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The lecture seems rather under attack at the moment. For good reasons, a model of education in which one person stands up and speaks for fifty minutes, whilst everyone else in the room sits quietly and takes in it, looks out-dated. It has the air of the hierarchical, reactionary, shut-up-we-know-what’s-good-for-you attitude to education which modern universities are trying to eradicate from their practices. There have been a slew of articles declaring the Death of the Lecture, and an equal and opposite slew of pieces explaining the Glory of the Lecture (in My Day).

I think the lecture is a really valuable way of supporting students’ learning, but a lot of the defences I read of it seem to come from entirely the wrong angle. I’m dismayed to start an article which sets out to justify the practice of lecturing, and instead turns into a nostalgic of this one time when the author was really inspired by the sheer personality of a wonderful, now-deceased don, who was one of the real old-school and didn’t care about whether his (for it is he) students heard anything or not, and if we could only recapture that spirit the students of today would think themselves lucky.

This sort of argument – from the charisma and presence of a famous male don – seems to proceed in two unhelpful directions. Firstly, it depends on personal magnetism. The individual brilliance of a maverick intellect isn’t really a basis upon which a single department – let alone an entire academic field – can build their system around. If lecturing can only be done by the naturally gifted or the charismatic, it isn’t an academic practice, it’s a personality trait.

This risks implying that there are a few gifted individuals who can Do Being A Lecturer Right, and this should be recognised as the centre of a proper education.  A student’s chance of having a really good education is proportional to their closeness to one of these people, and that involves attending an institution where one (or several) of them are employed. We all have memories of inspiring lecturers who changed our intellectual world (my own would have to start with Deborah Cameron and Peter McCullough…) but their brilliance can’t be the basis for a whole system.

The problem here isn’t that personality isn’t (to use a terrible marketing term) “scaleable”, but that we already have far too much of the language of “stars” and “dons” in public discussions about university.  We also have far too much of the assumption that education is inherently a scarce commodity, and there are only a couple of places in the nation where it is available.  I get the impression that this is a peculiarly British affliction, assuming that everything in higher education should be modelled on Oxbridge, and is thus evaluated by how far it looks like (but can never be) the “real thing”.

Never mind the fact that “charisma” or “presence” is a very gendered phenomenon in a university context. It has a lot to do with having been taught your entire life that everyone should listen to what you have to say, and if you stride about pontificating, you will look eccentric and erudite, rather than strident or mildly unhinged. Even if socialisation and upbringing has no effect on the lecturer, they will still be received differently in an actual lecture depending on the audience’s perception of them.

No-one who has seen a lecture hall start to pack up early when a brilliant female colleague mentions the words “next week” or “conclusion” or “to summarise” can doubt that. The praise which accrues to a male professor’s apparently “natural” command of the room may partly (largely?) come from the fact that he doesn’t have to ask people to listen, or point out that the session isn’t finished yet, or request that no-one speak whilst he is speaking. When an audience’s reception of a lecture causes the lecturer to foreground these issues of basic politeness and attention which elsewhere might be termed “classroom management”, they lose the aura of “natural” authority which another lecturer may benefit from.

The other problem connects with this issue: arguing from the classic era of a long-gone don suggests we should be spending our time trying to recapture the past, that higher education already found its form and we should be trying to preserve it. Though I want to keep the lecture as a central part of an arts and humanities degree, I don’t feel that way because I think an earlier era got it perfectly right.  I think it has a lot to offer the current students, as an ongoing and developing practice which may not have been used to its best advantage in the past.

In that past, student bodies were much more homogenous in terms of ethnicity, class and gender, had a much more similar educational background and could draw on a much more restricted range of cultural references.  For me, the diversity of the modern university (which is by no means achieved yet) is an advantage for lecturers, not an unfortunate historical accident which we have to grudgingly make allowances for because alas these days they’re not all public school boys who can recognise your quotations from Pindar.  I’d argue for the positive benefits a lecture to students who don’t fit that model, rather than suggest they might accrue some benefit despite that fact.

So I’d like to present a few arguments for lecturing in the humanities, specifically in English Studies. As I’ve suggested, there are plenty of public defences of the lecture (I’m not referring to scholarly papers here), but they often make me rather uncomfortable in both their assumptions and their approaches.  I don’t want to rely on such arguments, and neither do I particularly want people to listen to my lectures on such grounds.

Arguing in favour of the lecture is partly self-serving – I have found over the last few years (rather to my surprise) that I enjoy giving lectures – and partly in line with my department’s economic interests, since lecturing can be a cost-efficient way of reaching a lot of students whilst only allocating the cost of a single academic’s time. But I really do believe in the lecture, and I’d like to explain some of the reasons why, in a couple of blog pieces which will follow this one.

These probably won’t apply to a lot of disciplines, but I’m not trying to produce an overall theory of the lecture here. Instead I’m just presenting what seems to be valuable about the lecturing practice of the department I’ve worked in, and why I think it’d be hugely to the detriment of my students if lecturing was phased out or side-lined. Or indeed if it became regarded as a vestigial part of the department’s activities, which wasn’t investing time and training in, or was beneath the dignity of “proper” educators.

The other reason I won’t try to produce an overall view of lecturing (aside from the fact that I haven’t reviewed the scholarly literature on the subject…) is I expect lecturing is a very different matter in different disciplines. A room full of physics students and a room full of history students may both be listening to a person at the front talking, but the intentions, effects and processes may be so different that “lecture” might be one term which in fact hides the major gaps in what is going on. I’m afraid a lot of this will seem very parochial and focused on the small area where I work.

But, after all, I don’t lecture on the basis that my practice would be suitable for application in other disciplines, I lecture to the students in front of me during a particular hour on the literary topics we’re jointly exploring. That, I’ll argue in the coming pieces, is part of the strength of the lecture format: its specificity, its immediacy and its emphasis on a moment of live performance.


The Series:

Right Here, Right Now: On Lecturing and Presence