When we design courses for our students, at some point we decide that the best thing to do is to put all our students in a large room and talk to them for 90 minutes. Usually, we do this because it’s cheap, which is not a good reason. Often, we do this to convey information, which is also not a good reason.
Mind you, I’m not against lectures are such, but I do want lectures to be taught for the right reasons. I think that lectures may be cheap but they should also be valuable. I think that lectures may be informative but they should be about insight. Students are experts at recognising a lecture’s value and insights or the lack thereof and they will react accordingly. A lecture without applause at the end has failed.
If we simply use lectures to convey information we find ourselves competing with books, journals and the entire Internet. That is a battle we are going to lose. Books, journals and the Internet can be accessed day and night, chapters of books can be re-read or skipped willy-nilly, websites can even be translated into anyone’s native language at a mouse click. We can’t do any of that and personally I have no intention of being available in the middle of the night to answer my students’ questions.
But there are things that we can do that books and journals and the Internet are less good at. For instance, we are really good at interpreting information, pointing out highlights, showing strengths and weaknesses of academic practices, influencing students’ attitudes towards particular phenomena. We can offer our specialist view on things, make connections to different fields of study. We can interact with students, asking for their opinions, insights and questions, we can check if they understand what we are talking about. And if they don’t, we can react immediately by offering explanations, rephrasing things, giving examples etc, until they do.
And we can entertain! Yes, I know, books and journals and particularly the Internet can also entertain but that’s not what I mean. I do not think that we should try to be funny all the time, I think that there is no way that all the students in the lecture hall are going to be focused for the entire ninety minutes. We are really good at occasionally pointing out the absurd outcomes of our competitor’s research, the unexpected behaviour of our research subjects or the number of mosquito bites that you suffered during fieldwork. We can use these mental breaks to regain the students’ attention so that they are ready to absorb the next tricky bit of information, and to give them something to remember our lectures by. Which means that the entertainment should always be somehow connected to the content and the purpose of our lectures.
Students in our lecture halls are an audience and they should be treated as such. If they get the feeling that you’re just repeating what’s already in the book that you have made them buy, they will feel that the lecture is a waste of time. And they will be right. If they feel, however, that you have something to add to the book, the journals and the Internet, like your interpretation, your expert opinions, your insights, if you show your willingness to interact with them and to entertain them, if they notice that you have worked your fingers to the bone to make this lecture valuable especially for them, I guarantee that you will have applause at the end.