THE END OF LECTURING?: NEWS FROM BRITAIN

My colleague David Owen passes us, Literature teachers, two interesting links. Both refer to a recent critique of the usefulness of university lectures by Wikipedia’s founder: “Jimmy Wales: Boring university lectures ‘are doomed’” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22160988) and “Are university lectures doomed?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/05/debate-university-lectures-doomed-philip-hensher-john-mullan).

The main gist of Wales’s argumentation is that increasingly popular online higher education will kill the traditional lecture, or rather, the students’ need to attend lectures delivered live. He claims that uploading pre-recorded lectures should work best, as one can choose when to stop and ‘rewind’ if necessary. Also, students could thus sidestep boring lecturers: “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” (See how he rates the ability to teach well as an ability to entertain well…)

Philip Hensher and John Mullan consider Wales’s critique in the Guardian article. Hensher, a lecturer himself, is puzzled that there are “still institutions where academics stand at the podium and start to read out from dog-eared print-outs of last year’s lectures” like in the pre-internet 1980s. He declares, to my dismay, that “Since I took to lecturing myself, I generally approached it as cabaret”. Yet, as he himself observes, “realistically, if one wanted to teach anyone anything, I think one should make them participate, interrupt, ask questions, disagree, talk back, and that’s the alternative route I’ve taken.” John Mullan, a professor of English at University College London, rejects Hensher’s idea that the lecture is “inherently authoritarian and tedious” and stresses that student response should happen in seminars with small groups, not in lectures.

In Spain traditional university teaching consists of lectures (‘clases magistrales’) that students attend and then vomit back at lecturers in final exams. One advantage of this method for teachers is that, yes, you can recycle your notes the following year(s); second, you can be as dense as you wish (em, offer high standards) as you needn’t worry about whether students follow your lecture or not. In the English Department I work for the habitual practice is NOT to lecture, unless it is absolutely necessary, as we believe that classroom time should be used for what students cannot do alone, namely, practice English (for the equivalent of lectures we can upload texts for them to read, or send them to the library). We believe, in short, in teaching our students seminar-style, with all the limitations that this entails when your class is any number between 25 and 80, with most groups around 50. My own teaching practice is based on that methodology: minimal lecturing, as much close reading followed by dialogue as I can cram in 80 minutes.

I had this week a very interesting conversation with a brilliant first-year student taking a combined degree in Catalan and Spanish. Very candidly, he acknowledged that the Catalan side of the degree fulfilled better what he expected university to be, as teachers lecture (and students take notes, and cram for final exams). My own class, he said, works fine as far as the choice of reading matter is concerned but is quite light in comparison, as I depend on what students can contribute (we do continuous assessment, by the way). With most students below the required B2 entrance level, I agree that class dialogue suffers much. In the last class, I had to ask him not to answer when I asked a question, as he puts off less advanced students from participating. Which was not very nice of me… though he said he’s used to it.

I worry all the time that I should lecture ‘properly’, but, then, Jimmy Wales might not find me the kind of good entertainer that deserves to have his/her lectures uploaded. Yet, if I lectured, I would deprive my students of the chance to combine forces with me and, well, think (and, remember, Socrates invented interactive teaching…). But, again, if I base classes on interacting with students who are not motivated, or do not know enough English (or both), I end up losing the interest of the really good students, who think that I’m not, um, scholarly enough.

In my fourth-year elective, English Theatre, for which I needn’t worry about my students’ English (it’s good enough) and I have around 25 students I lecture half the session and speak with them the other half. It works, at least for me, so here is the solution: keep groups small for everyday teaching, offer lectures only when invited to do so… and online if you think your cabaret act will please Jimmy Wales and all those who think that lecturing should be a form of theatre.

If you think about it, Wales’s argument is plain silly, as uploading lectures on the net does not mean they will or must disappear in their live version –they can be complementary. There’s also something else: online learning requires a strict discipline regarding the student’s daily schedule, whereas live learning imposes a routine that most students need. By the way, even though I do mention the Wikipedia often in class as a wonderful resource I couldn’t enjoy as a student, and one should imagine that my students are all the time learning from it, this is not, Jimmy Wales, the case…

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