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.