In Defense of the Lecture

As universities replace the lecture with active learning pedagogy, we should remember the benefits of collective listening.

Markus Spiske / Flickr

The new issue of Jacobin, “Journey to the Dark Side,” is out now. Subscribe for the first time at a discount.

Few have savaged lecturers as brutally as the the Enlightenment-era printmaker William Hogarth. In Scholars at a Lecture, the presenter reads from his prepared text, his eyes down, indifferent to his audience. The budding academics are no more impressive; those in thrall to the lecturer’s nonsense have slack faces with lolling eyes and open mouths. The others don’t offer any critique but yawn, doze, or chat idly among themselves.

In The Reward of Cruelty, the lecturer, who cannot be bothered to rise from his chair, pokes lackadaisically at Tom Nero, a criminal whose body has been turned over for dissection. The audience shows little interest. Hogarth’s most damning image of a lecturer, however, depicts one who does inspire his audience, but to dubious ends. In Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, a minister thunders on about witches and devils as parishioners swoon with terror. The minister’s text quotes II Corinthians: “I speak as a fool.”

Scholars at a Lecture. William Hogarth

Hogarth’s satirical prints repeat a common belief about lectures: Those who claim the lectern are dullards or charlatans who do so only to gratify and enrich themselves. The louder they speak, the more we should suspect them. True knowledge, he implies, does not come from speechifying blowhards and self-satisfied experts, but from practical observation of the world.

This distrust has now spread to the lecturer’s natural habitat, the university. Administrators and instructors alike have declared lecturing a stale teaching method and begun advocating new so-called content delivery techniques, from lab- and project-based learning to flipped classrooms and online instruction, that “disrupt” the sage-on-the-stage model. While these new methods work well, we should not completely abandon the lecture. It remains a powerful tool for teaching, communicating, and community building.

Detractors claim that lectures’ hierarchical, inflexible, and unidirectional structure doesn’t suit our dynamic, crowd-sourced world. To be sure, lectures are top-down affairs that occur at fixed times. But these aspects are assets, not weaknesses: they benefit both students and instructors.

Lectures are not designed to transmit knowledge directly from the lecturers’ lips to students’ brains — this idea is a false one, exacerbated by the problematic phrase “content delivery.” Although lecturers (hopefully) possess information that, at the beginning of a lecture, their students do not, they are not merely delivering content. Rather, giving a lecture forces instructors to communicate their knowledge through argument in real time.

The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.

The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.

One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolation during the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.

Further, dismissing the value of attending lectures only encourages students to skip weeks of classes and then frantically try to catch up later, a destructive cycle that compounds loneliness with anxiety. Students not only fall behind but also miss opportunities to speak with their peers and instructors.

Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress.

Audiences outside academia clearly understand the benefits of collective listening. If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.

The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.

Critics frequently complain that lectures’ fixity makes it difficult for students to work. We should throw this argument back at those who make it: the need for students to work makes it hard for them to attend lectures. Work, not learning, is the burden that should be eradicated. Education is not an errand to be wedged between Uber shifts; it represents a long-term commitment that requires support from society at large. This support is thinning; eroding the legitimacy of lecturing makes it thinner still.

Neoliberalism has also made it hard to recognize the work students perform in lectures. Many critics dismiss lecture attendance as “passive learning,” arguing that students in lectures are aren’t doing anything. Today, declaring something passive completely delegitimizes it. Eve Chiapello and Norman Fairclough argue that activity for its own sake has become essential to personal success: “What is relevant is to be always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project.” Indeed, in our constant scramble to project adaptable employability, we must always seem harried, even if our flailing about isn’t directed toward anything concrete. Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look busy, and so their activity gets maligned as passive, unproductive, and, consequently, irrelevant.

But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

No matter how fast-paced the world becomes, listening will remain essential to public dialogue and debate. As Professor Monessa Cummins, department chair of classics at Grinnell College states:

Can [students] listen to a political candidate with a critical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.

Discussion sections after lectures always reveal the expert listeners. They ask the best questions, the ones that cut straight to the speaker’s main themes with an urgency that electrifies the whole audience, producing a flurry of excited responses and follow-up questions. Good listening grounds all dialogue, expands our body of knowledge, and builds community.

Although they probably haven’t thought about in these terms, many of the lecture’s critics would probably favor one side of Aristotle’s scheme of knowledge, which separates theory from practice. Historian Pamela H. Smith succinctly describes the difference: theory (episteme, scientia) describes knowledge based on logical syllogism and geometrical demonstration. Practice (praxis, experientia) encompasses things done — like politics, ethics, and economics — or things made — technē, which require bodily labor.

Before the modern era, technē was widely denigrated. Smith writes, “Technē . . . was the lowly knowledge of how to make things or produce effects, practiced by animals, slaves, and craftspeople. It was the only area of knowledge that was productive.” Today of course, the tables are turned; technē’s productive quality elevates it above supposedly impractical theory. Indeed, under capitalism, anything that doesn’t immediately appear as productive, even if only in the most superficial way, is dismissed as a waste of time.

Good lectures build knowledge and community; they also model critical civic participation. But students have suffered a wide variety of bad lecturers: the preening windbag, the verbatim Powerpoint reader, the poor timekeeper who never manages to cover all the session’s material. Lecturing does not come naturally and can take years to master, yet very few instructors have the opportunity to learn how to deliver a good lecture. Given the outsize emphasis many universities place on publication and grants — not to mention the excessive workloads, low pay, and job insecurity the majority of instructors face — lecturers have little incentive to invest the time and effort it takes to gain these skills.

Meanwhile, active learning partisans sometimes overlook the skill it takes to conduct their preferred methods effectively. Becoming a good lab instructor, project facilitator, or discussion leader also takes time and practice. In addition to bad lectures, I’ve sat through plenty of bewildering labs and meandering seminars. Because these teaching methods have the guise of activity, however, their occasional failures are not dismissed as easily as those of the supposedly passive lecture.

Lecturing is increasingly impugned as an inactive and hierarchical pedagogical method. The type of labor demanded in the lecture hall — and the type of community it builds — still matters. Under an economic system that works to accelerate and divide us, institutions that carve out time and space to facilitate collectivity and reflection are needed more than ever.

Our new issue, “Journey to the Dark Side,” is out now. Subscribe today.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.