Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Yawning your way through class

Last week, one of my excellent students regaled us with the tale of when she fell asleep in a colleague's lecture, to be woken by him hammering on the desk next to her head. She'd been working very long hours to pay for her education, so it's not a tale of idleness.

I can sympathise. I've fallen asleep in lectures myself. When I was a postgrad, my undergrad friend James was told to attend a video-conference as an odd sort of punishment for turning up to basically no classes all term. I went along with him after a hard day's work, sat next to a radiator and promptly dropped off, minutes after laughing at the other guy snoring away on camera… Ferocious glares were apparently directed at me by the course leader and I don't suppose I aided James's rehabilitation too much either. I've also fallen asleep in colleagues' lectures - not because of the (always high) quality of the material, but because the chairs are comfortable, the rooms warm, I'd had a soporific lunch and some of them have lulling, languid voices. I'm always tired, so when conditions are right, I'll nod off. Except at night, damn it. It's the same at concerts and the theatre - I've dozed off during the finale of Mahler's 8th, which is amongst the loudest pieces ever written. Thankfully - and shamefully - one of my students gave me a poke in the ribs and I accepted the giggling as fair exchange.

However, there's a wider point. Are lectures generally boring as a pedagogical mode? Fashionable opinion holds that they're outmoded, unsuited to the different 'learning styles' of our students and a legacy of a pre-digital past. We're encouraged to use voting handsets, Twitter, 'break out' sessions and all sorts of devices to divert us from the hierarchical, linear lecture. There's a really interesting discussion about this over at KateMfD's site.

I think this is total bollocks. The 'learning styles' argument is particularly weak: if there are lots of styles and only one teacher, there's no way to satisfy everyone. Use varied techniques, sure, but there are limits. Lectures are also practical: as a means of distributing ideas while engaging in debate with learners, you can't really beat getting everyone in the same room, presenting them with some ideas and asking them to respond.

As for the use of technology to make lectures 'fun' or 'interactive', I think it's a con. It assumes that if you introduce a computer into proceedings, students will automatically love it, which seems very patronising to me - as the clip above shows, students are alienated by Powerpoint reliance, for instance. It also seems reductive. I can think of plenty of lecture scenarios which might usefully employ instant voting software - but most of the questions I and my students raise are qualitative rather than quantitative. I suspect that in my field, yes/no and statistical questions of the sort social media are good at would be too reductive. On the other hand, using such things might get more responses than a question.

One of the useful things about a lecture is that you're eyeball-to-eyeball with your audience. I can tell when people are texting, listening to music, checking Facebook, Tweeting or simply zoned out (as Kate points out, we do it too: I frequently blog my way through meetings about challenges, entrepreneurial approaches blah blah blah).
In fact, academics are experts in pokerfaced management of boredom, and this is why we’re genuinely sorry when in turn we’re the cause of it for others. We don’t set out to bore, or to drone, and we’re not indifferent to the passing of time.  
When this happens, I know that I've got to change things, make something happen (unless it's one of the usual suspects who see lectures as somewhere warm in which to pursue their social lives). In some ways, the PowerPoint is anti-educational: students know that the slides will be posted on the intranet later, and assume that what's on there is 'the education': my job is to persuade them that education is the bit that happens in between me, them and each other - the slides are little more than an aide-memoire. Similarly, online courses, unless designed very carefully, are anti-educational. I'm quite happy for my students to have slides and video of my lectures to go over at their own speed later on, but only if they've attended the session. With an online lecture, I can't skip bits, emphasise others, ask questions, respond to queries: video-lectures encode a very old-fashioned power structure while pretending to be progressive. The student's power is reduced to hitting 'pause' or 'replay' now and then: any queries go unanswered.
It’s true that sometimes we’re genuinely underprepared, still thinking aloud, and asking ourselves questions as we go—both because we care about the ideas we’re introducing, and because in the rest of our working lives we’re flat out, just as our students are.
I think the answer to the question is contained here. 'Thinking aloud' is the essence of the humanities lecture. Students listen to us because we're highly trained in the field - not because we're necessarily more intelligent than them. We've been paid to spend time thinking about things. We know that there's no definitive answer to any text, field or question: just endlessly fascinating ways to examine them. If we can persuade the student that 'thinking aloud' in an informed way is the educational experience, we've got it right. A good academic is always 'asking ourselves questions': the trick is to persuade our listeners that these are good questions. I always find that I understand a subject better when I've had to teach it - because putting myself in the place of a sceptical listener really focuses the mind on what's relevant and important.

The point of an English lecture is to present some texts, propose some ways to think about them, and ask the students to engage with the texts and ideas. The secret to making a lecture interesting isn't to dream up ways to introduce machines. It's to be interesting. I do it like this: pose some questions at the start. Explain why the particular texts illuminate the question, never make it sound like there are 'right' answers, and always find ways to get the students to talk to me: getting them to talk about a question for a few minutes, asking for alternative analyses, engaging in polemical debate.

The one thing I do when I'm feeling militantly enthusiastic is to destabilise the process. Students find lectures boring and easy when they expect an hour of being talked at. Asking them questions is one way to introduce life to the experience. Another is to switch off the PowerPoint, and to refuse to make slides available. I've also nicked the psychoanalysts' trick of not lecturing for an hour if it's not required. Stop at a major point, whether that's on 50 minutes or 70. Subvert expectations. Start in media res. Be dramatic.

Obviously there are plenty of times I fail - few things are more terrifying than a silent audience, though I can well remember the fear when asked a question by my own lecturers. The point is: interesting people with interesting ideas who are interested in their students make interesting lectures. It's not about technology or tricksy ideas: it's about mutual enthusiasm. You need both parties to be enthusiastic. The bad lectures I've been to (and delivered) are those in which either the teacher, the students or both have been disengaged. The good ones I've seen - and occasionally delivered - are those in which I and the students are swept along on a tide of enthusiasm: I recently did one on architecture, the city, power and culture which was received really well by the audience, who'd never come across anything like it before. What a shame only 6 people turned up…

However, the lecture needs reviewing: it's too often used as a way to deliver facts to lots of people cheaply. Facts, as Jeff Young says, are easily available without paying me to find them, while lots of universities are putting lectures online. What I add to that is the personal touch (not literally). If you abandon this, you abandon humanist education in favour of autocratic reductionism. I agree with Kate that the anti-lecture brigade are proposing a straw-man model of delivery to attack. Good lecturers don't just drone on giving out information that's easily available in other formats. Good lecturers know that education is about collaboration. We're secure enough to welcome 'interruptions' - it's the wrong word, because I want people to talk in my lectures - and we believe in educational partnership. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the linear, one-way lecture is a common experience, at least amongst secure, enthusiastic teachers.

But our pedagogical overlords don't see it like this. They think that prospectuses look lots better illustrated with pictures of students sitting individually at computers. Well, I've been a data entry clerk. There's nothing liberating about sitting at a screen. What's liberatory is screwing up your courage to disagree with your lecturer or your colleagues, is asking a question or contributing an idea in the midst of an ocean of bored or scared fellows. I was a quiet little mouse (vole?) at university, until I realised that I'd get nothing out of the experience by staying silent and writing down everything I was told. Forcing myself to speak was terrifying - and it's what got me here today. (By 'here today', I mean 12 years in a 'temporary' job not getting any research done, but that's beside the point). I still physically shake before starting a lecture, but I do it, and hopefully do it well.

I have one word for teachers and students alike: courage!

1 comment:

Sarah Williams said...

I can't think of anything more dull, disheartening or disengaging than reading slides as a means of educating yourself. If I could I would abandon slides altogether; I only use them as an aide memoire for me anyway, a means of staying on track (I have a tendency to wander off on a tangent as you know!)and for these reasons it has its uses, but as a means of delivering meaning and content, it is over-rated. Engagement is the key to learning and slides don't encourage engagement, in my humble opinion!