Thursday, May 05, 2005

On lecturing and writing and their relationship

Fifteen years ago, perhaps a little more, I wrote some papers in theoretical labor economics and began to become friendly with the labor economists here on an intellectual basis. (The friendship already existed on a social basis.) One of my senior colleagues in labor econ must have read my work because I remember him saying, "Lan, the problem with your writing is that it is too terse." I didn't understand the comment at the time and took the comment more as indicator of my colleague than of anything about me. It makes sense to me now.

Our campus has an Active Learning Retreat each year in late January or early February and they have a featured speaker who is usually quite engaging. A few years ago the speaker (I wish I could remember his name) was talking about new instructors, fresh out of graduate school and of the common mistakes they make. I believe he had interviewed many instructors and got them to recollect about their early teaching experiences. The expression I recall is, "best graduate course a freshman ever had."

In live classroom teaching, especially for very junior instructors, fear is a big motivator and part of what the instructor is inadvertently trying to do is justify being in the classroom leading the students. The implicit thinking is something like, "I need to show off my expertise so they'll trust they are getting something important." Put this together with somebody who has had substantial training in "theory," irrespective of the discipline, where "elegance" of result and presentation are the ideal. So many instructors getting started, and I definitely put myself in this category, start off in the classroom trying to teach to young versions of their colleagues, aiming to produce elegant masterpieces to mask their fear of being found out that they don't belong. The reaction of students to this can be merciless. I know that on my first semester course evaluations for the undergraduate class I got fried. The teaching approach that emerges as the instructor matures is shaped significantly by this initial scarring.

Out from the the other side of the tunnel, I believe that the best teaching occurs during dialog and that, of course, is because the instructor can listen to the student and modulate the instruction accordingly; the instructor can adjust to the learning needs of the student. This is a form of conditional response and that is extremely effective.

However, promoting dialog is difficult and not practical in many circumstances. Our campus has 35 general assignment classrooms with over 100 seats and about 100 classrooms with over 50 seats. Most of these classrooms get heavy use. In other words, there are a lot of courses where lecture is the expected mode of instruction.

One can decry the lecture, argue for active learning activities within the class period, or encourage the use of interactive technology such as automated response units. But there is nothing to preclude active learning happening outside the normally scheduled class session and with good students that might be expected. Furthermore, especially with difficult content that one might expect is hard to penetrate, there may may be advantages for the learner to see the content presented by the instructor even if the students are dilligent and have done the assigned reading and other work before the class session. This is not to say that the instructor can't encourage students in their work outside of class via the design of the course and the use of learning technology, quite the contrary. But it is to say that we need to pay attention to the lecture as an instructional mode, ask what excellence within that modality looks like, and then to figure out how we encourage instructors to move their teaching toward excellence.

This will be a recurring theme for me as I believe many faculty feel that teaching is lecturing and those who have been promoting excellence in instruction have been running away from these people rather than helping them. It stands to reason that they are more likely to try other approaches than what they are used to if first they make modest improvements within their own domain and see the benefit from that.

To bring this discussion full circle let me point out the work of Michael Alley, which has recently come to my attention. His book, The Craft of Scientific Presentations, looks intriguing. At the aforementioned link, you can read the preface to the book which is both engaging and inspiring. I was struck by his identification of the main presenter weakness; instructors don't prepare their audiences sufficiently for the results they plan to show. I have no doubt that Alley is right on that point. And for the reason why I think we have some good explanations in why people like me learned to write tersely when coming up with content for a professional audience and why new assistant professors invariably teach that best graduate course for freshmen.

A current mantra of mine is "bring it down before you bring it up." If we get our lecturers to practice that, I think we'll have something.

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