Teaching Tuesday: The Lecture Problem

3A longstanding problem in the discipline of history is the lecture. Looming over our field like a ponderous, aging, typically conservative, uncle, people insist that the lecture deserves its place at the table and, well, kids these days don’t understand that ole uncle lecture has remained in our family for as long as he has because … uncle lecture is a valued family member. We then shake our fists at people with their USB ports, active learning classrooms, and practice based teaching reminding them that we all learned history from old, uncle lecture and what is more, WE LIKED IT. 

To be clear, I like teaching lecture classes. I usually teach one every few years to upper level students. I use podcast lectures in my online history survey, and I even use short, on-point, lectures in my survey course in a collaborative learning classroom. Uncle lecture is a fine, old thing, as long as you don’t believe the stories about him being a war hero or single-handedly saving O.D.B. from a burning limo.  

In a recent article in the New York Times, by the historian Molly Worthen, trots out uncle lecture and once again sets him up against all the recent crazes, from technology in classrooms to STEM to active learning. The rhetoric of her article is defiant, she positions herself as a voice of conservative, educational wisdom, and she manages to undermine some of the most significant contributions of the discipline of history in less than 2000 words.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Begun the STEM War has. Worthen decides that the growing influence of STEM might be the cause for the spread of active learning. The humanities, opponents of all things STEM, must double down on the lecture to preserve their very identity. 

Ugh. This is so wrong, of course. If anyone is the blame for active learning, it’s probably the humanities. The 19th century seminar in history was the paradigm for humanities – and to some extent university education – for much of the early 20th century. In the seminar, students did not listen to a lecture, but analyzed primary sources to produce history. The production of history – that is the managing of historical information and the construction of historical arguments – remains the core value of education in the field. History is historical practice. The rise of rote memorization had less to do with the importance of various fragments of historical information and more about the construction of a mental database that would allow a student to build an argument about the past. 

In fact, the lecture is valuable (for history) only in as much as it models historical practices. A students who could recite a lecture verbatim (from, as Worthen tells us, detailed notes) is not a successful student. The practices modeled in a lecture must be applied to evidence either gleaned from the lecture and reorganized into a new argument or drawn from elsewhere.

Traditions of STEM teaching, in contrast, historically isolated the practice experience of learning through the lab, field practice, or simulations (often presented via lectures). In other words, the rise of active learning in STEM fields relates directly to their need to engage students in STEM practice in the classroom, which is something that these fields have traditionally lacked or sequestered in the lab component of the class or through field practica or other explicitly hands-on and active learning environments.

Most criticism of active-learning in the humanities stems (heh, heh) from our awareness that all of what we do is active learning because the product of a history class is … the production of history. Worthen’s association of active learning with STEM is a bit of pettiness that derives from educational politics rather than historical realities. It was a weak sortie in the STEM Wars.

2.  This contributes to SOTL and Assessment. My skepticism concerning SOTL and assessment are pretty well-known to anyone who reads this blog. I see both of those practices as components in a gradual deskilling of academic faculty and the sure transition of faculty from professional experts to employees. The production of increasingly generalized and non-disciplinary criteria for what we teach and how we evaluate disciplinary practice is part of larger project to undermine the professional standing of disciplinary practitioners and make university faculty into teachers rather than scholars.     

Articles like this do nothing to advance our cause. The historical foundations for Worthen’s arguments were, as I noted, questionable, her evidence for the value of lectures was squishy and insubstantial (at best), and the relationship between lectures and particular disciplinary skills was not clear. If historians value lectures, we should value them not because they keep students off Facebook or they teach students to listen carefully, but because lectures lead to the production of good history. As soon as we claim magical powers for lectures, we put ourselves into the realm of SOTL and assessment which privilege – in most cases –  practices broadly foreign to history and the humanities (typically, although not exclusively grounded in quantitative or systematic, qualitative practices of the social sciences) and non-disciplinary learning outcomes (like being able to sit still and listen, dammit).  

We need to stop doing that. The value of history is in practice. We offer the students a way to understand the past. Historians demand that students demonstrate their ability to understand the past using historical methods in our classes. (And lecture may or may not be a valuable tool to that end). Our big picture hope is that by teaching students to understand the past based on historical methods that they become critical consumers and producers of culture.

3. Blame technology. It is clear that technologies has changed how students and historians engage the classroom, interact with their peers, and produce knowledge. Worthen was silly about technology throughout this article. I’m sure her lectures are handwritten ensuring that she is better able to recall fine details while she presents in front of the class room. Studies have shown that writing lectures out by hand improves retention and memorizing a lecture would obviate the need for a lectern in the classroom and open up time for Worthen to “pace around, wave [her] arms, and call out questions to which [she] expects an answer.” 

The issue is, of course, how do students use technology. The kind of one-sided and, frankly, simplistic view of students and technology in the classroom does not suggest a venerable Luddism from Worthen, but rather conforms to the stereotype of an out-of-touch humanities professor who does not understand the way technology fits into the lives of students. Using technology to take notes, to find sources, and to engage course material reflects a tremendous opportunity and challenges the role of the lecture as source of information. Modeling historical thinking through scholarly articles or even textbooks, and pushing students to construct their own arguments and disseminate them digitally offers many more opportunities than developing among students the patience to watch a flailing history professor perform a prepared script. I have no doubts that Worthen understands technology, but her rhetorical position in this article does nothing to help the humanities in either the STEM Wars or in the court of public opinion. The contest in most cases is not between lectures and distraction, but between lectures and the remarkable wealth of material available on the interwebs.

As I said at the start of this post, I lecture and I respect the place of lecture in the history of our discipline and profession. Heck, I even enjoy listening to an engaging lecture by a peer. Justifying the place of the lecture within our discipline deserves more than the sophistry presented in this article. I’m not sure that I’m ready to present an argument for why preserving the lecture in history deserves its place within the university classroom, but Worthen has offered some conceits that I’ll certainly avoid.

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