Tuesday 31 March 2015

I write for Britain's most PC newspaper


OK, regular readers can have a good laugh at the fact I have today published a piece in The Guardian, which is famously the home of political correctness in British newspaper journalism.

It would not be dignified for me to try and explain myself; the fact that I am not getting paid probably makes matters worse rather than better...

The main reason was that I was asked to write 400 words in favour of lectures (one of my hobby horses), and as an ex freelance journalist, I became fascinated by the challenge of saying what I wanted to say, briefly and in an engaging manner.

Could I still do it, I wondered? Before I knew it, I had done it - so, yes.

Below is pasted the version I submitted - and to see how the sub-editors improved it, go to:



I am reluctant to discuss lecturing, since on this particular topic it is futile since I am in too small a minority. The fact is that real lectures are always greatly appreciated by students who want to learn. But what are called 'lectures' nowadays are a travesty. 

...Vast, stuffy venues that seat hundreds; students sitting in the dark and unable to see the speaker; a disembodied voice droning into a microphone; the lecturer reading-out endless powerpoint slides which have already been posted online; the scanty audience passive instead of actively making their own notes -  distracted by themselves and others intermittently browsing the internet and social networking; and the whole thing being recorded as if to emphasize to students that they don't really need to be there and they don't really need to pay attention... 

...well these atrocities are what people currently call lectures, and they are indefensible. 

However, so are the so-called alternatives to lectures! Mere gimmicks and novelties - designed to get praise and awards for teaching 'innovation'. (A bicycle with triangular wheels is an innovation - the proper question is whether it is fit for purpose.) 

But when lectures are taken seriously, and conducted in the proper way, they are the best pragmatic way of teaching knowledge to people who want to know. 

Good lectures are possible and achievable - I experienced many of them at my medical school. But good lectures are not easy, nor are they as cheap as some 'alternatives'. Good lectures require all-round effort from people who appoint teaching staff and design lecture theatres; from those who construct courses, and those who create the educational ethos.

And (hardest of all) good lectures require here-and-now concentration during the actual teaching period - effort from both lecturer and audience alike. A good lecture is hard work!

Because a good lecture is a one-off performance. Like the theatre rather than the cinema, everybody present contributes to the success or failure, everybody is 'involved'. But when it 'works', a good lecture is an experience that may be remembered forever. 

So real lecturing is irreplaceable in the same way that live theatre or musical performance is irreplaceable - real human beings, actually-present and in psychological contact; seeing and hearing each other in real-time; working together on something they both value. 

It is sad that so few modern students will ever experience anything of this kind. 



Anonymous said...

OT but I was wondering if you have read anything by Philip K. Dick and if so what your take was.

Bruce Charlton said...

As well as regarding Blade Runner as perhaps the best movie ever made; I read quite a lot of Philip K Dick in the mid 1980s, and I thought he was a superb writer. However, his books were so dark and disturbing that I have never re-read any since. In particular, reading Time Out of Joint over one weekend when I was the psychiatrist on call, living in at a large mental hospital, was so dislocating an experience that it was genuinely scary. By the end of my 56 hour solo shift I had almost lost my certainty as to whether my own life was real or maybe a delusion like those of the patients all round me.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Philip K Dick is my favourite author of speculative fiction. He turns reality 90 degrees to normal, flips things distinctly sideways, and offers up some pretty deep philosophical questions.

Ok, back to the article: Your points are well made, articulate and accurate. A good lecture is a thing of joy, and requires commitment and careful attention. Students need to be well rested and prepared. A mind and body that are fatigued will mean that the material will go in one ear and out the other. Lecturers are not rehashing material not read or fully read by students. If labs and readings are required before a lecture, the students who have not prepared are not ready for what the professor will add to clarify those readings, and to stimulate thought based upon them. Showing up unprepared and/or being distracted is disrespectful to the professor and the class. Those that show up that way should be quickly weeded out with a suitably tough but fair midterm exam and/or early assignment. It does nobody any good to pretend. So the students job is to be honest with themselves, and prepared for an intellectual workout. The professor who is engaging, knowledgable and enthusiastic about his discipline will pass that on to his students, and they will in turn reward him with their efforts.

I have not been to a university lecture - other than those which are town and gown lectures - for quite some time. The degree to which university methods of teaching is not something of which I have first hand experience. The ubiquitous powerpoint presentation seems to entail a lot of additional work on the part of the professor - at least the first time it is put together. (I have that from a friend who is a professor.) I also think that it likely makes students lazy - or at least disinclined to show up to the lectures with the same regularity.

All in all a good article.