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Stand and Deliver

Damon Linker defends the history lecture [1]:

A more powerful and compelling defense of the humanities lecture course would have to proceed differently — into terrain that professors of history, philosophy, and literature often find exceedingly uncomfortable these days. Such a defense would require that they confidently assert that professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.

There are many reasons why professors in the humanities are disinclined to mount this kind of self-defense. For one thing, the knowledge they offer seems so much less universally verifiable and socially useful than the knowledge produced in the STEM fields. Then there’s postmodern skepticism, which convinces many humanities professors that all claims to knowledge are thinly veiled assertions of power and efforts at exclusion and marginalization. (Who would want to be found guilty of that?) Finally, there are the democratic sensibilities that Worthen herself highlights in talking about our discomfort with the way that lecturing implies a hierarchy elevating the professor over her students.

All of these trends combine to make us uncomfortable with a professor pronouncing authoritatively from a lecturn — and increasingly at ease with group work in which no one sets himself up as an authority, no one presumes to pronounce definitively on truth and falsehood, and no one lays down a metanarrative [2] and forces the students to master it. Small groups of three or four young adults simply working it out for themselves seems so much more in keeping with our moral convictions.

The democratic approach to education might comport with our egalitarian sensibilities, but it’s pedagogically foolish.

Why do students of history need teachers who will stand at the front of a classroom and lecture? Because history is hard. It presupposes the knowledge of thousands of facts (names, dates, events) and how they fit together into an enormously complicated, multi-dimensional causal sequence. Until the students absorb those facts and grasp that causal sequence, “group work” and other forms of interactive learning are premature.

That’s why lecture-based courses that do the introductory work of explaining the past must come first — and why such courses are typically followed by smaller, more advanced seminars that foster conversation and debate and raise questions of historiography (competing and conflicting interpretive traditions about the past). By that point, students have learned enough — they know enough — to begin participating more actively in their own education.

But not before.

I’m not sure you really need to wait to work in groups until after you’ve finished listening to lectures – I think many students benefit from group work from very young ages. But I agree wholeheartedly with the defense of the lecture as such, and would alter Linker’s emphasis only slightly, as follows.

Some students – particularly those who don’t readily grasp the material – are greatly aided by having a framework within which to situate themselves, and that’s precisely what a narrative provides. But the strongest, most independent-minded students may well chafe against the restraints of such a framework. And the thing is, pushing against that framework is exactly what is going to make their own intelligence more powerful and effective.

I forget who it was – Helen Vendler [3], possibly – who questioned the Columbia University core curriculum’s notion of what makes books “great” by noting that, while you could build a canon out of Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tolstoy, you could also build a very different canon out of Ovid, Boccaccio, Cervantes and Joyce. Without even getting to once-trendy debates about the identity politics of the canon, you can have a robust debate about what kinds of books qua books belong in such a list, and what putting a book on such a list does to the book itself. But you can’t have that debate without first making precisely such a list.

Similarly, I learned about modern art from New York’s Museum of Modern Art [4], and the art history book they put out which amounted to a text. MoMA was notorious, then, for imposing an extremely strong narrative on the history of modern art, one that emphasized purity and a drive toward abstraction. It’s a narrative that was born as Abstract Expressionism rose to prominence, and it reflected that movement’s own values. And it’s a narrative that made it hard to explain why exactly an artist like Klee or O’Keefe was important. But you couldn’t have had that argument without having a strong narrative to argue against.

All of which is not so much an argument for conservatism as it is for taking a stand. Yes, there is a multiplicity of defensible, workable narratives, for history, philosophy, etc. But I am giving the lecture, and I see things this way. And part of the way I am going to teach you how to come to your own perspective is by making you deal with mine. Yes, this means your perspective will be shaped by mine, either by acceptance or by resistance or by a creative reinterpretation that winds up subsuming my own perspective into something new that you can call your own. But how else can you learn?

And now, I’m going to take off my Harold Bloom mask [5] and get back to writing that screenplay.

 

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Stand and Deliver"

#1 Comment By John Texan On October 20, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

Wonderful article. I teach hs so don’t think it completely applies to me, BUT I am always amused by so many professional developments involving listening to a lecture on why lecturing is a horrid way of educating.
The big question I had at the beginning of my teaching experience was, “if not from me and not from a text book where in the hell are the students supposed to get their information from?” The sad answer was themselves (from administrators!). Needless to say, the students didn’t know anything.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On October 20, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

I agree with the proposition that “professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.”

The problem for me was that I always had a hard time doing the two things required of me during a lecture – truly concentrating on what the professor was saying, and taking proper and complete notes — at the same time. I desperately wanted to be able to sit there and listen to the prof and really think about and digest what he or she was saying – except that my having to take notes (so that I could study for tests) radically messed up my gaining a true appreciation of the content of the lecture.

My long-hoped-for solution to this problem was that the profs would hand out copies of their lectures at the beginning of each class. That way we, the students, could really focus on what the prof was saying—rather than madly jotting down endless notes of lecture points that we thought might be on the next test. And yes, if having the lecture text passed out meant instituting compulsory class attendance, I was all for that, too, because I wanted to be at the lectures anyway.

#3 Comment By SC_Birdflyte On October 20, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

As a matter of fact, I DO hand out notes prior to each lecture. That doesn’t seem to encourage note-taking, rather passive listening. I sometimes that getting my students to pay attention requires special trickery.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 21, 2015 @ 1:14 am

I think the last sections of this article regarding framing data, and establishing the criteria by which other perspectives may be measured against it are largely correct.

The contention that no established authority has a market on ttruth is really the incorrect positioning. It’s not the choice of a priori lens. It’s the content of what the lens examines. That makes expert the lecturer.

#5 Comment By Bob_the_other On October 21, 2015 @ 6:34 am

“Yes, there is a multiplicity of defensible, workable narratives, for history, philosophy, etc. But I am giving the lecture, and I see things this way. And part of the way I am going to teach you how to come to your own perspective is by making you deal with mine. Yes, this means your perspective will be shaped by mine, either by acceptance or by resistance or by a creative reinterpretation that winds up subsuming my own perspective into something new that you can call your own. But how else can you learn?”

My doctoral supervisor did precisely this in his undergraduate lectures. Also, one thing that worked for him was that he used Powerpoint to put up a set of images (no words), and weaving his lecture around them. The images worked both as memory aids, and as means of engaging students. The other thing that a good lecture can do in the humanities is to serve as an example of how to engage with texts. It need not necessarily involve the lecturer imposing his conclusions on students. There is (and always has been, I suspect) a kind of master-apprentice relationship between lecturer and student.

#6 Comment By mdc On October 21, 2015 @ 7:15 am

Very interesting. Some reading lists are determined by a narrative, but I’d say that this is not true of every reading list, for two reasons.

1) Teachers who endorse very different, even contradictory narratives, might sign on to the same reading list. (Reading A, then B, shows how far we’ve fallen from the glories of A; or it shows what strides we’ve made since the backwards days of A.)

2) Teachers might be quite undecided, or even indifferent, to any alleged narrative. This is possible because the readings might each be sources of learning, independent of any theory of organization.

I agree that if, on the other hand, what you are after in an education *is* a narrative, either to absorb or critique, you might as well lecture.

#7 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 22, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

History is both a subject matter and a discipline, and so a history professor has to design a class that does justice to both aspects of the subject. I generally alternate between framing lectures and group projects in which students discuss interpretation of primary source documents. Earlier exams test retention of basic facts; later exams include interpretive problems.