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06/19/2012

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Marcus Arvan

Moti: nice post, and thanks for posting the videos! Anyway, I do want to question a central set of points you made.

You wrote, "...if they flock to Professor Kagan's courses, it is probably because they think that they will learn something valuable."

This may be true (though I tend to think students are worse judges at what they learn than you appear to), but I think it matters a great deal *what* they learn. Lectures seem to me to be most conducive to students learning what their professor thinks about such-and-such. That's all well and good, but I think it's more important for students to learn how to think for *themselves*, and I'm skeptical that lectures are very good to this end.

For what it's worth, I think that lectures are a necessary evil -- particularly for large courses. It's simply not possible to get 200 students to do philosophy in a classroom, in the way that it is possible in a class of 25. This is, in large part, one of the main reasons I prefer teaching small classes (I think more learning tends to happen). For large classes, though, I do think being an awesome lecturer (like Sandel or Kagan) is the best one can do, and that it is a great art.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, Marcus.
I agree with you that the SOS method is not an effective way to get students to think for themselves. I actually think that a case can be made against large classes (more than 25 students) on that basis. That is, if the goal of higher education (particularly liberal education) is to teach students to think for themselves (I think we agree on this point as well), then colleges and universities should do away with the large lecture-hall class format, since it is not a format that is conducive to that goal.

Kyle Whyte

Is anyone aware of a movement among university away from large classes? I've only worked in a large research university, and all I hear is that the classes are going to get larger and larger, and there will be less teaching assistants and other forms of support. I hear the same from other friends at similar institutions. I'd be encouraged to hear if there were like institutions going against what appears to me to be the trend. How does this discussion play out in liberal arts college, professional school or community college contexts? I feel like these days, the classes are getting so big, that's very hard to avoid lecture. As at some point, there's just too many students to innovate.

Marcus Arvan

Kyle: I suspect that large lecture courses will always be around, in large part due to the sheer numbers of people looking for an education -- and indeed, I suspect things will even get much worse in this regard in terms a push to online-only courses, which can serve even larger numbers of students with fewer resources (see e.g. recent developments at Harvard, MIT, and the ongoing fiasco over at the University of Virginia). At the same time, I also expect (or at least hope) that liberal arts colleges -- places with small class sizes -- will not go away, as there will always be some significant demand for a more personal, interactive form of higher-education. So, for example, my university (the University of Tampa) is private, almost entirely tuition-driven (we have only a very small endowment), and strongly wedded to the aims of a liberal-arts education. Because of these things, there are significant incentives to keep class sizes small. First, parents who want a personalized education for their children would presumably take their business elsewhere if our class sizes started expanding too much. Second, there is a robust philosophical commitment to liberal education. Although there are of course always financial pressures pushing in other directions (e.g. "We can make more money if we pack in more students"), I am at least somewhat hopeful that there will always be *some* places where class-sizes remain relatively small. Of course, perhaps I am overly optimistic.) Global financial markets and national debt being what they are, perhaps we are all doomed. ;)

Peter Schwarz

Hi all,

First time reader comment (I've been regularly following this blog and have really enjoyed a lot of the discussions about the profession...).

I'm an independent researcher in philosophy and law, and I'm utilizing many of these online lectures for my research and continuing studies in areas that I couldn't go into during my masters work. As I write this, I'm listening to an academic lecture on Backdoor Broadcasting Company (www.backdoorbroadcasting.net), and the first remarks made by the professor delivering a conference keynote address were "...in this introductory lecture..."

If it is largely agreed that the traditional lecture is a poor pedagogical tool and methodology for undergraduate (and graduate) education, particularly in the field of philosophy, then what might be the implications for professionals amongst themselves? That is, is the traditional academic conference where scholars deliver papers as if they were lectures, followed by Q & A, similarly compromised? Or does the lecture become "better", or more valuable, only on a different level, i.e., the professional scholar has presumably mastered the material in question, thus making the lecture a more viable form of scholarly discourse? Is the model of a departmental lecture series ultimately self-defeating in its pedagogical intentions (particularly when such series are open to both undergrad and grad students)?

Or: Will the continuing development of academic social networks (academia.edu, researchgate, LinkedIn groups, blogs like this one...) progressively transform current professional models such as conferences and journals?

(Apologies if these questions have already been addressed in previous posts.)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Peter: those are some really good questions. Here are some thoughts.

I think the traditional manner of giving professional papers -- in a lecture and Q&A format -- works fine in a particular context: the context in which the audience consists of specialists on the subject that the paper is about. In this context, the audience already has expertise and personal incentive to understand the material coming in, and to think actively about that material in a sophisticated way. This is not the case in classroom lectures to undergraduates.

On the other hand, in my experience the traditional paper presentation format tends to work very poorly in contexts in which the audience is a bunch of nonspecialists. I, for example, have been to a large number of department colloquia where almost nobody in the audience had any idea of what was going on. Because the person lecturing was talking about stuff people in the audience had no expertise about, people just couldn't keep up with the content of the lecture. In my experience, in contexts like these, "roundtable" discussions work much better, in that they tailor the content of conversation moment-to-moment to whatever level that people in the room can understand.

David Morrow

I'm ambivalent about lectures.

In their favor, I think that lectures can be a very efficient way to transfer information from one person to many. In philosophy, though, we need to think carefully about what information we want to transfer. It's presumably not supposed to be "what [the] professor thinks about such-and-such," as Marcus puts it, even if that's often the information that is transferred. I take it we're supposed to be teaching students (a) what positions have been/are being advocated with respect to a particular question, (b) what arguments have been offered for and against each position, and (c) what Famous Philosopher X thinks/thought about such-and-such. It would be great if we could lead students into discovering these positions and arguments for themselves, but that seems overly optimistic to me. And given the difficulty that many of our students have reading difficult philosophical texts, it's unreasonable to expect them to discern, unaided, what Famous Philosopher X thinks based on his or her writings. So lectures, when done right, seem to be the best tool we have.

Against lectures, it's sometimes said that they are "a way to transfer information from the notebook of a professor to the notebook of a student without passing through the head of either." The point is that we want students to do more than just memorize positions and arguments. We want them to engage with the arguments--to think about them on their own and perhaps even arrive at their own conclusions about which positions are correct. And they won't/can't do that without significant structure and support that lectures can't provide.

Peter: I think that lectures are (or can be) effective in professional contexts because the audience is (often) prepared and motivated to absorb, process, and engage with the relevant material.

Moti: Out of curiosity, do you think most people would think of what Sandel does as "lecturing?" When I hear people criticizing lecture as a teaching method, I assume that his approach is among those that they intend to criticize. If "Don't lecture" just means "Don't talk for 50/75/90 minutes straight without interruption," it seems like a much less radical critique.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi David,

Thanks very much for your comment.

I am not sure if most people would think of what Sandel does as “lecturing.” I think of it as mostly lecturing peppered with class discussion. As I mentioned in the post, I think that active learning requires a lot more than class discussion. (A follow-up post on that point is coming soon.) I also think there are serious problems with class discussion, but I also recognize that sometimes it is the best one can do in the circumstances.

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