Education, Universities

Lecturing at you

Monday, 9th September 2019

Lecturing is bad if you do it poorly. Lecturing is bad if you do it well. That’s the continuing message I see here.

But there’s something else that gets talked about much less – whether students are willing to learn long-form arguments or narratives. They certainly are if there’s a ripping good plot (Harry Potter continues to sell well, all 7 books plus ancillary material), but following a longer-form argument is harder, and requires exposure and practice. That is true whether it is spoken or written. So yes, lots of forms of teaching are needed, and I use them myself. But as a philosopher, I can see that students are more interested in the position, the belief, the nugget that can be consumed, than they are in the (sometimes long and tortuous) argument used to support it. Or in the path to asking a good question.

This is, of course, a generalization, and maybe it was always thus. Certainly of the undergrads I was with, relatively few were interested enough in the arguments to give them the time it took. Maybe nothing has changed in that regard. And, maybe we only start realizing the importance of these long-form things when we’re required to – I recall thinking I knew Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason pretty well, until I had to teach it. Then I realized how much I didn’t know.

But what I see here, in suggesting that “smooth-talking” professor might be counterproductive, is the dismissal of the entirely oratorical history, of traditions around the world. Understanding has always been situated between dialectic and rhetoric, between truth/knowledge and its presentation. We’ve known this since ancient times. But that seems to be what’s been forgotten here.

What does it mean that students “think they’ve learned more” than they have? Are they being tested on facts pertaining to material? Maybe that wasn’t the point of the lecture. Maybe it was to change a perspective, to open someone up to another experience. Maybe it was to struggle towards a new question, or, yes, to give a long-form argument for something.
No, of course lecturing is not the only or best way of teaching. That’s where these things usually go – you either argue for the usefulness of lectures, in which case you’re all in on the “sage on the stage” model of teaching, you think students are empty vessels to be filled with your wisdom, etc., or you are against lectures, in which case you’re a real friend of the student, you are understanding how they learn, you’re being modest and decentering yourself, etc. So, what if those two extremes are just caricatures, and few of us actually live in those positions?

Do I lecture? Sure, sometimes. I do lots of other stuff too. Sometimes, me talking at the front isn’t a lecture, it’s more like a confessional – when I teach critical theory, I tell them stories of when I’ve been racist, when I’ve been sexist, when I had to learn something and get out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s to model what speaking in complete sentences and thoughts looks like, and what working from evidence and reasoning looks like, because there are precious few models of that in culture. Sure, there are other ways to get to that goal, and I use those too. And I ask questions that get students to talk between themselves and answer as small groups. Sometimes, I lecture to lay some groundwork so we can go on and do something more interactive afterwards. Often I lecture not to convey a body of information, but to model a different way of approaching something than they’re likely used to. Again, yes, there are other ways to do this too, and I use those too. It’s not just one thing.

The “learning styles” research has largely been debunked, and I was never all that interested in trying to play to what students thought their strengths were. When I taught critical thinking, I used to have one 2 week section on formal reasoning. Some students loved it; others hated it. The ones that hated it said that they couldn’t do math. My response, generally, was that now that they’ve identified a weakness, that’s great, because that meant they could work on it. They were rarely pleased with that. But it’s true – “learning styles” usually told me what needed work, not what I should be playing to. You’re a visual learner? Right, well, let’s see how that works with reasoning towards a conclusion, considering possibilities that aren’t there, etc. Can’t do that, don’t like to do that? Well, that’s something that needs work then.

Anyway, I’m more interested in both faculty/teachers and students learning what Aristotle called “phronesis”, and what gets translated in Gadamer as “tact” – knowing the right thing to say or do at the right time. It’s judgment. And for Aristotle, you have to learn it, by trying lots of stuff and by seeing the results. Tact isn’t just soft-peddling the truth, it’s knowing when and where and how to say something, so that it will be heard, so that it will have an effect and a desired result, in the best case so that everyone comes out a winner (Aristotle’s example is the statesman, who has to know how to get something done in the political realm). That’s far more useful than some idea that we have to do more or less of something. What’s the goal, what’s the desire outcome, how do you get there, and how do you develop the skills and judgment to tell? That’s much more interesting than the conclusions that will likely be taken from studies like this.

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