Monday, 11 August 2014

A typical modern university lecture (in reality, the antilecture)

[The imaginary and typical antilecturer speaks to his class:]

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. 

Thank you for coming today, that minority who have attended, but everything I am about to tell you has already been posted on the internet for two weeks - so don't worry if you aren't here, because you will not be missing anything. 

And if you can't make it to attend a lecture, or prefer not to come to lectures or whatever - then don't worry because the lectures are recorded so you can listen to or watch them whenever you feel like it. 

And don't worry about looking at the 'powerpoint' slides because I will read them out to you, word for word. I may also say a couple of extra things about them - I'm sorry if I stray from the pre-prepared text due to unprofessionalism - but don't worry, none of the extra things I say will be important: nothing you will be expected to know for the exams! When I do depart from the internet-posted script it will just be a waste of everybody's time, I'm afraid - just try to ignore it, please...

So you do not need to take any lecture notes - but just sit back and watch the slides I am going to show you. In fact, you will not be able to take notes on this lecture, because, in a few moments, I am going to extinguish the lights for the next fifty minutes.

After the lights are out, you will not be able to see me either - because we will all be sitting in the dark. But, don't worry: that is good, because it means the experience of people here and now will be equal to those who watch and listen to the lecture some other time, on video - so nobody will be disadvantaged.

So, don't worry about anything. This is all meant to be soothing, relaxing, unthreatening. Those few of you have have turned-up today don't really need to be here, and you don't really need to watch or listen, and you don't really need to make sure you understand what I am saying - all that stuff can be done later, at your convenience - whenever you feel like it. 

And you won't be at any disadvantage whatever happens - because this lecture has been designed so that those who are not here now, will not be missing anything at all compared to those of you present in this room as I speak. 

Any reason to actually be here, now, with me - in this lecture - has been eliminated.

So now - just sit back and relax in the dark on your comfortable seats: watch the projected images as they flicker before you, listen to my disembodied voice, and enjoy the very best of modern, technologically-enhanced university teaching.



Ingemar said...

I went to college just as the PowerPoint avalanche was starting to pick up speed.

Now, a good number of my classes did maintained the time-honored tradition of using the chalk board--thank God for that! and others had minimal writing but the lecture was mainly spoken.

However, many of my science classes (and even more unfortunately, two Physics classes) hopped on the PowerPoint bandwagon. I did go to as many lectures as I could but that's because I thought the whole silly concept of going to a lecture hall was to LEARN.

The common refrain for why professors put in such a half-assed effort into instruction is because they're busy writing papers, doing research, and training grad students (and by that I mean forcing them to do the professors' own work).

If the "real" action in universities is only at the graduate and doctoral level, it would be wiser simply to do away with undergraduate education or merge/integrate it with secondary education.

But then again, how are we going to feed our bureaucrats and admins?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ing - Luckily I was given extremely good lectures at Newcastle Medical school - especially during the first two (preclinical) years.

Why were they so good? Because almost everybody - from the Dean of Medicine downwards - was serious about educating the students - because they believed that students *needed* to know this stuff to be good doctors, and making good doctors was something that they very much wanted to do.

Of course, they were sometimes wrong about students 'needing' to know what they taught in order to be good doctors - but it was *that* conviction which drove the system which led to effective teaching.

Thras said...

Once the lecture size passes 4-5 (including the lecturer), the utility of the lecture hour rapidly declines to zero.

In fact, depending on the student, lecturer, and subject, it can sometimes happen that anything other than 1-1 instruction is a worse utilization of time than private study. The more worthwhile the subject and the more intelligent the student, the more this will tend to be true.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thras - Totally disagree!

Good lecturer, *good lecture theatre*, reasonably homogeneous students with proper attitude... extremely worthwhile lectures can be easily up to 150.

At Glasgow University there was a superb lecture theatre with a sharp rake, and a raked balcony - both close to the lecturer; blackboards which were washed every day... I sometimes taught classes of highly motivated and (mostly) able medical students in classes above 200 - and they went extremely well on both sides.

In the 1700s into the early 1800s the Scottish universities were probably the best in the world, and among the best the world has ever seen (and the model for the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) - they were based almost wholly on lecture courses given by (senior, eminent) professors.

(See Alasdair MacIntyre's - Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, The Democratic Intellect by George E Davie, and the work by Robert Anderson).

John K said...

Thank you for that, it sure made me smile. As someone who lectures, can I make reference to that the next time a student asks for then slides from the lecture? My goodness, I do tire of explaining that I want students to come to lecture and be engaged in the process (e.g., take notes).

Bruce Charlton said...

@JK - I don't use slides in undergraduate teaching - I make it so that everything I say can be copied down during class - even when I used to teach anatomy.

(Lectures are not suitable for teaching all types of knowledge - some things require private study; for example detailed and specific anatomy certainly does - but I used to teach overview/ approximate anatomy in the lecture form.)

I have used slides when I used to give seminars and public lectures - but these never went as well as the undergrad lectures.

Jables said...

The best lecturer I've known (teaching university courses) came in every day and wrote a series of names or terms on the blackboard. He then stood at the front of the class (~40 students) behind a podium and lectured for an hour, hitting each of these names in order naturally in the course of the lecture. The topic was medieval history.

These were *by far* the easiest lectures to learn from, the best mnemonic aid, and the best format for note-taking - because you write down the names at the beginning of class and then compose a sentence or two on each as they come. I'm convinced that every attentive student in that class (alas, probably only a few of us!) gained, in terms of raw historical knowledge, an advantage over his peers that could be measured in years of study.

He was already old when I took his class - I expect he had been lecturing that way for 30 years or more. He was a Cambridge man - I've no idea if he learned the technique there.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jables - that sounds like an interesting method.

It isn't the 'standard' Cambridge way of lecturing, in the sense that I have been taught by many Cambridge graduates none of who did it - but quite likely he learned it from one particular person.

However, different good lecturers will evolve their own method that suits them.

I find I need more than just a few key words - so I lecture from something more like key sentences - typically about one side of A4 notes per fifteen minutes of lecturing.

These form the basis of what I write on the board. But what I actually speak is improvised and I nearly always embellish with examples as they occur to me.

This keeps it fresh, but means I don't leave out essentials by mistake.