Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

on the history of lectures

This is going to be an off-on-a-tangent post, but anyway.... I was reading this typically smart post by Ian Bogost on the idea of the “flipped classroom” and the right and wrong ways to think about it, and my eye was caught by this passage:

More recently, Duke professor Cathy Davidson has reminded us that the lecture-style classroom is itself a product of industrialism, a tool meant to train students to sit quietly and conform to a single set of processes and ideas. No matter the learning content deployed in a classroom, its form embraces a disciplinary practice purpose-built for the factory or corporation who might later hire its compliant graduates. Given the collapse of industrialism and the rise of the knowledge economy, Davidson advocates for a more process-oriented, distributed, and exploratory method of learning more suited to today's post-industrial age.

I followed that link and I’m not sure that’s precisely what Davidson says there, but I’ve heard a lot of people say something like it: for instance, that the rise of the classroom lecture is linked to Taylorism and other late-modern products of the cult of efficiency.

But is that true? Is lecture-based teaching a relatively recent phenomenon? In the strict sense, certainly not: there was a great deal of lecturing in medieval universities, for instance, as was perhaps inevitable given the shortage of books. (Advanced students had to acquire dialectical skills also, of course.) But how, for instance, did Augustine of Hippo teach rhetoric, when he was in that business, and how had he learned it as a student? And in the famous Chinese imperial examination system, how were students typically prepared for taking the exams?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and right now don't have time to pursue them. Maybe lectures always happen when there are considerably more students than teachers — something that can happen in any society, not just in industrialized ones. One day I’ll find out.

6 comments:

  • I think I must have missed that period in history when future factory workers were sent to college to take lecture courses.

  • The result of my massive shorthanding of Cathy's shorthanding. Really what she says is that the lecture is a particularly useful educational pattern for industrialism. She doesn't, to my knowledge, make a claim about its origins, nor did I intend to, but I do see how that suggestion is implicit in the passage you quoted.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Ian. In any event I'm just glad for the prompt to think about the history of academic lectures. I may want to posit a twofold hypothesis: The academic lecture will always be popular when something needful to learning is scarce; and something needful to learning is always scarce. In the Middle Ages books were scarce; in the age of the MOOC it's teachers and places for students in the most desirable universities.

  • "Really what she says is that the lecture is a particularly useful educational pattern for industrialism."

    Even in this more modest formulation, the statement strikes me as bogus, or at least unsubstantiated. I can see how an emphasis on standardized curricula and testing could be a "useful educational pattern for industrialism," but I don't see how a lecture has an inherent tendency to prepare students for industrial modes of production. The antithesis - "the lecture is not a particularly useful educational pattern for industrialism" - would probably be easier to defend. The reigning MOOC model, in which a lecture is broken up into components with quizzes between them, seems, in its stress on product over means, much more industrial in nature (as I think Ian implies in his article).

  • "The antithesis - 'the lecture is not a particularly useful educational pattern for industrialism' - would probably be easier to defend. The reigning MOOC model, in which a lecture is broken up into components with quizzes between them, seems, in its stress on product over means, much more industrial in nature.

    I think this is exactly and importantly right.

  • Nick, McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy is a useful read in this regard. It's about the effects of print rather than the lecture specifically, but if you want substantiation, there it is.

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