Make a Good Argument. Really.

In the last few days, several people have emailed me Molly Worthen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” I read the article, and I have some thoughts. But let me say, before I go any further: lecture, when well-done, can be a truly amazing teaching tool. I wouldn’t lecture all the time, however, but I wouldn’t do any one thing all the time. People love and respond to variety, and my students are people, so . . . well, you get the syllogism.

I also believe that, in our time, when we are asking thoughtful questions about pedagogy, that it is a fool’s errand to get caught up in the false choice of “either lecture or active learning.”

Good. I needed to get that out of my system. Now onto Worthen’s article.

Here’s what I like. It is indeed a wonder to be in the presence of a great lecturer in the same way that we love to be in the presence of any great performing artist — and I’m not being ironic about this. This past summer, a colleague of mine from another independent school and I were talking about lecture, and we both agreed that when lecture secures the power of great storytelling (my bias) or of polemic (his), then it can indeed awaken students’ ability to engage in meaningful ways. I do also think that the practice of note-taking is critical, and this is a skill that students can and should practice.

But let’s look at Worthen’s language and assumptions, for this is what strikes me as most problematic. She writes,

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.

Active learning, celebrated by the likes of John Dewey over a century ago (to name only one person), hardly makes what we’re doing these days a “craze,” if I understand “craze” as being on the same level as, say, “The Frug,” which, if memory serves, baffled Alan Sherman and drove him nuts. But I digress. But is this “craze,” as she calls it, necessarily a function of the alleged “boring professors” and “resentment of experts”? She suggests this. And yet, if one takes the time to read the research and thought on active pedagogies, active learning is about what’s best for students and not some implicit indictment of “boring teachers.” In other words, students, the literature suggests, still learn more when they are are constructing their learning even if they have a top-flight lecturer. We follow the research that says what’s best for student learning — not because we’re out to get anyone. What’s really going on here? Hmmmm

She continues:

Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Comprehension and reasoning are indeed essential demands, I agree. But, while I concur that lecture can succeed at imparting the importance of these abilities — and maybe even imparting these skills — is lecture, as Worthen seems to suggest, the only or the best way? I’ve never seen a student learn the skill of playing a trumpet by hearing a lecture on how to do it or by even hearing the horn played. True, some instruction helps to set a student up for success, but he or she must ultimately make the sound.

She adds:

In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

A terrific lecture most assuredly can energize a mind (and, in my responses here, I’m assuming the lecture is indeed terrific and not just the recitation of Google-able information). But that’s not what bothers me here. It’s the grumpy-toned accusation that follows — that somehow all students are being damaged by a “smartphone-app-addled culture.” First of all, she does not know if any social media actually “addles” anyone. It might. But it might not. But this sentence assumes that all of her students are somehow doomed by their choices — unless, of course, she can save them from themselves and from this monster called culture. Somewhere, Allan Bloom is nodding in agreement with Worthen. But I digress.

In what follows, I, believe it or not, find myself in agreement with Worthen (until she goes and assumes the worst of her students, which, as a teacher, I abhor in her article):

In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Yes. A polemic. The telling of a story. Yes. But wait — she’s going to sell her students short again (geez, just when I was starting to feel fuzzy):

In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this [i.e., absorbing a long, complex argument].

So, are we to assume that before social media and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, every student found lectures on Hegel scintillatingly clear? She should maybe go to a lecture on pre-social media lectures to check her reasoning. But I digress.

Here’s another baffling section:

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.

Again, I don’t deny the effect of a well-delivered, well-planned lecture. But can Worthen see that the workout she enjoys — and that allows her to be inspired and to riff — might, in the hands of her students if she gave them a similar opportunity, give them a first-person experience that would make them so much more than spectators? I’ve seen hot and sweaty people at the gym, but if I’m not on the treadmill myself getting hot and sweaty, I’m not losing an ounce (and I would know!).

The last thing I’ll look at here is this:

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

First of all, note-taking isn’t specific to the lecture hall; anyone can take notes at any time — say, when students are working in a group. Doing research. For, say, oh, I don’t know . . . a debate. And wait! Does the professor perform the debate from the lectern? No? You mean the students actually have to do this work themselves?

What is this social-media-addled culture coming to?


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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