There are two carved reliefs above the entrances to the Yale Law School intended to make a point about teaching. On the left (or above, depending on how your browser is showing it), above the students’ entrance, we have the students’ conception of the lecture: they’re engaged and eager to learn, but the professor is bored and would rather be doing something else, and his assistant is completely disengaged, reading pornography. On the right (below) we have the professors’ conception: brilliant, passionate lecturer with students fast asleep. The dominant contemporary image of the lecture is the worst of both worlds, with disengagement on both sides – let alone when we’re talking about scores of students rather than half a dozen. That is, the negative perceptions and expectations on either side – and, let’s be honest, there are real negative experiences on both sides as well – are taken to define the nature of the whole exercise.
The most challenging aspect of my first year in Exeter – well, apart from the struggle to remember that I now teach ‘modules’, not units or courses – has been preparing the lectures for the introductory Roman History module, taken by 160-odd first- and second-year students from a mixture of degree programmes. It’s not the material, almost all of which I’ve taught before in different forms, but the format: one two-hour lecture every week, supplemented by seminars once a fortnight. No possibility of simply sticking two of my existing one-hour lectures together; even I can’t talk for that long, even if anyone would be prepared to sit through it. Rather, it’s been a matter of rethinking entire topics, to break them into chunks of 15 minutes or so and recombine them into a coherent two-hour (well, 100-minute) whole with a decent amount of interaction and small group work to break the monotony.
This has been a challenge in a good, albeit time-consuming, sense: to think up a variety of ways of promoting constructive discussion and engagement within such a large group (asking them to imagine themselves as advisers to the emperor on defence strategy was a highlight, if one passes over the student who enthusiastically recommended some wholesale massacres pour encourager les autres), and to stick firmly to time for a change as carrying material over to the next class really doesn’t work. I’m not sure if I would actually want to do two-hour lectures in future, if given the option, but it has provided me with a lot to think about for more familiar forms of teaching as well.
It was interesting, therefore, to read a new piece by the ever-thoughtful Miya Tokumitsu about how the much-maligned lecture can still play an important role in pedagogy, even when it takes a thoroughly traditional form. Sitting in silence, concentrating on the real-time exposition and exegesis of material and the development of arguments and analysis – a combination of preparation and spontaneity – and developing one’s own critical commentary alongside is a valuable exercise in itself (and not, as I tended to think when an undergraduate, a pointless exercise when one could read the book instead). Moreover, it makes learning a social activity, alongside the solitary work in the library: “classrooms are a community”, and taking away the structures and rhythms of that community will inevitably weaken and undermine it.
One issue which Miya didn’t discuss in any depth is how the recording of lectures changes the dynamic. This does, as she notes, turn the learning process into an isolated, individual activity, no different from library research. But it’s also the case that listening to a lecture where you can pause or repeat sections becomes a different sort of exercise, and a less demanding one; powers of concentration are not developed or tested, while desperately trying to retrieve the thread of an argument when you’ve failed to grasp a point or just nodded off for a moment or checked Twitter at the wrong moment is a useful skill. Fine if the recording is used as a supplement to the original lecture, especially for students with different sorts of learning needs, or as occasional catch-up for someone who misses a class due to illness. Not so good if students decide that they don’t need to attend the actual lecture at all – and attendance records suggest that a number are making such a decision.
Okay, their student fees, their choice; I just hope they don’t then have the brass neck to complain about the lack of contact hours in a humanities degree… Still, I do think they’re missing something important – and contributing to the more general down-grading of lectures as a form of teaching. Unless it’s an already existing down-grading that makes the Powers That Be assume that a recording of a lecture is a perfect substitute for the real thing, so there’s no problem with mandating it. (Especially in my previous institution, where students got the PowerPoint slides and the audio recording but no visuals if, say, the lecturer writes on the whiteboard).
Complaining about the relentless advance of classroom technology always reminds me of the Musicians Union sticker I had on my gig bag: ‘Keep Music Live’. And one possible answer to the problem of lecture recording is precisely the one that the music industry has developed: make the live experience something special that people will want. Making the lecture into something different from just reading a book is of course fairly easy: improvise, put the tune through different variations, throw in some unexpected cover versions, add a few special effects and costumes, the usual (some backing dancers and an animatronic Julius Caesar might also help, but I don’t have the budget).
Differentiating the actual lecture from the live recording is a bit trickier, but not impossible. It’s about making the experience something that students – or at least most of them – will value and so pay more for (at least by investing time and effort in getting out of the house, finding their way to the lecture theatre etc.). It’s a chance (not of course the only chance) to ask me questions, as well as to meet one another, but more importantly – at least in my view – there is the stuff that doesn’t get into the recording. You have to be there, above all for the sections that are not simply me talking.
There are complex issues of consent in recording students’ contributions as well as my own wittering, and technically it’s a pain as you have to pass a microphone around, wasting lots of time, or their comments aren’t audible – and of course the small group discussions wouldn’t get recorded anyway. Every problem is an opportunity: the various exercises I mentioned above, breaking up the lecture with a quick reconstruction of the Senate debate after Caesar crossed the Rubicon and the like, are accessible only to those who attend in person, making the actual lecture far more than the presentation of material. Even in a class of 150-odd it’s possible to have meaningful interaction and debate – and in retrospect I could have used this much more directly to dramatise and draw out the nature of deliberation in a large body like the Senate…
So, if you’re not there in person, the best you can hope for is a classmate’s scribbled notes of key points raised in the plenary discussion – which is clearly far inferior to the real experience. My fear is that someone, sooner or later, is going to outlaw in-class activities that can’t be recorded, on the grounds that otherwise students who can’t make the lecture or prefer not to attend are receiving an inferior experience for their money. That really would be the death-knell for lectures as an appropriate and effective, rather than just cheap and straightforward, mode of pedagogy. Home Listening Is Killing Lectures!