Big Is Beautiful

If there’s anything uniting faculty on different sides of the aisle nowadays it’s disapproval of large lecture courses. To the Left, lectures are authoritarian; to the Right, they are lowbrow. Better the egalitarian or members-only atmosphere of the seminar, they say. To anyone who is just “agin’ the guv’ment,” lecture courses suffer the stigma of administrative approval, because deans and provosts love lectures as cheap and efficient ways to deliver information.
That is, if the courses succeed: many alumni remember only the professor’s yellowing notes or the students’ back-row shenanigans and not any actual learning. Nor is the future of lecturing bright, according to some experts, who say that nothing so prehistoric as a lecturer’s voice could possibly penetrate the digital habits of Generation Net.
But that’s not been my experience. Course evaluations–and I’ve read more than a few–show that students love pointed, provocative well-delivered lectures. They appreciate and respect a master narrative (the Left’s bugaboo), if only to give them something to rebel against. They can see through a professor’s bias and they don’t even mind it, as long as the professor acknowledges it. They appreciate common touches such as references to popular culture (the bane of the Right) as long as they are up-to-date. They want their electronic images, but not without a commanding voice behind them.

I love teaching lecture courses, but then, when I was a student, I loved taking lecture courses. I was a sucker for lectures from my first day of college, because I was already infatuated with the beauty of words, and a good lecture is nothing if not an art form. Efficient communication it may be, but a lecture can no more be reduced to the delivery of information than a Ferrari can be reduced to fuel injection. A lecture aims at imparting not just what is true but what is beautiful.
As a student and teacher, I loved and love seminars too, and why not? Different subjects, different people, different moods, all require different modes of teaching. The give-and-take of a seminar encourages stepping inside the complicated text of Thucydides or Wittgenstein, for example, in a way that the narrative sweep of a lecture would not. Seminars make it easier for students to express their own ideas, which are often full of insight.
But, when it comes to craft and polish, seminars cannot compete with lectures. Nor can they compete with the challenge of keeping an audience’s attention. Meet them halfway, and today’s students will turn off their iPhones and pay attention.
A good lecturer always meets the audience halfway, because lecturing is about connecting. Lecturing is supposed to be more authoritarian than leading a seminar, although I am not sure why. If the professor is a martinet, I’d rather have him separated by ten yards and a lectern than sitting next to me.
In any case, lecturing is a democratic activity. Communication in a democracy means persuasion. It also means stepping outside the comfort zone of a circle of friends of acquaintances and speaking to strangers. Democracies cannot afford the luxury of speaking only to small groups; they require speaking to the crowd.
With speech comes danger, and crowds can fall for demagogues. A good lecture course educates students against just that danger, because it gives them the leisure to evaluate the lecturer’s words. Discussion sections provide just that opportunity, since they allow the student to ask follow-up questions about the lecture. Usually, the interlocutor is a graduate-student teaching assistant – a less daunting figure to challenge than the professor.
Another way to educate against demagogues is to make students give a lecture themselves. I always require just that in my seminars, but with a twist: I never let anyone speak for more than five minutes, enforced by a timer with a loud alarm. Every student has to carry out this assignment twice during the semester. The first time, nearly everyone fails, but Americans are trained neither to be concise nor to speak in public. The second time, however, most students succeed, since young people are quick studies. When it comes to learning the tricks of the trade, there’s nothing like having to do the job yourself. So call my five-minute lectures Protection Against Windbags.
No doubt this is all idealistic. It leaves out Power Points, Clickers, and all the rest of the electronic clutter of the post-modern classroom. It passes over professors who raise enrollments by lowering requirements, but then, it also omits those who drive students away by setting impossible standards. More serious, it fails to salute those unsung heroes and heroines of the classroom who do it all themselves, without teaching assistants or graders.
But if an educator can’t be an idealist, then who can?


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