I love a good lecture. My favorite teacher, a Professor of Literature at UCI, was a prolific lecturer. Actually, she didn’t really lecture, because she didn’t use a podium or a miniature microphone or a red laser beam pointing at lifeless PowerPoint slides. Nor was she ever standing, or delivering information from an elevated stage. But she lectured in other ways. She took a seat at the front of the classroom, opened up a giant, yellowing tome of literature–the New Testament, Shakespeare, the Analects of Confucius, the Bahgavad Gita–and started leading us through the text, as we listened in rapt silence. It was the most amount of deep, engaged listening I’ve ever done, outside of listening to Chick Hearn call Laker games in the mid 80s.
So for two hours, it was basically Dr. Silver opening up our minds to a fascinating and endlessly diverse landscape of literary mysteries and secrets; she dove headlong into canonical texts, exposing us to ideas, concepts, and symbols that we could only dimly apprehend, at least initially. While examining biblical imagery in William Blake’s poetry, she would suddenly transport us into Hamlet’s mind, and then connect his despair to Wittgenstein’s frustrations with language. Every so often, a courageous student would ask a question, but I don’t remember any group discussions, visual guides, formative assessments, or differentiated instruction. For long spells, I think many of us were completely disoriented. Yet we remained fixated. I can only compare the experience to being lost in the middle of the Rockies, but being awestruck by the stunning views. In Dr. Silver’s class, I was never sure where I was, but I never wanted to be anywhere else.
Molly Worthen describes a lecture as “a long, complex argument” that requires “students to synthesize, organize, and react as they listen.” She also argues that lectures offers “an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of non stop media.“ She bemoans the decline of the humanities, and criticizes the obsession with “active learning,” where lessons are endlessly customized to the unique needs of the students, and teacher-directed learning is prohibited.
Of course there’s much about her paean to the lecture with which I agree, based on my own experiences in Dr. Silver’s course, and the general joy I take from being in the presence of a commanding intelligence. I enjoy the “desirable difficulty” involved in assimilating, encoding and manipulating new forms of knowledge. Likewise, I appreciate the experience of recognizing patterns, assigning meaning, and synthesizing new ideas. A lively but focused lecture will stimulate all these mental activities, while limiting the distractions and sensory overload which undermine comprehension.
First, most lectures don’t meet this high standard, or stimulate so much cognitive processing. Second, most people enjoy lectures when they’re already predisposed to the material, and they don’t have to recall the information on a future assessment of learning. If someone lectures me now on democracy and the enlightenment, I could sit and listen for hours. But you don’t recommend a teaching method simply because it seems to work in very particular scenarios.
It’s also true that most lectures may establish a hegemonic and hierarchical relationship between teacher and student (a relationship which have its pernicious influence on minorities). In this context, it’s difficult for the learner to register the learning as personally meaningful. Because lecturers place very few direct demands on students, students can easily avoid actively engaging with the knowledge. There will be no practice, no rehearsal, no checks for understanding, activities which enhance leaning and deepen comprehension.