I refuse to hand it to students on a plate

March 25, 2005

Lectures must be a good starting point for inquiry, not an easy ride, says Frank Furedi

Students are often confused and sometimes resentful when I tell them that I don't have any lecture notes to hand out. Back in January, I received an email from one aggrieved individual who was offended because I refused to send her the notes from one of my lectures. Even though she was not a student at my university, she felt that there was a universal entitlement to possess my lecture notes.

Between you and me, I have to confess that my notes are barely decipherable. They usually consist of two sides of A4. Normally I work out six or seven important themes and scribble down three or four points to illustrate them.

I then leave it for a few weeks and, in the intervening time between writing the notes and delivering the lecture, I add ideas here and there.

It may sound like a cop-out, but they are notes that are continually in a state of evolution, rather than a finished product. And I do not think that - at least in my discipline, sociology - they should represent the final word on a topic.

But the main reason I don't hand out my notes has little to do with my reluctance to part with unfinished work. In principle, I think handing out lecture notes is a really bad idea. Indeed, I would say that the current custom of distributing lectures or putting notes and slides on the web symbolises the growing estrangement of universities from a culture of studying. Handouts are the equivalent of the idiot's guides of yesteryear, best exemplified by the six-page summary of Plato's Republic I received as a second-year undergraduate. A handout culture helps foster a climate where ideas are not taken seriously.

There are a number of compelling reasons why handing out notes sends the wrong signals to students. Students should at least attempt to interpret lectures. The act of interpretation is important for learning how to engage with new ideas. Taking lecture notes is in itself an important exercise of interpretation and discrimination: learning to distinguish between essential and non-essential points ensures that a lecture does not become a passive experience. Some students don't take any notes or hardly any at all. In some cases, this may be due to laziness or because they are distracted by other things. In others, it may represent the astute observation that very little of significance was transmitted through the lecture. Whatever the approach adopted, a good lecture serves as a point of departure for thinking about the subject.

What constitutes a good starting point is not necessarily the last word on the subject. Inexperienced lecturers sometimes say too much. And often we are tempted to finish our lecture with a decisive summary of the subject.

Sometimes this tactic is appropriate, but leaving a few issues up in the air helps encourage students to go off and think for themselves. I hope that they will leave the lecture hall enthused and follow up a lecture by reading a few texts. Lectures should serve as a catalyst, not as a definitive statement.

Handing out lecture notes is a bad idea for three more reasons. The availability of such notes discourages studying and reading. It also encourages a habit of taking short cuts. Instead of studying and working through problems, students are encouraged to internalise ready-made answers and conclusions. Finally, and not unimportantly, the distribution of notes serves as a disincentive to attend lectures.

But is that necessarily a problem? I think it is, since lectures and seminars can serve as a common focus for student discussion. They are the experiences that students have in common as part of an academic community.

Do we really want to blow this away just because we want an easy life?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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