of half baked and even awful student centered approaches. In fact, my students routinely complain about it. Actually, those teachers are perhaps even more likely to lack critical self-reflection about the quality of their instruction, since they clothe their self-understanding in the comforting jargon of novel and in vogue teaching pedagogies. I’ll be honest, when I attend teaching methods seminars, most of the time I don’t know if anyone is saying anything at all meaningful. You can have some fun with this at this website:

    It is a sign of our technocratic culture that we think all problems can be solved by paying more careful attention to method. Thus, all problems in education can be resolved by having better teaching methods. But the problem is not whether this or that method is being used, but whether this or that method is being used well. The thing that is so hard for our technological age to accept is that many of the most important qualities of an excellent teacher are not technes (crafts that can be learned), they are unlearnable qualities of a person (passion, for example). If that is true, then a fairly large part of good teaching cannot be taught.


    • Huenemann says:

      Good point – there are many ways to fail at teaching! Alongside your point about method, I’d also observe that good teaching isn’t content neutral. In my experience, a big part of the work behind a good class is figuring out what’s important or interesting about the material. (My own “interesting meter” springs to life when I come across something I genuinely don’t know the answer to. The only interesting lectures I’ve given have been when I really don’t know the answer to the question I’m raising!)


  2. eyemjt2 says:

    You are a GREAT lecturer!!

    Sent from my iPhone



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