On Campus

Why traditional lectures will thrive

A defense against those who say lectures should be “social”

Photo by poptech on Flickr

There are few long-standing traditions that have as rough a reputation these days as the lecture.

Many commentators on higher education tend to see them as boring, old-fashioned and unsuited to the modern world and the modern student.

Thus American psychology professor Pamela Rutledge  in this recent blog entry takes the lecture as typical of the hidebound university because it is “unidirectional and linear,” not social and students don’t get to decide when it’s over.

But despite her arguments, I feel confident that traditional lectures serve a unique purpose. I believe they will serve us well into the future.

In today’s “globally networked world,” Rutledge argues, we should see higher education not as attending a lecture, but rather as attending a “cocktail party” where everything is social and everyone is equal and everyone comes and goes as they please.

The fallacy here, of course, is the common mistake of thinking that because social networking has changed the way we communicate with our friends, that it must change everything. Even if social networking is like a cocktail party, it doesn’t follow that everything should be like that. Would you like your doctor’s appointment to be like a cocktail party? Would you still going to the movies if the light shone on everyone all the time and everyone was talking at once? Should we start serving Manhattans at Sunday school?

Even if social networking has changed how students expect to learn (and I haven’t seen it), it doesn’t follow that the university has to change to accommodate their expectations. Their expectations may need to change in order to succeed at university. Even if students are not used to sitting and listening (God forbid!) to someone else talking for more than a few minutes, the capacity to pay attention to others who have something important to say is an ability worth developing.

Okay, fine, but aren’t lectures boring? No, bad lectures are boring, but that’s no reason to condemn lecturing as a whole, any more than a bad song is a reason to condemn music. My lectures have some parts that are hard going I admit, but that’s an unavoidable part of serious learning. Some parts are going to be tricky no matter what the teaching format or style is. I take pride in making my lectures engaging, and informative, and even funny when the occasion demands. I can think of many great lecturers who taught me in my student days, and I bet those of you who went to university can do the same.

Still, we keep hearing that lectures are passive and learning these days should be active. Here again, good lectures are not simply the passive transfer of information. Good lectures can be interactive (depending on class size) and (regardless of class size) can always be engaging. Listening and thinking hard about what is being said is not “passive” in the intellectual sense, and the intellectual sense if what counts.

Commentators like Rutledge tell us that we must change everything to be relevant in the 21st century. I disagree. The university lecture has survived numerous technological innovations, from printed books to television. It can handle social networking.

Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.

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