The Compleat Lecturer – 1: The first mass medium
Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Michaelmas term, 2017: 9
This is the first of a series of four articles currently being published in Oxford Magazine which is the fortnightly academic magazine for the Oxford University faculty. OM has been going for more than a century, and was a place where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis published poems, short articles and reviews. Below is the original text version I submitted - a few small changes were made in the final published version.
Lectures are the most ancient form of the ‘mass media’ – because they are a one-to-many method of communicating.
The lecture was the first method of amplifying the range of teaching from the apprenticeship situation of one-to-one (or a handful of people) by creating an environment with good visibility and acoustics suitable for larger groups of students. This was used to provide mostly verbal instruction in a curriculum which took the attendees through a ‘course’ of study.
Something of the sort seems to have been used in Greek and Roman civilizations – but it was at the founding of the European Medieval universities (from around 1100) in places like Bologna, Padua, Salamanca, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge; when the lecture became the main focus of higher (post-school) teaching.
In the early Medieval era, before the invention of printing and the availability of cheap books, the lecture was usually given slowly, as a form of dictation – and an ideal student’s lecture notes were therefore an accurate copy of the manuscript book from which the lecturer was reading. At a more advanced level, the lecture was a commentary (exposition, clarification, discussion, expansion) of a classic text; which would slowly be worked-through, line by line.
As books became more widely available, at least in libraries, the lecture evolved into a personal distillation by the lecturer of knowledge from a variety of sources – with advanced students amplifying this by further reading. These lectures were not always read-out, nor were they always given at dictation speed – but the delivery of a lecture could be enlivened and tailored to class response by elements of improvisation on the part of the lecturer; and the making of lecture notes necessarily became a more engaged and creative business - a matter of extracting, summarizing, structuring.
This type of lecturing probably reached its peak in the Scottish and German universities of the 18th and 19th century ‘Enlightenment’ era; when leading Professors became figures of national, even international, fame and significance. Such a semi-structured, semi-improvised lecture – having a skeletal plan, but with room for extempore features; systematic yet active and somewhat unpredictable - seems to me the ideal and best form of lecturing. Both lecturer and student are engaged by their tasks, and there is no possibility of either side switching to ‘autopilot’ - which may easily happen when a lecturer is simply reading aloud from notes and a student passively transcribing them.
To contrast the Medieval/ dictation and Enlightenment-style lectures: the Medieval lecture essentially provides merely a written resource for later private study; whereas the Enlightenment lecture is itself a part of the educational experience. When the lecture is structured yet partly-improvised; when the mind of both lecturer and student are engaged, then education is very obviously going-on in the here-and-now; understanding, learning and insights are actively happening in the classroom.
This type of lecture served as a vital introduction and orientation to what would have otherwise (to a novice) been a bewildering rage of sources – in pre-textbook days, sources typically too advanced to be easily comprehensible to the beginner.
A lecture course of this kind will give the student a structure of knowledge and understanding - valuable in itself, and upon-which he can build by private study. However, most students have probably always neglected private study and relied heavily upon their lecture notes (so long as the lecturer is doing a good job). Yet student-made lecture notes may be superior (for the student who made them) even to the best textbook; because making lecture notes in class, and revising them afterwards, is an active and creative process of deep-learning.
The end result of lecture note-taking is (at its best) a revision text uniquely-tailored to the student’s personal character, learning style and needs.
Of course, lectures cannot do everything in education; in general they work best for setting-out core, essential content and for explaining principles. Indeed - if there is a single word that describes what lectures do best, that word is probably explaining.
The implication is that choices concerning lecture structure and content should be subordinated to optimising that primary goal of explanation. The requirement of effective ‘explanation’ is, indeed, a useful index for deciding on the selection and volume of lecture material; and the degree of precision (or detail) with which a topic is addressed should be guided by the over-arching objective of maximising explanatory clarity.
By contrast, I don’t think lectures work well for open-ended objectives such as exploring, discussing, or encouraging genuine critical thinking. It is the nature of the medium that makes lectures most effective when used for instruction, with confident and clear didacticism. Presumably this is why lectures have generally been most popular in professional education; in fields such as medicine, law, theology and engineering.
Naturally, lectures are limited in what they can do – which is surely obvious. Among the most important limitations is that lectures cannot teach skills (skills need personal supervision, exercises and multiple repetitions); and of course individual private study is always necessary for mastery. For such purposes other teaching methods are necessary – typically some version of one-to-one (or one to a few) apprenticeship – as with an Oxford tutorial, postgraduate supervision, and laboratory science or bedside medical teaching.
The lecture medium has stood at the core of serious education in most of the best universities and colleges for many hundreds of years – and for efficient, explanatory teaching, no viable alternative method has emerged either to equal or supersede lectures. That being so; the art and craft of lecturing is worthy of serious consideration.