About mentioning those dirty secrets, those elephants in the room!

Don’t Lecture Me! I Can Read! (2)

July 26th, 2008 Posted in Sightings (All), Sightings: Education

Button Pushed: Foolishly going to check the numbers enrolled in my lecture sections for the next term, while musing about how few of those enrolled who actually show up ever seem to want to be there.

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“Wise and noble teachers are few; lecture-rooms are numerous and large, but the number of young people who genuinely thirst after truth and justice is small.” —Albert Einstein (in The World As I See It)

The typical and traditional university lecture is an anachronism—and a waste of everyone’s time.  As a route to information and education it is as inefficient as—and always less polished than—video documentaries.  More often than not, the only purpose it serves is to give university professors some concrete activity to perform for nine hours each week (for just a little over half a year) to justify their quite substantial salaries as ‘educators’.  In most cases, it would make far more sense for even this small amount of their time being spent actually contributing to scholarly, artistic, scientific or philosophical pursuits—or acting as a resource person with whom students could consult to augment their self-education.
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I should say right at the start that my comments on the lecture format do not apply to seminars, labs, practicums, tutorials, or any small classes which allow immediate interaction, questions, and discussion.  These are exceptions.  The rule is class sizes now so large that any kind of meaningful interaction in a lecture is impossible.  This is the result of the absurd doctrine that everyone should—in fact must—have a university education.  So classes are now filled to overflowing with more and more university students who have no real interest in actual education, and only want that piece of paper they’ve been led to believe will get them good-paying employment.
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A character in the film Good Will Hunting remarks to his friend: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library!”   This is not a new insight.  Thomas Carlyle realized this back in the mid-nineteenth century when he noted that the “true university these days is a collection of books.”  But, of course, that money now spent on “formal education” isn’t about real education.  Tuition is really just the purchase price for a piece of paper that allegedly increases the likelihood of lucrative employment.
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Once upon a time lectures did serve a useful purpose, but that was before the days of inexpensive printing, libraries with public access, and of course the Internet.  Things have changed a lot since the twelfth century when The University of Paris and Oxford were founded and going to lectures was virtually the only path to knowledge.  (Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type and a practical printing press came three centuries later.)
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But oh have times ever changed!  No one needs to sit in a class to learn the date of  the Treaty of Versailles or the formula for acetic acid or the definition of a gerund.  In fact, many profs prohibit Internet access tools in their classroom out of a secret fear that students will be fact-checking everything they say and inevitably catch them slipping up.
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Allegedly we are a literate culture.  The most efficient way to absorb knowledge, even wisdom, is through the written word.  At least since the Enlightenment, the greatest contributors to civilization in both the arts and sciences were auto-didacts whose educational foundation was constructed from books, not university lectures.

How many students justifiably complain that there is no point in going to lectures?  “The prof just reads his lecture notes.  Why doesn’t he just copy them and distribute them and let his students sleep in and read them at their leisure?”  Why indeed?  Well of course most students wouldn’t read them, but that is beside the point:  most of those who even show up for lectures don’t really listen to them.
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Perhaps the prof doesn’t just read his notes:  instead he rambles on more or less coherently about whatever pops into his head that has some peripheral relevance to the putative lecture topic.   That may be more entertaining, perhaps even somewhat educational in a haphazard way, but hardly a good way to systematically impart knowledge.
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Then, I will concede, there are the relatively rare lecturers with a delivery and persona that captivates their captive audience, the lecturers whose lectures are polished performances.  There is an organization called The Teaching Company that records (in a studio) truly exceptional lecturers teaching a great variety of courses.  They sell these recordings on the Internet.  I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of these performances, and they do deliver the goods.  So why then should a student have to show up at 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday to hear what is probably a far less polished performance from a far less competent lecturer, when he could just take one of these Teaching Company recordings out from the library and listen to it on his iPod or computer or CD player—at his own convenience?
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The absurdity of continuing large class lectures is made obvious (to everyone who doesn’t have blinders on because of a financial commitment to the system) by the recent trend, in even medium-size universities, of videotaping the lectures and then having the students show up at some set time each week to watch the tape.  (Oh, sometimes it is just a live broadcast to a big screen in a big room, but of course it could just as easily be taped and distributed.)  What could more dramatically demonstrate the pointless nature of the traditional lecture format than this!?
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However, the most important piece of evidence in the case against the lecture is the simple, indisputable fact that the written word is our most effective and efficient means of communicating most information.   Admittedly being read to aloud or listening to a polished and articulate speaker explicate a subject is a pleasant experience, but it still isn’t the most effective way of learning something.  One can read faster to oneself, and one can pace one’s reading with one’s rate of understanding, one can pause for thought, one can take a break and have a pee.  One can back up and reread.  I’m sure that if the recordings of lectures were distributed, so that playback would allow pausing, rewinding and replaying, that would bring this listening learning experience closer to the traditional and sensible method of just reading and studying a text, albeit it would still be less efficient than just plain reading.
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Even the best universities with the best improvisational lecturers cannot rival the best writers for conveying information effectively.  Some people are extremely articulate, skilled at thinking on their feet, witty and entertaining, but even they would certainly admit that should they be given a transcript of what they said, they could edit it to good advantage.  That is the power of the written word:  it can be modified, refined, polished and perfected.  No one can spontaneously speak as well, as fluently, as they could write.  Of course recordings of carefully edited and ‘choreographed’ lectures, such as those produced by The Teaching Company, are certainly in many ways like books.  (And you can listen to them while driving or walking the dog or pumping iron at the gym!)
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However, the plain truth remains that the typical university lecture to any class of much more than thirty students is an appalling waste of time and talent.  You really want to learn something?  Read about it!  In this age of The Internet and huge libraries with public access, getting educated has never been easier.  And then talk to someone knowledgeable.  Instead of requiring profs to lecture for nine hours, have them hold flexible office hours to answer questions from the handful of students (from the hundreds of those registered in the course) who have actually read the text and supplementary material written for the course and actually care enough to come to them with questions.
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There is less excuse for ignorance than ever before.  And less justification for the outrageous tuition fees for the dubious—and rarely appreciated—‘privilege’ of  being required to at least pretend to listen to some prof lecture for three hours a week.  C’mon!  Presumably university students know how to read, and it is a truism that nobody likes to be lectured to!
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Don’t lecture me.  I can read.

-D. D’Sinope

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