April 28, 2017

Back in my day, we lectured in unflipped classrooms… and we loved it


Recently, writers in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times and the Atlantic have delivered impassioned defenses of the Olde Timey College Lecture. I refer to the antediluvian practice in which a sage on a stage expounds about something (or other) for, like, ever. While this is happening students may take notes. They may scroll through their Instagram feeds. Or they may sleep. Sleep is fine.

These essays, with their rather blithe disinterest in what researchers are discovering about the limitations of the lecture format, remind me of Dana Carvey’s underappreciated “Grumpy Old Man” routines on SNL. In those bits, a disheveled octogenarian would rage about how much better things were when he was young.

His reminiscences would begin with the always-ominous declaration “In my day. . .” From there, he’d explain that no one in his day bothered with “prophylaxis.” People just contracted VD. Their genitals would bleed and they’d live alone itching their scabbed junk until the day they died. “And we loved it!” was the Grumpy Old Man’s signature tag.

Well, in my day, when I was an undergraduate, we didn’t have all these newfangled “radical pedagogies.” We’d loll in class, getting our faces sand-blasted by hot flaming chunks of knowledge expectorated by a professor who never learned our names. He’d drift hopelessly off subject and make inappropriate sexual innuendos.  And we loved—actually we didn’t love it. We just never imagined there could be any other way to learn.

All of that is slowly changing. College instructors are increasingly abandoning the antiquated, narcissistic lecture mode celebrated above, in favor of what is known generically as “active learning.” When I started professing, all learning—with the exception of language courses—was passive. It really didn’t matter if the class was a “lecture” or a “seminar.” We, the professors, were licensed to talk. And talk. Students could chime in only while we paused to swig water.

And then came the revolution. Educators started heeding the counsel of student-hugging professors of education — those groovy potheads of the far-flung academic tribe. Gradually, gradually—and then suddenly—innovation was afoot in the liberal arts. Some profs “flip classrooms.” Some distribute clickers so that even large groups can chime in. Some break students into small groups and assign them specific tasks. Some feature undergraduates in the socially conscious Fassbinder remakes they’ve written and directed. Some have heroin addicts skype into class to discuss substance abuse. The point is that, at many schools, the classroom experience is being completely and awesomely reconfigured.

If you’re college shopping, do try and figure out if the faculty at your Dream School is incorporating active learning techniques. You likely won’t succeed. For reasons I explain in my forthcoming book Campus Confidential, colleges are loath to share, or even collect, accurate data about what happens in their classrooms. Still, the anti-lecture approach is making substantial inroads.

What accounts for the shift? I’d cite three causes. First, the traditional lecture format, ostensibly, sucks. The problems have to do with how easily (and often) students can tune out and how difficult it is for professors to regularly assess their progress. Second, and less obviously, high schools across America have also concluded the lecture format sucks. My impression is that many secondary institutions, especially the elite ones, are doing away with sages on stages. As a result, a lot of today’s incoming freshmen are not prepared to tolerate a blathering professor.

Which brings us to our third factor: the web. Man, has the web livened things up around here! Nearly any lecture a prof gives on any topic can be re-assembled from stuff you find on YouTube or The Awl. There exist a million places on the internet to piece together wisdom on Marxist phenomenology or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Besides, the web also offers an infinity of astonishing resources to deploy in class — resources conscientious professors use to augment student learning.

Is the Olde Timey Lecture soon going to become obsolete? I think that outcome is fairly likely, at least in the humanities. It is also likely that when the old regime does topple, some students will hanker for the anonymity, opportunity for web-surfing, and occasional naps that the half-millennium reign of the passive model granted them.



Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!