Tuesday, January 19, 2010


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.
In praise of big lectures

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