Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lecture Guilt

The summer class is starting to settle into a rhythm. In-class writing, giving background on the reading, pointing out highlights of the reading, occasional interludes of period music or art, break, pointing out more interesting stuff about the reading, handing back the in-class writings and telling the students about all the smart insightful stuff the other students said, the occasional YouTube clip (here, have some animated Sir Gawain!), background about the next set of readings.

What's missing? Oh, yeah. They don't talk. Well, two of them talk, but one of them has four young children and has to be absent a fair bit of the time (all for bona fide emergencies, so I don't want to dock points), and it's pretty hard to carry on a discussion with one student and the instructor. I've called on some of the others out of the blue when I know for sure they have something to say, but I dislike putting students on the spot -- it's worse than useless if the student doesn't have something to say, and I cherish the illusion that class discussion ought to be free and voluntary. Paired or small-group activities have sometimes worked and sometimes flopped spectacularly. So I end up lecturing a lot.

I feel guilty about this. I'm not sure whether I ought to feel guilty. I mean yeah, I believe in the Virtues of Active Learning and all that jazz, but I also believe in Engaging Different Learning Styles and Responding to the Needs of Individual Students and Classes, and maybe this class has decided that their preferred learning style is listening quietly. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Then again, maybe there is -- we're here to teach skills, after all, not just content, and it's hard to learn these skills without using them. Then again, maybe there isn't; they do write in class, every class, so it's not like they're starved for a chance to do literary analysis in practice. And some students, apparently, like lecture and think they learn most effectively from it, to the point of asking for more of it on the course evals; who am I to tell them they are wrong?

Behind it all is a stubborn conviction that I must be doing something wrong if people don't want to talk -- because when I didn't want to talk, it was nearly always a sign that the professor was doing something wrong. This, of course, is silly, since they're not me; some are from cultures (or majors) where silence and deference are the rule, some are just shy. Still. I keep thinking about my least favorite professors in college: the one who never did anything but summarize the readings; the one who looked up at the class every now and then with a bone-dry "Would ... anybody ... care ... to ... comment ... on ... that?" (of course, nobody ever did); the one who asked the class to vote on whether they preferred lecture or discussion on the first day, but who really only welcomed comments when they allowed him to make the point that he knew everything about the topic and we knew nothing. I hope I'm not falling into one or more of those traps.

Anyway. Lecture Guilt. Excuse me, I must find some pretty pictures and music to illustrate tomorrow's lecture.


Anonymous said...

Hang in there. I had a class of only 5 students last spring, and it was sometimes painful. My favorite discussion starter was to give them a handful of questions about the reading, tell them to work together to come up with responses, and then to leave the room. I would sit outside until they finished and sent someone out to fetch me. This activity forced them to interact with one another outside my presence and at least generated a little discussion.

Good luck!

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, I always have lecture guilt --- and I always worry that I'm doing something horribly wrong to make them not talk and that they'd totally talk with someone else who is a better teacher. So, yeah.

But sometimes, after a long discussion that is slow and painful, when I get the papers, which aren't good anyway, I wonder if there is actually any pedagogical benefit to having them talk. Maybe there is but it just doesn't translate to their writing?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Roaringgrrl -- I may yet get to the point where I try doing just that. Thanks.

Sisyphus -- Yeah, my experience has been that there is a high degree of overlap between students who don't like to talk and those who are poor writers, although there are always just enough exceptions to throw me for a loop. I don't think there's necessarily any benefit to making them talk, since participating in a class discussion isn't going to fix whatever underlying weakness it is that makes students poor writers and poor participants in the first place (lack of reading skills, probably). So I'm pretty iffy about requiring discussion for discussion's sake.

Lucky Jane said...

What you describe sounds so frustrating, especially with the marathon length of the classes.

I say I wish I had still had small classes (the administration at my school declares upper-division classes of 35-40 "small"), but when I taught them in grad school and at my previous gigs the thinly populated herds could be excruciating, and inevitably they met at 8 AM TuTh, so were quite long, too.

Anyway, have you tried silent discussion? It's a variation on what roaringgrrl describes: when each of the students writes down a question they really have about the text—a question to which they really have no answer, something debatable—and then pass their question around the room until everyone had had a crack at it. Almost all the time, this exercise worked very well for me, with students gasping, "I'd never thought of that!" When we hitched the wagons, they'd get into debates. There was one initially comatose class in which I had to repeat the exercise, and after awhile they started to try to one-up each other on the ingenuity of their questions, which sometimes made their way into the papers.

Good luck with this. I hope the term passes swiftly. I also believe it's not as unpleasant for them as it might be for you; they may well think the class is going great.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ooh, I may have to try that! Thanks!

WordsmithWorking said...

Thanks for the post. You're not alone. There are so many variables for quiet class: time, student mix, instructor, the subject matter, etc.
I'm teaching a Brit. Lit seminar at 8am M-Th this summer. Oyyy! The drudgery of some mornings due to any of those variables. I do think a main ingredient to a good class is my enthusiasm, but I put less stock into the idea that my enthusiasm will always mirror theirs. Nope. I cannot light their fire everyday.

Lucky Jane, that's a great idea. Varying approaches is great, even if some bomb. I do think lecture should be part of those varied approaches and not always something we have to fret and move away from. Sometimes students need a good background lecture if they are going to enter into a discussion and push the ideas further. I also like to think of a lecture as a modeling of how to think about a text and approach the larger questions it contains.

Earnest English said...

Oooh this is such a hard issue. On the one hand, when I was an undergrad at a state school, I much preferred lecture to most other methods of learning. I felt that I was there to find out what the professor/the specialist had to say rather than hear my peers' half-baked ideas and stupid questions (I know, I was really a terrible snob back then -- I was the sort of student who wanted to acquire culture). Now I see learning so differently. I often think that when students are quiet, it's because they believe that they are those who "don't know" and they want to be filled by those who do rather than understanding that they are not going to learn much if they don't actually interact with the material and allow themselves to engage and question. But then some students do engage and question quietly. And when you want to foster classroom discussion and they insist on being quiet, well, that's just the worst kind of teaching day. I really like the ideas here for getting them engaging with the material. I would wonder and maybe even talk with them about their ideas of learning -- not whether they *prefer* lecture, but what that means and what they think learning is. I usually explain the kind of learning I expect to happen in my class. So I guess what I'm suggesting here is taking the whole thing to the meta-level and asking them about their ideas of learning and whether or not they are thinking of the class too much in the banking model, as Freire would say -- or whether they are just shy. At least this might give them more to think about, albeit silently.

Anonymous said...

I had a favorite prof who talked A LOT in class. One way I used to rationalize that to other students, was that she wasn't just dictating one point of view for us to take down. Often she was sketching arguments, arguing both sides of a debate (with herself), really thinking through problems.

So lectures can have very different pedagogical value depending on the content. Discussion does a good job of getting at complexity and varying interpretations, but that doesn't mean lecture is incapable of doing it.

Also going to have to snag LuckyJane's technique. Variations on roaringgrrl's are already in my toolbox.

sexy said...