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Speculative Diction

In the passive voice? Lectures & the critique of university teaching


I’m rather tired of seeing a certain kind of argument about university teaching being repeated over and over of late. In this argument, the lecture is set up as a “straw person” version of university teaching, and it’s then knocked down by assertions about the superior flexibility and convenience of the Internet and various forms of tech-mediated learning. I think there’s a lot of missing context for this argument, so I’m going to try to outline some of that here.

One of the latest iterations of it comes from Don Tapscott, who wrote an article for the Globe & Mail’s recent “Re:Education” series. In this article, the author employs a number of points that I find simplistic but in tune with the popular themes that recur. Firstly, he compares universities to “encyclopedias, record labels, and publishers”, in a position of peril where “the most visible threat are the new online courses, many of them free, with some of the best professors in their respective fields.” Next, he indirectly invokes the (much-criticized) “digital natives” idea to argue that students need new technologies: “There is a rapidly widening gap between the model offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up immersed in digital technologies best learn.” The Baby Boomer generation were accustomed to “passively” watching TV, while young people today are used to interacting with multimedia technologies. Thus, the lecture is outdated: students now “need an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back two or three centuries”.

Those who’ve attended university have usually had at least one or two professors who weren’t any good at teaching and specifically, at giving lectures. What I find deeply uncharitable (and inaccurate) is to generalize this experience even to the majority of university teaching faculty. I’ve given academic lectures in various classes, and I can assure you there’s no reason to assume the speaker is simply “transmitting” information. One of the main underlying issues here is the assumption of passivity in the students, and of a transmission model of communication that has long been critiqued by communication theorists. Another is the generalization about faculty approach, as if those doing the speaking aren’t working to make their presentation engaging and responsive—and as if there’s nothing but lecturing going on in a course.

When it comes to critiquing the lecture specifically as a form and on most faculty as incapable of making it work for the majority of students, there’s another, more fundamental problem involved. A few years ago, back when we were still talking about the problem with ballooning class sizes, there was research being pulled out that suggested the lecture itself wasn’t a bad format, as long as the professor did a good job. Where is that research now? Or was it just that such arguments were needed more, back when we didn’t have massive online courses in which tens of thousands of students could, theoretically, learn from a single “best” professor? This preoccupation shows how we’re still trying to solve the main problem of massification in universities—the need for economies of scale. The lecture was what came closest in the past; the Internet is the new technological “remedy”.

What’s particularly frustrating about the critique of current teaching is precisely that it comes at a time when universities and faculty are under scrutiny for other reasons as well. As Jonathan Rees notes, there is “a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap”. Professors, apparently, don’t work hard enough and definitely don’t do enough teaching to begin with. This context is reflected in Margaret Wente’s latest column, which provides another good example of the superficial rhetoric about faculty and teaching (while reducing a complex policy debate to “access or quality”). Wente’s piece shows that the ongoing segregation of teaching and research (and general fragmentation of university work) is being justified through arguments about the low quality of university teaching. The plugging of teaching-focussed universities as the solution to funding problems should indicate part of why this kind of “differentiation” is continually presented as desirable.

As well as the segregation of faculty into “streams”, we’re seeing all kinds of proposals for getting rid of as many faculty as possible and replacing them with “superstars” (the “Mick Jaggers of academe”), or indeed, with robots that can perform the tasks currently assigned to teaching staff. But how are those superstars expected to teach? Often enough, what’s suggested is another large online course that seems to mimic the lecture-and-tutorial model. So Tapscott’s invocation of online learning and digital tools as the remedy for lack of student-faculty interaction seems somewhat misguided, or perhaps just not clearly explained. I’m still not seeing how large class sizes can be maintained, “[using] technology to free up professors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences.”

Are there faculty who are weak at teaching? By all means, yes, and we should work to improve the standard of teaching overall. But simple generalizations in the name of putting forth a specific vision of “change” shouldn’t be mistaken for a pedagogical analysis. If the relationship between teaching and research is considered “unproven”, why are we not looking at it more closely? The same goes for the lecture and for e-learning. If there’s systematic research being done on how these things work or don’t work, then it should be cited as part of these arguments; if the work doesn’t exist, then we should start addressing that lack rather than jumping to the preferred answer. And if the work isn’t being rewarded in the research-driven academic economy, we should address that, too.

Critiques of education (and other forms of policy) often contain assumed solutions embedded in them. But there are also other possible solutions. If class size isn’t necessarily a determinant of “outcomes”, then why are we still talking constantly about one model–online education or in some cases blended learning–when we could be discussing reducing class sizes, and providing more pedagogical resources and training for graduate students and faculty? What exactly do we know about how online components work (or not)? Do we even have a way of “measuring” student learning to show what works? The context of all this is not a neutral one, it’s not just “let’s improve learning by finding out what will help the most”. The loss of resources including government funding has created serious material pressures. The urgency of the rhetoric about “change” should also remind us that there will be winners and losers in the education game, and futurologists have stakes in predicting something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—because prediction inspires present action.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. George Tillman / October 31, 2012 at 09:53

    Very well put comment. Remember that Margaret Wente once wrote (about ‘what I learned at university’) that after taking one philosophy course in logic, she gave up on logic….. As for Don Tapscott’s piece, what exactly is “curating customized learning experiences” supposed to mean??? As you write, both are examples of the simplistic view of education – which seems mainly to conceive it as ‘training’, whether vocational or professional.

  2. Diane Enns / October 31, 2012 at 10:00

    Thanks for this much-needed reminder that not all lectures are dull. They can be life-changing, in fact, and even if details aren’t recalled years later, the transformations in thinking that they inspired will be. Technology can get in the way of inspiration. And although we can do a lot with discussions, we also need guidance from those more knowledgeable than us in order to understand, interpret, learn, question our assumptions, etc. Being passive in the classroom is a choice a student makes, after all. It isn’t always in the instructor’s power to help students make this choice, no matter how enthusiastic we are. Thanks, Melonie, for this thoughtful post.

  3. Deborah Davidson / October 31, 2012 at 10:52

    Yay! Unfortunately, reminders that not all lectures/ers ‘lecture’ is sometimes needed. I, for one, feel most engaged with my students when I’m unlecturing, so to speak – engaged participatory/interactive ‘lecturing’ as I know many of us do. I have taught correspondence courses as well, and have tried to maintain that style in writing and performing ‘lectures’. (Yes, as per bell hooks, teaching is also performative!) Correspondence and online teaching and learning each take particular skills and practice from both teacher and student, and have costs and benefits to students, faculty, institution and beyond. As we go there we need to do so with great care and reflective reserve.

  4. Liza Potvin / October 31, 2012 at 13:24

    At last, a thoughtful, reasoned and methodical response to those who would undermine our hard work and reduce collegiality by pitting techno-savvy profs against those of us who know, through decades of experience as teachers, the value of carefully-structured pedagogical strategies and thought-provoking lectures that may or may not involve the use of technology in the classroom. Thank you.

  5. Alexander Briggs / October 31, 2012 at 20:09

    Thanks. A well-written article with which I agree.

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