The lecture: more than the sum of its parts

Sally Feldman dissects the benefits of an old-fashioned but pedagogically rich practice

February 6, 2014

On a brilliantly sunny afternoon a couple of months ago, we were making our way through the back streets of Bologna when an unmistakably English voice hailed my husband. It belonged to a middle-aged man, arms full of freshly baked ciabatta. He told us excitedly that he now lived in Bologna but 40 years ago had been an enthusiastic regular at my husband’s lectures in York. “I don’t remember all that stuff about Foucault but I still remember some of your lousy jokes.”

We told him we were on our way to a rather older lecturing site than the University of York: the anatomical theatre in the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, once the heart of the University of Bologna.

From the beginning of the 14th century, when Mondino de’ Liuzzi, professor of medicine at Bologna, began giving his famous lectures, rooms such as this would host extraordinary scenes.

In the centre of the theatre was a stark marble slab where the corpses would be laid out for dissection. All around were the wooden tiered benches for the students, and looming over the proceedings, the throne-like chair from which professors would deliver their learned addresses, often without respect to the actual anatomical details that lay before them. In a single morning I’d experienced two rather different testimonies to the significance of the lecture. But both perhaps were as outmoded as each other. As Graham Gibbs, professor of higher education at the University of Winchester, argued (“The chalk and talk conundrum”, 21 November 2013), surely there are grounds for thinking that in the age of webstreaming, YouTube, video links and Twitter, higher education could come up with something a little less antiquated than one person standing in front of an audience and spouting?

Those who attend a lecture aren’t merely recipients of knowledge; they have a privileged glimpse of the manner in which the lecturer handles that learning, lends it credibility, links it to his experience and to the world

Of course, as Gibbs pointed out, few lectures these days involve 50 minutes of uninterrupted presentation. Academics illustrate their talks with film clips and PowerPoint slides, or invite questions and interaction, workshop style. Anything to hold on to their noisy, attention-challenged audience.

But do they really need to actually be there, in the room – a room that could otherwise house another computer lab, or a snack bar, or some wonderfully postmodern learning space with flexible floors and smart walls? After all, it’s common practice now for the content of lectures to be posted on platforms such as Blackboard, so that students can refer to them and catch up on anything they’ve missed. And in many institutions the lectures are filmed and streamed. It’s even possible to conduct question and answer sessions, interchange and interaction, over the web.

Face-to-face teaching may be vital for studio or laboratory work, for practical exercises and for learning techniques. But what’s the value in being physically present for a lecture? One benefit was cited by an online respondent to Gibbs’ piece. “Lectures can also be entertaining and like mass gatherings of individuals at gigs and football matches can generate community spirit,” wrote Eduard Du Courseau. “In a similar vein, music can be more efficiently distributed on a CD player but is more uplifting if deafening at a gig.”

Indeed. Our students, don’t forget, are the generation that will pay astronomical amounts to crush into The O2 arena with thousands of others to hear a lone figure on stage telling jokes. They’re used to it. And even the tweediest of scholars has to be at least as entertaining as, say, Michael McIntyre doing one of his tedious riffs on the state of his bathroom shelves.

But although we might accord some value to the sense of community that can be generated by a real-time lecture, surely something else is needed to justify such a time- and space-consuming mode of pedagogy? The sociologist Erving Goffman captures that dimension in an essay in Forms of Talk (1981). What is distinctive about the lecture as compared with other public performances is the manner in which it can affirm the authority and reputation of the lecturer and the university. Those who attend a lecture aren’t merely recipients of knowledge; they have a privileged glimpse of the manner in which the lecturer handles that learning, lends it credibility, links it to his own experience and to the world. “What a lecturer brings to hearers”, writes Goffman, “is added access to himself…he exposes himself to the audience.”

But this is not a one-way process. The lecturer will also benefit from being able to see the audience, to gauge their reactions, and to modify his tone and mode in order to respond to that feedback. And there is more. Goffman also sees the lecture as a way of talking that conveys a particular view of the world. “The lecturer and the audience join in affirming a single proposition. They join in affirming that organised talking can reflect, express, delineate, portray…the real world, and that finally, there is a real, structured, somewhat unitary world out there to comprehend.”

In this sense the academic lecture becomes not merely a dispensable mode of teaching but a testimony to the intrinsic value of academic learning and to the university as the appropriate site for such learning to occur.

Not that lecturers themselves are necessarily so wedded to such high-minded considerations. One extremely distinguished English literature professor habitually ended his lecture on Shakespeare in the middle of a sentence. Baffled students read any number of interpretations into this idiosyncrasy. Was he implying that there was no definitive conclusion? That students must fill in the meaning for themselves? Was the content too ambiguous to merit a traditional ending?

Someone finally plucked up the courage to ask why he insisted on leaving his insights incomplete. He explained, patiently, that it was nothing more than a linguistic device to keep everyone else in their seats while he secured his place at the front of the lunch queue.

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