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The Case for Lecturing More: Sharing Our Insights to Motivate Insight

There appears to be a cottage industry of thinkpieces in defense of the lecture.  Alex Small defends his mixed lecture and discussion approach in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago in his piece, In Defense of the Lecture.  He defends the lecture as an opportunity to put on display the way an expert in a field approach problems.  He also describes how he uses discussion to set up and break up the parts of class where he lectures.  Miya Tokumitsu defends the art of collective listening in her piece in Jacobin earlier this year, In Defense of the Lecture.  In 2009, Adam Kotsko wrote A Defense of the Lecture for Inside Higher Ed in which he argues that lecturing can help bring students to the level of good readers so that an engaged discussion might ensue.

In planning for courses in my return from sabbatical, I spent some time thinking about why I have typically refrained from lecturing.  I tend to conduct class in a way that tries to get students to come to insights on their own.  But I found that this approach has a certain inauthenticity insofar as it involves asking questions I already know the answer to.  My thinking has been that students learn better when they reach their conclusion themselves, but I think that supposes that there is a limited number of insights and that I have already had them.  The result is that I hold them back to lead students to have insights.

This last semester, I tried to move away from this approach by doing more to present texts and figures and insights and connections between texts and figures.  Presenting the insight can still become an opportunity for discussion over what it means and how it works and whether it is consistent with the text as a whole.  Presenting the insight then becomes an opportunity for thinking and for giving students the opportunity to reach further insights.  I sometimes make the mistake of thinking if I offer an insight it will no longer be something worth considering–it has already been reached–rather than seeing the class discussion itself as moving students to come to grasps with an insight that is presented to them.  When an insight about how a text could be understood or what it might imply is presented to students, thinking through whether the reading works engages them in the process of thinking through the text in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we just started from the understanding they reached on their first read through.

For example, this semester after having taught Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the notion that a wise man is a measure of knowledge and wisdom, I later assigned Plato’s Protagoras.  I suggested to students that Socrates is warning Hippocrates away from studying with Protagoras because the knowledge that Protagoras teaches, as it is only propositional knowledge of what virtue is, will not make him virtuous.  In the language of the dialogue, it will not give him the art of measure that will save his life.  Protagoras’s sophistry will not make his student a measure because the knowledge it gives does not transform.  This is my reading of the argument against akrasia in the dialogue.  By presenting my interpretation I was able to talk about how Socrates critique of akrasia is not a purely intellectualist view of virtue but an argument about the kind of knowledge that would be required to make one virtuous.  This insight also helped make sense of why Socrates offers this weird reading of Simonides’ poem, following Ann Carson’s reading that the reading of the poem helps compare Protagoras’ imitative and therefore suspect pedagogy to Simonides’ poetry.  I should not have worried that students would not be able to come to insights on their own, since they very much did.  They were able to make connections across the course of how different senses of knowledge in different settings makes the one who knows a kind of measure, which then helpfully explained how Aristotle’s notion of the virtuous act is the act that is done the way the virtuous person would do it.

When we think of lecture, we tend to imagine a boring old professor droning on about some topic without concern for what will help students learn.  Students are supposed to take the information from the lecture and return it as evidence of their knowledge on an exam.  That lecture I oppose.  But I fully support faculty feeling free to share their knowledge, rather than thinking that it is only learning if students come to it on their own.  A good lecture presents information and interpretation, not so much as an end in itself, as much as it sets up students to successfully discuss and further process and engage with difficult material.  I need not fear that the lecture will make the texts too easy; they remain full of possibility.  And it is useful to remember how difficult it was for me when I read them for the first time.

What this means for my regular teaching is two or maybe three pronged:

  • I have decided in most cases to offer students an interpretation of texts and to explain to them how the text works to make those arguments.  I let discussion be about how to evaluate the interpretation and the argument.  For example, I explain that Plato’s Symposium involves speeches that each represent the different steps of the ladder of love.  Then I ask where they think Socrates is on the ladder: is at the top, is he the ladder, is he the in-between?  The question requires thinking through the text.
  • I have decided to share the ideas I have about what a text means and to explain how I reach that interpretation, rather than hold back.  This is really the hardest part for me, but I think it is fruitful for students.  In my Plato and Baldwin course, I told students that I think Plato’s cave image is not about the philosopher being the one who has knowledge of the good and therefore being the one who should rule, but rather staging the question of how we can evaluate the claim that someone has knowledge of what is in itself when that speaker must speak in a context of people who only have a perspective, a view of what appears.  Students argued with me about my reading and struggled back with the text to think about why they understood it otherwise.  It was some of the best discussion and I think most convinced me that we should not hold back our own thinking in the classroom.

As a side note that is perhaps more than a side note: to the extent that we are sharing insights with students, teaching and research are intimately intertwined.  We have to work to reach insights about texts.  When I was teaching the Stoics, I began each class with a provocative claim like, “Fate is rational.”  It took me some work to think about how the Stoics reach this claim and to present this claim for them to consider as an interpretation of the text.  That work is our research.  Sharing those insights thus requires research.  Teaching well requires time for research.  Arguments that research is something that can or only does happen at large research universities should be strongly resisted when we see that being successful in the class is not just a matter of presenting material, but of sharing the insights that our work has led us to have.  At the same time, teaching and preparing to teach can also lead us to the kinds of insights that motivate our research projects.



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