In defense of "boring lectures"
Humbly offered by a practitioner of the boring art
[A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, Joseph Wright of Derby]
The other day, I was Googling one of my friends, as I sometimes do as a method for avoiding work. I am something of a certified expert in this technique. I accept it as a failing too deeply rooted to ever hope to fully cure. You just treat the symptoms and hope for the best.
The reason in this case—beyond procrastination—is that I had just heard from an old grad school friend with whom I’d been out of contact for a few years. We’ve had intermittent contact over the intervening decades. We used to write more frequently, then we both got busier families, and…you know the story, I’m sure.
My friend is smart, honest, kind, friendly, exceedingly likeable, the kind of person it is almost impossible to imagine as the enemy of anyone. I think we became friends at least in part because of her nearly saintly character: she recognized me back then as someone who was rather less skilled than she was at refraining from useless antagonism of other people and she felt a compulsion to aid and comfort a poor outcast suffering somewhat from his lack of ability in this area. I’m really only barely exaggerating her positive qualities.
I started just trying to find the title of a book she wrote a few years ago because her email reminded me that I had wanted to look in it at some point in the past to see whether or not it might be of some use in a course on religion I am teaching next year. (Ideas like this—”Hey, be sure to have a look at this thing or that thing because it might be useful for X”—come into my head dozens of times a day, almost always only to evaporate into the ether without a trace within minutes).
Then, the Internet did its malicious work and tempted me to look at other things. One of the first things that popped up for her online, as is undoubtedly true for many college professors, was her Rate My Professor account.
I was mildly surprised to see negative comments on her account that accused her of the very sin I am accused of on my own RMP account. (Yes, I have looked at mine, to my eternal regret). The transgression? Boring lectures. Oh, how students today hate, hate, hate what they have come to understand as boring lectures.
To repeat myself, my friend and I could not be more different in our interpersonal mannerisms and styles. She is perpetually smiling, tiny and totally unthreatening, and cute as a button. I am towering and menacing, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Klaus Kinski’s vampire in Herzog’s Nosferatu (one of the greatest horror films ever made btw), and probably look as though I am contemplating something grim even when I am smiling (and sometimes I am).
The relevant thing here that the two of us have in common is our view of the process of education. We both believe that in imparting knowledge to young people, the insights of older people who know more than they do are considerably more valuable than the views of other mostly knowledge-free young people, and we believe that such knowledge is often offered most economically and most effectively in the form of what is known as: the lecture.
The experience I have gathered in my years looking at the teaching evaluations of colleagues and comparing those data to what I know of their commitment or lack thereof to the now nearly universally vaunted “student-centered” classroom leads me to believe that many college students today, many more than in previous generations, have been made incapable of benefiting from lectures. They may well have had that incapacity from birth. Indeed, they are even mostly incapable of being able to distinguish the boring ones from the non-boring ones.
The term “boring lecture” is redundant for such students. All lectures are boring, because anything that means that I have to stay still for a minute and listen to others tell me valuable things they have gathered from long years of study that I will likely never undertake myself is by definition boring. Where is the constant fun we were promised? Where are the balloons and the cake? Where are the dancing bears and the clowns?
I suspect much of what such students despise as “boring lectures” are not even lectures, but rather episodes in which an attempt is made to generate student discussion of a text or idea and the students are silent and the person in the room who understands the subject at hand just finally goes “OK, I tried and they don’t care to discuss this. So let me salvage the rest of the time we have by giving them some information.” I speak as a veteran of this experience.
What do such students want? (Again, not all students, but more of them than one would prefer).
They want excitement. They want to be constantly in action. They want to talk about popular culture in their small group in which they are supposed to be discussing the text we have read today. They want whatever they think right now, even if it is consummately ill-considered and not even informed by a casual reading of the material at hand, to be gushed over and valued by passive observers. They certainly do not want to be reminded how much they have to learn to get anywhere near competence in subject matters to which they are strangers.
They don’t want an expert on a topic to tell them what he or she knows about it so that they might benefit from that expert knowledge. They don’t want the Sage on the Stage. They want the Guide on the Side. Better still, the Peer in the Rear.
(Hat tip to Mark Bauerlein for introducing me to those wonderful categories that are apparently actually used by the people in higher education who dedicate their professional lives to pontificating to the rest of us, with no reliable evidence to support their pontification, regarding how we should talk or, better, not talk about the subjects we have studied with students).
Here is my pledge in response to the students who cannot sufficiently hate “boring lectures”: I don’t care how many students write reviews of me accusing me of the sin of “boring lectures.” I am going to keep lecturing forever.
You see, I know how much benefit I derived from knowledgeable lecturers as a student. It was and is immeasurable. I still recall with warm fondness sitting in huge lecture halls as a freshman and being regaled with the wisdom of people who had forgotten more about the subjects they spoke about than I will ever know. These experiences were the highlight of my undergraduate years. They were the best of those times, easily. I learned a tremendous amount from those lectures and those lecturers. I admired and envied the people who performed such intellectual performance art, and I wanted to learn how to become someone capable of that same fascinating craft.
I also remember quite clearly the experiences I had with what was the first generation of the “Guide by the Side/Student-Directed Classroom” faculty. (The species already existed then, but it had decades to go before it would wholly overrun the higher ed ecosystem). The main thought that was constantly in my head in these classes run by people who frequently made it patently clear that they really didn’t know a lot more about the topic of the course than I did was this: “Why am I paying money to hear what other unread 18 year-olds, most of whom scored considerably below me on all the standardized tests, think about international politics? I don’t care what they think about that topic. And if I did, I could find that out for free in the dorms after classes are finished for the day.”
I have known The Education People, and I know what they respond to this position.
“You must have experienced teachers who did not know how to properly run the ‘student-centered classroom.’ We have learned so much more about how to do it since then! It always works now, and the product is fun, fun, fun + lotsa knowledge!”
“Your experience is not representative of the average student. Most of them are not intellectuals-in-training and have to be hooked in with more enticing mechanisms. You have to meet them where they are.”
“Why are you so elitist? Why can you not accept that real knowledge might come from below rather than above? Haven’t you learned as much from your students as they have from you?!”
That last remark, about the balance of learning in exchanges of students and teachers, is something I have heard and seen written at Bucknell dozens of times over the years. A version of it once graced the entrance to our library: We are all teachers here.
It is hard for me to express how wrong I think that sentiment is. Not even wrong. Just hopelessly confused about the whole nature of the interaction. Can I learn something about the personal lives of students, or about their interests, that I didn’t already know in interacting with them? Sure. But that’s not what we are in a classroom together to do. When we gather in a classroom, the task at hand is the study of the discipline in which I am an expert and they are not. No student has ever taught me anything about social theory or human nature in the 20 years I’ve been doing this. If students are teaching you about the discipline in which you are purportedly an expert and they are not, that’s probably a good indication that you are not really so expert as you need to be to have this job. If we are all teachers here, why are some of us being paid to teach while others pay to be taught? Isn’t that horribly unjust?
I once suggested to a colleagues who used this line in a dispute with me about some other topic (to prove, naturally, how much better he was at the game of professoring than I am) that if he really believed that, then he should put his money where his mouth is and give some portion of his salary back to the university to be distributed out to the students who had done so much to educate him over the years. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do that.
As I said, I have known people employed in Education Departments. I have much empirical evidence on which to base an evaluation of their judgment and their intelligence. I have seen them generate hot new educational pedagogy after hot new educational pedagogy over the years. I have seen what they call the “research on educational outcomes” (which is nearly always just asking teachers whether they liked how class went and students whether they think they learned a lot) that they use to evaluate the successes of the hot new educational pedagogy of the moment. I have heard them talk and read the things they write. Those data would be enough for me to feel confident in going about my business without inordinate attention to their claims, even if I did not also have the compelling justification of my own experience. But I do have that experience. And the value I have gotten from expert lecturing professors in my life is like the Sun in magnitude compared to the tiny asteroid of the Education People’s claims about the “student-centered” classroom.
I don’t know if I qualify as a Sage on the Stage, and in any event that decision ought to be made by someone other than the would-be Sage himself. I do know that I aspire to be one. And I have that goal, and I work assiduously toward achieving it all the time, because I know there are still some students in my classes who are not wholly unlike the student I was 35 years ago, and I know they are looking to be inspired, and to learn, and to grow in the same way I looked to my teachers for those precious things.
I remember having to listen to a talk by one of these "student-centered" charlatans. He gave an anecdote that he seemed very proud to relate. His students were doing whatever it is they do, chatting away about god-knows-what. His colleague saw him hanging around the hallway and asked him what he was doing. "Oh, teaching, again," he said.