First, lecturing can be lazy. Not in the sense that it doesn’t take a lot out of you and there isn’t any energy expended. On the contrary, lecturing take a lot of physical effort, especially the way some of us do it. I am quite active and animated. I am known for it. But I also tell my students that I could lecture in my sleep. That’s an exaggeration, but not really. I have given some of the lectures hundreds of times, at least.
It is human nature to default to the easy, and sometimes I cherish and look forward to those day when I get to go in, give that lecture I know backwards and forwards, for which I have all the jokes and stories and timing down, and that I know is pretty effective and clear. It gives me comfort, in a sense. “I can do this. They like me, I’m funny and entertaining, and they get it.” And they do like it They can be passive, they know exactly what to write down for the lecture notes, I’m funny, and I give them stretch breaks. Everybody is happy.
Maybe they are too passive, maybe they think I'm canned, maybe they wonder why I can't just write out the lecture, maybe their minds are everywhere else but there, in the class, in the moment. And maybe I have defaulted to laziness.
That’s why we have to be teaching and developing new courses.
That’s why every two years, at the least, we need to re-do PowerPoints, rethink the structure of lectures, really critique our approach to the lecture, really question our assumptions about the material and what I would call the syntax of the content—its method or order of being presenting.
The second argument against lecturing as a primary or sole method of teaching is that it violates communication methods. Today I sat through a presentation on ESL students, a field that has all kinds of acronyms and I am probably using the wrong ones. The presenter said a number of helpful things,but the one that rang truest for me was that people telling you they understand, or implying it, is often meaningless. They smile and say they do, but they don’t know what they don’t know. This is perhaps the worst thing about lecture. Its unidirectionalness, its one-wayness, doesn’t allow for much admission, forced or otherwise, from the audience that they don’t understand.
When a political speaker wants to address an audience, he or she studies the audience, has researchers who gather data on the audience, and he/she crafts a message based on what would best reach the audience (or, of course, hires a speechwriter to do so). A lecturer must take the same approach—before delivering a lecture, the lecturing professor must understand the demographics of class. Example, and one related to the presentation today. Much of our humor and storytelling is based on cultural and even pop cultural references that go over the head of people—of a different age, gender, ethnicity, and language—and we don’t even know it.
The third argument against lecturing is that some of us don’t do it well, or as well as we think. How do I mean that critique? Some of us have monotone voices, or are very soft spoken and are just plain hard to hear. We do not command interest very well as speakers. To depend on lecture is to depend on your public speaking skills, which do not relate just to vocal skills but also to structure, creativity of examples, transitions, energy, storytelling, and sensitivity to audience feedback. Some of us just have other strengths. So does that mean we shouldn’t be teaching? No, it means we who have lesser skills in public speaking should not be depending on lecture very much.
Which brings us to the question, are we as good at lecturing as we think we are? Have we watched ourselves? Have we let others watch us and offer valid critique to which we are open?
On a related note, good oral communication skills are even more important in light of the diversity of our classroom. In one class last year I had five Latino students (from different countries), one Kurd, one Viet Namese student—and this is a small Southern city! I can’t list all the nations that have been represented in my class at this particular college, but let me try: Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, China, Nigeria, Nepal, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Canada, Viet Nam, Kurdistan, Ghana, Spain, Panama, India, Pakistan—21 and counting. And most of them spoke English quite well but as a second language. I know they appreciated that I spoke loudly and clearly, because they were struggling enough with the new environment.
So, let me give some advice on lecturing:
- Be purposeful. Use lecture ON PURPOSE, for good reason.
- Tie the lecture into clear objectives. Answer the "so what" question.
- Be organized. Have a beginning, middle, and end. Don’t stop in mid-sentence because the time is up. Don’t walk into class talking, dump your books, and expect the students to catch up. Grab attention, state an overview, use transitions, and end with a clincher.
- Don’t cover the material, uncover it (I know, that’s a cliche, but it’s still good advice). What does that mean? Ask questions and interact, focus on the text, ask honest questions that you don’t have prefab answers to, listen.
- Don't read out of the textbook and revise your notes regularly (these are the two big stereotypes of the lecture method, and they are straw man arguments)
- Lecture 20 minutes, do something short to let them clear their minds or refocus, preferably an activity or even a physical thing (it’s just not good to sit for longer than an hour, for anyone), and then go for another 20 minutes. Our periods are 75 minutes long, so I could do that 3 times.
- Tell stories—but not your life story. Too many lecturers actually do a monologue about themselves in class. My mother died this summer and I have mentioned it two or three times in my lecture, but I did it in the context of communication and how to approach specific assignments. One of them is a tribute speech, and I always tell them that if they want to tribute an older family member, to sit down, interview the person, and also videotape them—and I tell a story about my mother. A little self-disclosure is a good thing, but as I have written on this blog elsewhere, it has its limits in lecturing.
- Don’t use PowerPoint everyday; use it for the visual capabilities; DO NOT put big chunks of text to read to the students. Again, the worst method is the one you use all the time. (I hope it is understood that the fault is the lack of variety, not the method itself; it’s not a literal statement)
- Have a continuous quality improvement attitude toward your lecturing.