The Value of Lectures

I’m writing this post for my teaching colleagues. One of the things that I have loved about moving to entirely online teaching was that it has encouraged me to thinking deeply about pedagogy. Over the last two years I have become a passionate advocate of the negotiated syllabus and universal design, which I have incorporated into online classes. Still, for twenty years I taught primarily using the lecture format. I would break lectures up with small discussion groups. Perhaps students might read a historical document from Brazil, which they would discuss in their small group, then report out briefly. Or perhaps I would have them collectively draw a map of all the theorists covered in my theory class, and how these people connected. We’d then share these maps with the class. These assignments helped to create a sense of community in the class, and to break up lectures. 

Still, I think that a well-done lecture class is a delight. Those faculty largely lecture are sometimes on the defensive, as people advocated for active learning. As someone who has incorporated active learning into classes since I began teaching, I also believe that there are many strengths to the lecture format. Asking which format is better to me is a little like asking which wheel on a bicycle is more important. Yes, we’ve all had terrible experiences in lecture format classes. Still, there are also wonderful lecture classes, which students will remember with fondness long after they graduate. I was a graduate teaching assistant at Yale for John Lewis Gaddis, Daniel James and Diana Wylie, and I remember the sheer joy of being able to listen to the lectures of masters in their field. I also learned so much about teaching by observing how they lectured. For many years, I enjoyed crafting my lectures, and shaping them based on the feedback from the class.

Miya Tokumitsu has a new essay, “In Defense of the Lecture,” which is circulating in my department by email. As each of my colleagues reads it, they seem to post another defense of their lecture to their peers. My days lecturing are probably done, as I love the innovation that online teaching encourages. But I suspect that a hundred years from now students will still be filing into lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Shawn Smallman, 2017


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