Really great lectures!

by Carl Dyke

A lot of electrons have been spilled over the pedagogy of lecturing. As a matter of research, I’m persuaded by the physicists and other scientists who have given up on lecture because they find that people who have been lectured at can answer lots of questions about physics but can’t actually do physics. I’m also too much of a dispositional anarchist to feel at all comfortable sharing a room with a bunch of other people and rudely hogging the conversation.

I do see what people like about lecture. In my own education I was fortunate to study with a number of really excellent lecturers (and a whole lot of really dreadful ones, who you might think would explore other options out of self defense). Maybe the best lecturer of them all was Rod McGrew. When I was an undergrad at Temple I took several courses with McGrew, including a really great one on disease in history and a couple on Russian history I would otherwise not have been much interested in, in large part because he was such a dynamic, compelling teacher.

In class, which I skipped much less than was my usual habit, McGrew lectured almost exclusively. I sat in front, he was at the desk. He also sat, but leaned forward with his knees out, his elbows down, and his hands up. He had huge, gnarled hands and bony wrists that stuck out crazily from his suit jackets, and as he spoke he would grasp at the air as if he could massage understanding directly from the atmosphere. His skeletal old face would crease with intensity, his wispy forelock would bob, and his drooping lower lip would struggle to keep the drool in around the flow of words. It was like watching the tightrope walker flirt with death and greatness in Zarathustra. McGrew lectured without notes, cogently, brilliantly. To see someone at once so comprehensively learned and so freaking smart about how things work was profoundly inspiring. I LOVED that guy. Rod McGrew is singlehandedly why I went from a wifty interdisciplinary undergrad degree to a graduate program in History.

Really great lectures! I think it’s fair to say I don’t remember a single thing Rod McGrew ever said. At all. Granted it’s been a long time, but I can report with some confidence that I didn’t remember anything in particular he’d said even in graduate school just a year or two later. I couldn’t tell you without refreshing my memory from his publications what his general approach to history was. He told us an amazing amount of information, organized with exceptional rigor and analyzed with dazzling clarity. It was, almost literally, in one ear and out the other.

What I do remember is the research projects I did for McGrew’s classes. I can tell you about those without refreshing my memory. In the disease class I got interested in how endemic malaria and other diseases degrade a population’s ability to maintain ‘surplus’ activity beyond subsistence, and what this might mean about patterns of civilizational distribution, density, rise and fall. It was pretty broad brush but it was a good start on thinking about multidimensional dynamics in history beyond the scope of intentional human action. In the Russia classes I got interested in revolutionary intelligentsias and the dynamics of change. This is when I first figured out that people use ideas like tools and therefore that the particulars of this or that system of ideas are not in themselves the causes of anything much.

As a research mentor McGrew had a light but effective touch. He was first of all interested and supportive; the message was yes, go to it. As the project developed he would drop little analysis prompts and bibliographical suggestions, calibrated to how fast and well you were integrating the previous suggestions. So for example for the intelligentia project I read all of Venturi’s Roots of Revolution and from there a bunch of secondary stuff on Russian revolutionaries like Berdyaev and Chernyshevsky, as well as some of the primary writings, and then moved into the secondary literature on ideas and intelligentsias by people I would never have heard of or discovered for myself like Mannheim and Gouldner. But then he suggested I take a look at a new book on the Bengali intelligentsia, which I now realize was the next level up in developing an understanding of how context shapes dynamics, and I balked because it seemed irrelevant, too far afield. And so he didn’t make that kind of suggestion again.

In fact I got kind of stuck, because I realized ideas and intelligentsias weren’t really where the action was at, but I wasn’t ready yet to do the work to develop a better picture. So in the end I kind of dumped the half-hearted debris on McGrew as my senior project, and he was appropriately disappointed. But he must have written me a great letter anyway, because I got a nice fellowship from U.C. San Diego, and it certainly wasn’t on the strength of the confused mess my transcript and essays were. I expect he knew it’s a process, and there’s only so far and fast someone can go from time to time.

I know I’m weird, that the way my memory works is weird, that the way I engage with people, ideas, processes, and things is weird. I’m not going to say my experience works as more than a data point, perhaps way out on the long tail, and as general rules my intuitions are useless. Nevertheless, when I talk to other people about how they learn, and in particular when I talk with people who like lecture about what they like about lecture and what they got from lecture, I don’t get back the kind of specific content recall you would expect from a pedagogical mode explicitly oriented toward clear and efficient transmission of content. Mostly, people don’t remember anything in particular from being lectured, which makes the whole fretful ritual of carefully preparing them seem kind of silly to me. What they do remember is having their curiosity stimulated, and having their learning process supported, and whatever work they themselves did in that general sort of context.

So oddly enough, even though one of my favorite and most influential teachers was a really great lecturer, that’s not what made him a really great teacher. Which then leads me to wonder what work the lecture is doing at all, and reminds me where I want to put my effort and care for the upcoming year.


9 Comments to “Really great lectures!”

  1. So in some sense your ideal doing-oriented learning process is to lecturing as is to I also think that’s true, personally. Info sticks better if you use it. But, I also see how lectures are useful to ease students into the context in which they will be expected to operate. It describes the painting from across the room so that you can then ask them to describe its brushwork, if you follow. I think preliminary lecturing is, in this way, a friendly thing to do but something to be done sparingly and intentionally.

  2. Sez you, pal. Oh wait, we agree! Yes, I think in short, focused bursts lectures can work just like that. And they can be inspiring, as Rod’s were. I’ve also come to realize there are a few long-tail weirdos who learn really well from lecture. Or do they just answer well on the tests? Either way it’s hardly surprising they end up as teachers in turn, and around we go.

  3. I think lectures are caught up in the problem of explanation, which is always contextual. You want the lecture when you need, or think you need, the explanation, at whatever length appropriate for your confusion. But different students need different levels and lengths of explanation. Your guy was clearly very aware of this dynamic, but the key here is the confusion that engenders the confused look that spurs the explanation, which ideally should set the student on her own inquiries, as you described. I think this also explains how the emotional work of his lectures helped to motivate the inquiries he inspired. It also tells you why the preparatory “context-setting” lecture is generally useless unless it pushes them towards certain problems.

  4. Yes, thanks. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of explanation specifically but you’re right. To me (following Mead, as usual, and then thinking about self-organization and emergence out of interactive dynamics) the key is to keep present that the class is a long conversation in which successful communication and development depends on listening, paying attention, and adjusting – getting the feedback loops right. So the first thing that has to happen is not setting context, but recruiting them into the conversation and getting a feel for how they might be disposed to engage with it. Which can certainly be a constructive process of problem / question prompting.

    In the old school, there wasn’t much concern to engage students – whether they were engageable or not was part of the sorting process. To be honest I’m not sure whether McGrew was getting through to more than a few of his students, and I’m not sure how much that would have bothered him. My general recollection of undergrad is a lot of bored and surly faces.

  5. Nationally, nearly one-quarter of second-year medical students reported last year that they “almost never” attended class during their first two, preclinical years, a 5 percent increase from 2015.

    …Berg compares the work of Sketchy to hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. But for many, Sketchy evokes a different technique used a thousand years later in ancient Greece: method of loci, also called a memory palace or journey. Memory palaces are typically imagined spaces in which a person can store information like a string of numbers or a series of words. Each piece of information is placed somewhere inside the palace. When the palace builder wants to recall an item, she can take a mental stroll through the space to retrieve it. This technique famously enabled Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, to commit his speeches to memory. “We accidentally stumbled upon these visual learning techniques, but now looking back we see there’s a lot of evidence supporting visual learning,” Berg said.

    …Both Berg and Ryan agree that physicians no longer need to memorize as much as they did in the past. Ryan’s grandmother was one of the first female physicians to graduate from her medical school in the 1940s. Back then, he said, she had to remember everything. “If she had to go to a book every time she saw a patient, she’d never be able to work through the day.” Today, there’s much more to know, and medicine is evolving so rapidly — with new drugs, guidelines, and practices — that physicians can’t possibly remember it all. Instead, they look information up on their cellphones, using a variety of apps on the clinic floors. But preclinical students still need to commit board-tested material to memory, a task often compared to drinking from a firehose. Needing to memorize for boards and learn in parallel for their institutions is the breeding ground for anxiety that Hueppchen said “has truly detracted from the joy of learning.” It has even detracted from the joy of teaching, she added. Berg said he tries to bring joy to memorization: “I think that what I hope to contribute the most is making studying more fun.”

    – from this article.

  6. When Rachel was 7 she had a brain crisis that acted a lot like a tumor but didn’t seem to be a tumor. In ignorant desperation the local docs performed a series of spinal taps, to see if they turned up anything and incidentally to relieve the intracranial pressure. For the first one, they piled several nurses onto little Rachel to hold her still, then the doctor put the open medical textbook on her butt and started jabbing.

    Nowadays they could pull up YouTube, I expect, for that and many other procedures. This is a genuine marvel of mass information storage and flexible skilling.The only thing they’d need to bring for themselves is a general medical literacy and some fucking humane care.

  7. The article is really interesting. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that traditional lecture only ‘works’ where you can afford (or even seek) a really low transmission rate. It’s much better as gatekeeping than teaching. If transmission matters you need all kinds of strategies.

    In grad school we read a book by Jonathan Spence called The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (well, I may have skimmed it). Ricci was a Jesuit missionary who learned the memory palace technique from his Chinese hosts, iirc, but it seems that exchange was perhaps older still.

  8. So all of us in this line of work have been told to make a “teaching statement” or “statement on teaching philosophy” or some such thing, a document that we use for promotion, tenure, job applications etc. to demonstrate that we really really care about teaching. I have one, I’m sure you have one, and for the most part these things are full of flowery nonsense and buzzwords that are designed to elicit a response on the part of readers along the lines of “oh, she really cares” or “this dude is really serious about the craft of teaching” or some other pithy, buzzword-filled exclamation. It’s a BS begets BS sort of exchange of pompousness with no substance. I have written the start a simple teaching statement that I actually believe in. I can’t use ever use it, but here is the first paragraph.

    I can’t teach. No, this isn’t an admission of my own deficiencies; my teaching philosophy is in fact centered around the proposition that nobody can teach. No amount of wizardry in the classroom can transfer knowledge to students. Certainly students can learn, but it is neither because of, nor is it in spite of, what they are taught. Students learn when they are motivated to learn, and they learn about what they are motivated to learn about. Moreover, the source of their motivation matters. Extrinsic motivation (e.g. the desire to earn good grades or be eligible for athletics), pales in comparison to intrinsic motivation–the desire to learn for its own sake. I believe that if one begins from this intellectual position and carries out this set of presuppositions to their logical conclusion, then the art of teaching must first and foremost be about motivating and shaping intrinsic motivation in students.

    So there is where I put my effort and care, every year. Except when anyone asks, and then it’s all about crafting a perfectly set of formative and summative assessments that address all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reinforce my class goals that I diligently labor over to ensure that they are aligned with the needs of the various educational stakeholders who I vigorously work with to ensure that all my materials are both vertically aligned and horizontally articulated with respect to…

  9. Yup. We’ve talked about that around here a lot. I sometimes say you throw them in front of the cognition bus and hope it hits ’em. But I don’t think that means we just sit up front staring at them balefully, so that means we’re making decisions about what we do do, and we might as well do that with some sense of responsibility and purpose.

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