Stuck in the middle

There’s something bothering me about the interesting project pulled together by Jeff Young at The Chronicle, intended to demonstrate that today’s college students are bored with yesterday’s lecturing tactics.  In January, Jeff asked students to video their thoughts on the traditional lecture experience.  Here’s his compilation of some of their responses:

I don’t particularly disagree with anything the students say, and I really like that they took the trouble to video their thoughts and send them in.  Honestly, I think it’s good for us to be reminded that we digress, we read from PowerPoint, we repeat ourselves, and we don’t use technology well.

But none of this is a revelation.  In fact, all these experiences and more are waiting in the workplace, and we know this because we’ve all sat in meetings wondering idly about chewing off our own arms in frustration while someone handles a communications task we believe we would execute with much more competence and flair. We’ve all felt the waves of panic as our remaining time on earth slips away while someone searches for the projector cord, or drifts like an untethered balloon far, far beyond the printed agenda, until you can barely make them out in the distance.

And we’ve all surreptitiously—or openly—multitasked our way through work meetings, conferences, seminars, and even public lectures, half-listening while actually checking emails, grading papers, tweeting, clock-watching.  Yesterday I caught myself looking at haunting images of abandoned swimming pools and losing track completely of a discussion about business planning.  As you do.

In fact, academics are experts in pokerfaced management of boredom, and this is why we’re genuinely sorry when in turn we’re the cause of it for others. We don’t set out to bore, or to drone, and we’re not indifferent to the passing of time.  (Mostly we’re looking distracted because we’re trying to find somewhere to pin the lecture mic and its surprisingly heavy battery pack without triggering a wardrobe malfunction.) It’s true that sometimes we’re genuinely underprepared, still thinking aloud, and asking ourselves questions as we go—both because we care about the ideas we’re introducing, and because in the rest of our working lives we’re flat out, just as our students are.

But the real issue is that we’re not television performers: there’s no autocue, no rehearsal, no script, and no production crew making sure that we have nothing to do except face front and read aloud.   None of us had a hand in choosing either the timeslot, the traditional running time, the technology mix, or the shape of the room for the standard university lecture, and while most of us do what we can to hack this infrastructure, the big invisible to our students (and, apparently, to The Chronicle) is the way in which traditional lectures plug in to the conventional measures of academic labour.

That is, we keep on lecturing because—as a colleague reminded me this week—when we don’t, we’re often assumed by either administrators or students to be reneging on the deal that trades student college costs for academic face-time.  The delivery of most courses assumes that the lecture represents an ideal mode, mixing prestige delivery with financial efficiency, and to that end some universities are even increasing the time spent in lectures rather than seminars or tutorials, because the one-to-many model is an obvious way to handle increased enrolments without a matching increase in delivery cost.

These efficiencies are sensible and they’re part of a raft of strategies that universities are using to ensure their sustainability into the future.  At one level, this means that they’re a form of good practice that has student wellbeing at their heart.  But in the short term, they’re also positioning academics in direct conflict with what we all know about the ways in which many people prefer to learn.  As Jeff Young puts it, a bit obviously:

PowerPoint is boring. Student attention spans are short. Today many facts pop up with a simple Google search. And plenty of free lectures by the world’s greatest professors can be found on YouTube.

Interestingly, Mike Wesch brought this up already, back in 2007.  That’s five years ago, which is a long time in dog years.  His deservedly famous YouTube video, ‘A Vision of Students Today’ has been seen four and a half million times (and probably more, in copies), and here it is again for those of who you don’t know it:

Revisiting this video, which continues to strike me as gentle, thoughtful, and well-argued, I feel that perhaps The Chronicle should be doing more than simply stirring up antagonism to the traditional lecture format.  We know this stuff.  What we know less about is how to move from where we are.

What would help is an invitation for students to contribute ideas on the basis of what they like, not simply what irritates them. What kinds of participatory models that are manageable for large classes, using available infrastructure, would work best?  How can we provide appropriate levels of professional development, peer support and time to academics so that they can learn new technologies without doing yet more work in the evenings and on weekends? How best can we build a partnership that encourages creativity and risk in teaching, when we are already over-surveying everything teachers do, and in many cases using the results punitively?

And how can we encourage administrators to join the conversation about the future of the college lecture so that the evangelistic fervour of flipped-class advocates is continually tempered with the practicalities of cost, load and labour management in a highly casualised profession?

Until we do, I think we may be stuck in the lecture hall, so perhaps we need to get better at explaining what we’re doing there.

9 thoughts on “Stuck in the middle

  1. Thank you for voicing these comments. I really take issue with the loaded (but in Young’s mind, “clever”) language he uses to introduce this project. And I’ve followed Wesch’s vids for years and have used them often in class–he’s the true academic who’s curious and thoughtful about the ways that social media are changing our relationships with . . . everything. And I agree with many of the posters in response to Young’s article, that we need to keep working to challenge students’ assumptions about their attention spans. I think, more than anything, they need versatility. They were certainly encounter lectures or in-depth discussions of things somewhere in their lives. Why not help them be able to handle that? And I tend to do a lot with tech–very carefully–in my classroom.

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  2. Well, I’m not sure we can be sure about “clever”, but the questions did strike me as likely to produce a certain set of responses. And I found myself thinking: well, if someone asked me to send in a video response to my feelings about administrative meetings, I might well take the opportunity to vent in similar ways. But like you, I can’t quite see how this moves us towards a solution, only to more remonstration. Our diminishing capacity to concentrate (mine included) isn’t either a life sentence or an entitlement: it’s a challenge.

    Welcome to the deckchairs, and thanks for this comment.

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  3. Great insights as usual. I taught a grad class a couple of years ago that was well-designed (Kevin Kelly from SFSU created and designed class, I just built on that) and built in plenty of interactive activities. During a mid-term feedback session, quite a few of the students asked me to provide more lecturing, as they wanted to get more of my experience and perspectives. That led to some real-time alterations to the class, not to abandon the interactive parts, but to re-balance by increasing lecture time.

    “What would help is an invitation for students to contribute ideas on the basis of what they like, not simply what irritates them.”

    My takeaway is the need for proper balance between lectures and interactivity. I agree with you that the Chronicle focused on stirring up antagonism – we could all use constructive feedback and insight on to be more effective.

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  4. Your comments, Phil, make me really curious to know what students think about the best version of this balance. If students designed universities, what would they look like? (This is not a trivial question: I genuinely think they know a great deal about both good and bad practice, and could provide a ton of help here.)

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  5. I agree – the lecture is not dead, or even dying. It’s just looking a bit sick in comparison with the new! shiny! out there. I think that lecturing, in the static, power-point form that has become the norm is a symptom of its illness. It can be done so much better (and I don’t mean clickers!) But I love your question about what students would design. We did ask students in 2010-2011, and the results of that survey are in the report that you can download here: http://sydney.edu.au/elearning/learningSpace/spaceReview.shtml (Take a look at the maps on that site too – they are amazing, showing all the different uses of space on the campus and how the overlap/interact/clash with each other.)

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  6. It’s easy to take a pot shot at lectures an nothing new about it – not even in 2005! And as for students, I suspect the they have been dissed since the middle ages, if not before. Indeed. Plato had issues with some of his and that wasn’t a degree granting institution ; ). I always asked my students what was best and what they would change and how. This always produced thoughtful answers and the changes suggested often were praised by students in the following year or so (then of course, they got old).

    A comment about power point. Years ago when it was chalk on black or green boards (a great and very flexible way to lecture, by the way) a student suggested that it would look ‘more professional’ if I used overheads. Eventually, I did and some of the flexibility was lost, but of course I could (and did) leave blanks to fill in during the lecture, made overheads of pictures, print material, etc as illustrations. Power point is more inflexible still since it is so fixed – the room is often dark and too often the screen covers the white board, so neither teacher nor student can write something for all to see side by side with the regular slides.

    An aside about the meetings – one of my daughters is a lawyer in the private sector. In her firm, when a meeting is getting away from the agenda or a decision taking too long because you know who gives the usual set speech, someone begins to calculate how much the time wasting is costing the firm in unbillable hours. I don’t suggest that academics should keep track of their time in six minute intervals, but it is worth considering how much research or teaching related activity could be done in the unproductive time and how much it is costing, even on a notional basis.

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