Stop lecturing students

Victoria student Sol Kauffman says profs talk too much

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Photo by Laura Mills

Photo by Laura Mills

From the Maclean’s Student Issue, on sale now.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing PowerPoint slides for half an hour now. In one window of my laptop, I’m brewing ideas for the paper due at the end of this week; in another, I’m editing a photo shoot I did on the weekend. In my busy life, this is the perfect opportunity to get some work done. I half listen to the lecture, perking up when a question is asked. Lots of chairs in front of me are empty. Obviously the usual number of people are skipping class today. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re working a part-time job; hell, maybe they just slept in. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on a phone. I know these students and they’re strong writers; I’m confident they’ll all pass with at least a B+. It’s not that the assignments are easy. On the contrary, we’ll all spend some sleepless nights grinding away at them. So why are so many of us absent, physically or mentally, from lectures?

As I learned in my second year of an arts degree at the University of Victoria, you don’t have to be there. In 2010 I registered for an economics class as an elective for my creative writing program. The description in the course calendar sounded awesome and when I walked into the 200-seat lecture hall I realized I’d gotten lucky. The professor was a pretty good lecturer who didn’t have a boring voice at all, and the content was as interesting as I’d hoped.On the other hand, it was on Tuesday nights. As a staff photographer for the campus newspaper, the Martlet, my Tuesdays were spent shooting last-minute pictures. The reality is that I missed nearly all the classes that semester. Nobody noticed my absence, and when I did sit in there was no discussion and no real reason to stay. After all, the notes were posted on the Moodle website.

Studying on my own was a challenge. I printed out old versions of exams, rewrote the PowerPoint notes by hand to burn them into my memory, and answered more than 250 review questions before the final. Even though I didn’t attend class, I felt like I had everything down cold. I got an A. And I wasn’t the only one; lots of students did the same.

Now in my third year, this bizarre experience has stayed with me: how I skipped almost every class and still got an A, how the university made some poor professor stand up there to be ignored for four months, and what that says about lecture courses.

It isn’t possible to take a “correspondence” course any more, at least not in UVic’s writing department. A new addition to its policies says students who miss more than two classes a term must withdraw from the course or, if it is too late to withdraw, receive a failing grade. I understand that high demand and low attendance is embarrassing, but I think the policy is deeply misguided. Forcing students to show up takes responsibility away from them and infantilizes them, and that in turn encourages them to care even less. I can’t imagine a professor who prefers to lecture to students who are forced to be there rather than those genuinely interested in the class.

There is also a new policy on laptops, which are considered disruptive and permitted for note-taking only. Misuse could lead to a ban from the instructor or the department head. It is yet another example of the university trying to control student behaviour. Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume, who teaches a course for the writing department, says it is ill-advised. “Telling students they can’t open the laptop on which they’ve received their assignment, stored their research and written the essay seems about as wise as telling students they can bring textbooks to class but aren’t permitted to open them.”

Students will take diligent notes if the material is worth taking notes on, and the more universities engage students, the less they have to deal with disrespect and absenteeism. But the policy change is consistent with other Canadian universities. They are treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease: lectures that aren’t worth attending.

The economics class exposed me to some interesting stuff. But the concept of teaching something verbally, having students take notes, memorize material and then pass tests on it is simply outdated. For one thing, students become extremely good at managing their time and cramming to pass tests. This reduces the amount of information you retain; I hardly remember anything of the economics class. More importantly, I can always refresh my economics knowledge online. What I don’t have is the ability to assess a situation and make an economic judgment, because that requires skills. I don’t want my university experience to be a simple rite of passage where I have to prove I can memorize things long enough to prove I did. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and money.

The hardest class I’ve taken this year is a photography class. I scored a B+, but it was one of the most well-earned grades I’ve ever received. Every week we shot and developed a roll of film and I spent many nights in the darkroom preparing prints for a final project. You used to be able to do hands-on work like this as an apprentice, but there is too much competition now. A four-year degree of lectures leaves us out in the cold.

We have to demand that universities prepare us for the modern job market. My writing workshops are a good example. Each class requires you to show up with comprehensive edits for your classmates’ pieces, and several times a term you have to submit your own drafts for group revision. Class discussions are lively and involved. The work we do is what we’d do in the field. It’s the same for my photography and journalism classes now that I’m in fourth year.

“Doing practical work in my field, be it writing, design or film, yielded the greatest results [academically], and that came out of workshops a lot of the time,” says Bryce Bladon, a recent grad of UVic’s writing department. “Likewise, lab work produced some of the earliest work in my portfolio and provided skills that I would not have otherwise learned.”

Through my 45 units of classes at UVic, I feel as though every hands-on course was worth twice as much as any lecture. Smaller class sizes and better professors may be expensive, but universities are squandering opportunities to give people credit for extracurricular professional development. The writing faculty at UVic scrambles each year to find enough professors and courses so people get the right number of classes, often dropping several courses in the calendar. If I could get credit for my time at the Martlet, or for my freelance photography, that would go a long way toward helping me and the university.

Let’s go beyond brainstorming stuff with your seatmate for five minutes and get into creating and critiquing each others’ professional-grade work. Now that I would love to shell out for.