A con­ver­sa­tion starter

In de­fence of the lec­ture

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

The lec­ture is dead. And, ac­cord­ing to Carl Wie­man, there should be no Lazarus-style res­ur­rec­tion. Wie­man, a No­bel prizewin­ning ad­vo­cate of ac­tive learn­ing from Stan­ford Univer­sity, ar­gued here, just over a year ago, that be­lief in the value of tra­di­tional lec­tur­ing was akin to be­lief in blood­let­ting in an era of mod­ern, ev­i­dence-based medicine. And so in our con­tem­po­rary higher ed­u­ca­tion era, where stu­dents are at the heart of the sys­tem, and ensuring their sat­is­fied ex­pe­ri­ence is paramount, the lec­ture is out, and stu­dent-cen­tred forms of ac­tive learn­ing – the “flipped class­room”, stu­dent-led en­quiry and the like – are most def­i­nitely à la mode.

Wie­man’s cen­tral crit­i­cism of the lec­ture is that it is an­ti­thet­i­cal to the ideal of ac­tive learn­ing – where stu­dents demon­strate that they are pos­i­tively en­gaged with course ma­te­rial. But this fails to un­der­stand what a lec­ture is; why it is, and should re­main, at the cut­ting edge of higher ed­u­ca­tion. What is needed is a philo­soph­i­cal de­fence of the tra­di­tional lec­ture that stresses what it is: a mode of ad­dress.

The lec­ture must not be un­der­stood in terms of a uni­di­rec­tional mode of trans­mis­sion – a mono­logic form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in which stu­dents are merely pas­sive re­cip­i­ents. It should in­stead be seen as a spe­cial form of hu­man en­counter where the voice of the lec­turer is mod­u­lated specif­i­cally for the hear­ing of the stu­dent. This un­der­stand­ing may help to re­but one of the more un­help­ful char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions of the univer­sity lec­ture cited by crit­ics: that it is merely one con­fi­dent, cen­tral speaker pos­sess­ing, and broad­cast­ing, ex­pert knowl­edge to a less-than-ex­pert au­di­ence. Such an idea badly short-changes the lec­ture, which is, in fact, the ini­ti­a­tion of a di­a­logic re­la­tion­ship be­tween teacher and stu­dent. To ad­dress another is to de­mand a re­sponse from them. The US philoso­pher Stan­ley Cavell wrote in 2005 that in this kind of ad­dress: “I de­clare my stand­ing with you and sin­gle you out, de­mand­ing a re­sponse in kind from you, and a re­sponse now, so mak­ing my­self vul­ner­a­ble to your re­buke.”

When lec­tur­ing, we do not know (and pre­sum­ably should not know) how our stu­dents will in­ter­pret our words. But they do re­spond. They may do so with ex­cite­ment, baf­fle­ment, hos­til­ity or even dis­in­ter­est. But these are all valid, and ac­tive, re­sponses to the ad­dress of the lec­turer. She in­vites stu­dents to see the world in a par­tic­u­lar way, and they may do so, or refuse to, or sus­pend judge­ment. Far from be­ing a “sage on the stage”, with all the con­no­ta­tions of an un­lis­ten­ing and re­mote aca­demic, the lec­turer is in­stead deeply di­a­logic, com­mit­ting her­self to an ac­tive re­la­tion­ship with stu­dents. Thought of in this way, the lec­ture is not only a site of trans­for­ma­tion, but also a site of risk. It is where the self is ren­dered vul­ner­a­ble to the other’s re­proof, which might lead to awk­ward and messy mo­ments that mark gen­uine and mean­ing­ful en­counter.

The lec­ture’s im­por­tance in univer­sity learn­ing is of­ten ma­ligned, but it is the site where the essence of learn­ing is found. In this space where aca­demics speak and truly mean what they are say­ing, there is a move from per­for­mance of a mono­logue to the pas­sion of the di­a­logic en­counter. If we un­der­stand the lec­ture, then, as a mode of ad­dress, we un­der­stand the univer­sity more gen­er­ally as a more open, more vul­ner­a­ble and, ul­ti­mately, more ed­u­ca­tional place.

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