“I love teaching lecture courses, but then, when I was a student, I loved taking lecture courses.”

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.


But, when it comes to craft and polish, seminars cannot compete with lectures. Nor can they compete with the challenge of keeping an audience’s attention. Meet them halfway, and today’s students will turn off their iPhones and pay attention.Minding the Campus (via Arts and Letters Daily)

I agree: a well-delivered lecture is a beautiful thing. It’s still a useful tool for disseminating information. Old-fashioned person that I am (and, quite frankly, as a ham that loves to perform) I don’t understand the beating the form takes in educational circles. So faddish, sometimes.

Update: I should have been more clear in my original post. I don’t think lectures superior to seminars, or labs, or on-line courses, or whatever. My introduction to medical school pedagogy – which is very, very recent – has confused me, a bit. Lectures seem a reasonable way to teach groups of students in certain circumstances. I don’t understand the need to make everything everywhere the same because of the latest paper. I am, however, new to the area and may be misunderstanding an awful lot. Pile on in comments if you think that I am!

7 thoughts on ““I love teaching lecture courses, but then, when I was a student, I loved taking lecture courses.””

  1. Sorry for the early strike on the submit key.

    It’s still a useful tool for disseminating information.

    When I think back on the memorable lectures of my academic career, there was very little information disseminated. That occurred in the assigned reading. The quality of the lecture was almost inversely related to the dissemination of information. What the lecture did was connect all the information previously acquired and profess a point of view about the connections that was ultimately a reflection of the belief system of the professor.

    Sort of like a good sermon.

  2. I was shocked a few years ago when I learned how many medical students skip lectures. The school puts the slides and summary on-line but even so, it is a comment on the perceived value of the lecture. I would not have dreamed of missing lectures but that was nearly 50 years ago. One of my favorite pharmacology professors recently retired and was considered by the students I taught one of their best instructors. He had been teaching in the same position for over 50 years. I don’t think they skipped his lectures.

  3. I think in part it depends on just how big a lecture is. My undergrad school capped lectures at 45 students (and most classes were seminars of 15). That was small enough that we could even engage in dialogue with the professor, but of course, it never came close to the seminar experience.

    In a seminar, you can ask questions, debate the teacher, actually discuss something from multiple sides, but a lecture is fairly plain. The best teachers will make them interesting, but that’s because they’re the best, and by definition only in limited quantities.

  4. Onparkstreet,

    Yeah, I loved lectures. My life was chaotic: that classroom offered quiet and order and something transcendent, interpretation & context more than information. (I took a ridiculous amount of lit and little else; that didn’t discipline me, but kept me sane.) The interpretations, full of personal anecdote and ranging allusions, helped me understand the literature – but, given my teenage narcissism and the nature of good literature, it pulled me out of myself a bit as well. Those teachers didn’t know us – it was more formal and, well, serene.

    As far as the undergrad years, I’m not sure if people from a more sophisticated background than mine felt as I did. (And certainly a discussion with a bunch of people like me would have been pretty pointless – I don’t know if I’ve ever describd my freshman honors ethics class in which later, I realized that philosopher in my notes was actually not Italian and Neechi wasn’t close to the correct spelling.) Then lit was more as Arnold would have seen it a century before (it is not surprising I married an Arnoldian) and not in terms of that dreadful superior tone of the critical theories of the last thirty years. So, it was a reverential if not religious experience. They were given us interpretations, the context of the Western tradition. I’d hate to be lectured at by someone who was proving himself constantly superior to those great writers – that must be a dispiriting experience.

    The time wasted in a bullshit discussion is considerable – and in a couple of those when I came back to grad school after knocking around Chicago and Europe for a couple of years, I really got pissed off. Why was I paying tuition? I heard the same crap in a hostel in Athens – I’d come back to study under someone who knew something.

    As for the thirst for lectures – look at Emerson’s incredible popularity in the nineteenth century and I suspect the Teaching Company is doing decent business. We keep a class for after-dinner tea & I can’t get over how exciting a good lecture is – how much can be pulled together in just thirty minutes by someone who knows what he’s doing. My students got extra credit if they’d report on a Book-TV talk; listening to a 45-minute talk on some book, they were surprised how much they enjoyed it. And my sophomores this semester (and this is as unusual as you might think) were probably more excited by Jonathan Edwards’ sermons than anything else – and what are sermons but lectures? So the excitement of lectures spans centuries and age ranges – the fact that current pedagogical theory thinks they are worthless says more about it than lectures, if you ask me.

  5. Mrs. Davis – Interesting. I had the opposite experience, but I think the main point is that there are many ways to educate, and it depends on the student, the pupil, the purpose, and the goals.

    Michael Kennedy – I’ve had some amazing lectures in med school.

    Graham J. – I agree, the size of the class is an important variable. In lecturing, the skill of the teacher matters regardless the form: lecture, seminar, lab. Self-study is the only out on that one :)

    Ginny – I meant to say how beautiful your last post was in the comments section and time got away from me. Once again, your comments here are wonderful. That’s exactly it: I found space and peace in some lectures and welcomed that!

    (A commenter at my “other” place, karaka – who is trained as a philospher – found seminars most helpful).

  6. I should have said “teaching” rather than lecturing in the second sentence to commenter Graham, sorry, in a rush and just typing things out!

    (I, too, am irritated by “bullsh*t” discussion, Ginny, and can’t stand going over and over something that doesn’t come to a conclusion! This may be because I am a chemistry major who went on to medical school. As mentioned above, literature or philosophy classes may require something else in terms of teaching; they require discussion, sometimes of the “B” variety (just kidding, friends!) The other thing about modern pedagogy that leaves me non-plussed is the elevation of student over teacher. But what if the student doesn’t always know best? This is a heretical thought these days, apparently :) )

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