Lectures lost on student shoppers

May 27, 2005

Handouts, rather than speakers, are the main attraction at lectures nowadays. Maria Misra puts it down to students' taste for utility

I've been lecturing as Oxford mounts a full lecture programme in the summer term. This year there seems to have been a marked increase in a striking phenomenon - rising levels of student instrumentalism. Before my first lecture, for instance, a flurry of emails arrived politely explaining that owing to other pressing engagements the correspondent would be unable to attend and could I send on the handouts and perhaps forward my lecture notes to them. In the hall itself, the handouts, not the lecturer, were the focus of clamorous attention. The handout pile was fallen on like manna for the starving, and I noticed a few surreptitiously pocketing several copies, presumably for later distribution among the lame who had been unable to attend themselves. One or two even sauntered out nonchalantly once they had netted their prey. At the end of the lecture, a substantial queue formed - some students wished to challenge me on points of interpretation and analysis, but many wanted handouts for previous lectures they had missed.

Colleagues report similar experiences. While they labour over carefully crafted series designed to reveal the subtleties and nuances of a topic week by week, the students, in a stampede of herd-like question-spotting, attend only lectures on tried-and-tested exam perennials.

This behaviour suggests that for many students the lecture is not the inspiring experience we fondly imagine it to be, but just another exam tool. Perhaps the problem is that we're too dull. One solution might be for us to confine ourselves to the production of handouts while the lecturing is done by guest celebrities. I gather this increasingly happens on film and theatre studies courses in the US, where stellar pedagogues are flown in from Hollywood to deliver their obiter dicta . We have our own stars here: surely Baldrick from Blackadder could do the medieval economy; perhaps that bloke from Monty Python could have a stab at the Renaissance and Michael Palin would make a most agreeable guide to 19th-century colonial history.

But I'm not sure lack of lecturer sparkle is the problem. Many of my colleagues are excellent public speakers - crisp, witty and rather theatrical. Armed with their PowerPoint presentations, learning and enthusiasm, they can give any TV celeb a run for their money in the inspiration stakes.

I suspect there are other forces at work that are killing off the lecture.

In the past, lecturers at Oxford were rightly censured for mounting self-indulgent and arcane courses of only passing interest to even aficionados.

But we seem to have leapt from the frying pan of self-indulgence into the fire of utilitarian "product-delivery". I do understand that intense competition in the job market puts great pressure on students today. But I wonder if this student consumerism is destroying the art of lecturing. Our "rational-actor" students increasingly expect exam-shaped lectures and are intolerant of any deviation from the well-trodden path. They demand handouts crammed with pre-digested analysis and user-friendly factoids and we have rather callowly given in to them. There is a paradox here: we have tended to assume that consumer-driven education would lead to meretricious flashiness, whereas in fact it has produced its rather dull opposite. Could it be that the grey standardisation of university life about which we all complain is not being imposed by bureaucracies from above, but by the student shopper from below?

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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