Wednesday, January 13, 2010

University lectures, yesterday, today, and tomorrow


University lectures began in the 12th century, when the first European universities evolved in certain centers of learning. "Lectures" involved professors (called "masters") reading and commenting on key books which were often in that pre-printing era unavailable to students.

Lectures in their original form have long been obsolete, and over the years there have been no shortage of people saying that live lectures should be replaced by something else -- TV lectures as were tried at my alma mater, Michigan State University 40-some years ago, online lectures, computerized interactive this and that, all in the name of greater efficiency and lower costs and the general trendiness of being on the cutting edge.

This has always rung false for me. Of course even the best lectures have their limitations, and being a "best lecturer" takes work and talent, but I've always believed that lecturing adds something to the learning experience that you might not get otherwise.

Today, over at the medieval group blog In the Middle Jeffrey Cohen expressed what I feel about this issue by describing his goals and the successful first day of one of his classes this term:

As I explained to my 90 undergraduates in "Myths of Britain" yesterday, being truly present is a commitment both teacher and students must make in order for a class to thrive. We've become accustomed to the solitude of checking email on an iPhone rather than being aware of the world moving around us, so to have 75 minutes as a community is a gift that ought not to be squandered. I spoke about my syllabus's Code of Courtesy at ITM recently. Its objective, I explained to my students as I introduced it, is to give us the moments of intense togetherness that we can't have if people are walking in and out of the room, texting, chatting with a neighbor. All I ask them to give to me and to each other is the commitment I give to them.

So far so good. I was nervous about my first class because I hadn't been in front of a room of students since last April. Keeping 90 restless adolescents interested is also a considerable challenge. But I walked out of the room happy, if exhausted: they have already proven themselves eager conversationalists. Something about my emphasizing their obligation to disagree with or at least question me skeptically seems to have resonated well.
I found it inspiring!

Image: medieval students hearing a "lecture." None of them are texting or surfing, but some seem to be sleeping or just talking.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link. I'm happy the post spoke to you!

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  2. It's something to aspire to, as a newish lecturer at least. May I ask where the illustration is from, originally?

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  3. 10th: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/medieval/images/medieval_lecture.jpg

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  4. Thankyou, but, bother, even on the page where they're using it they don't provide a provenance. Poor show Oxford!

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