Lecture or laptop?

Done correctly, a lecture is far from drudgery. Instead, it's a method to teach the  art of listening.

Done correctly, a lecture is far from drudgery. Instead, it’s a method to teach the art of listening.

Even if you haven’t been in a college classroom lately, it won’t surprise you to know the lecture format is being replaced by “active learning” methods that emphasize group work and technology-driven presentations.

So it was refreshing to read a smart essay in Sunday’s New York Times in defense of the traditional model in an op-ed by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections,” Worthen writes. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Four quick nuggets from the piece (including a pleasantly surprising reference to Oregon):

— Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.

— When Kjirsten Severson first began teaching philosophy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon, she realized that she needed to teach her students how to listen. “Where I needed to start was by teaching them how to create space in their inner world, so they could take on this argument on a clean canvas,” she told me. She assigns an excerpt from Rebecca Shafir’s “The Zen of Listening” to help students learn to clear their minds and focus.

— Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.

— A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.

Amen. Times four.

(Of course, my support of the lecture format is predicated on the assumption that the professor knows her subject and is able to present it with vitality.)

Image: Baptiste Alchourroun


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