In the opening episode of Netflix’s new campus dramedy ‘The Chair’ Professor Elliot Rentz is pictured standing in front of a blackboard in a near empty lecture theatre. The very embodiment of academic cliché, the long-tenured American literature specialist is old, white, bald, spectacled and donning a blazer and tie that looks to have been dragged straight from the 1980s. Reading drudgingly from a pile of notes the thickness of a novella, the scene simultaneously encapsulates every student’s worst nightmare, and, as it seems, every university management body’s understanding of what the contemporary lecture looks like.
Across the world, the dawn of COVID-19 brought traditional teaching methods into question. Face-to-face lectures were exchanged for Zoom or pre-recorded lectures, tutorial discussions replaced by blog posts and Q & A sessions. But as vaccination numbers grow and relative normalcy starts to resume in the rest of society, at universities, it’s another story entirely.
Anyone who follows higher education news in Australia is familiar with the question: Does the lecture have a place in the modern university? But COVID-19 has brought a new life to this decades-long discussion. We are reminded of this fact by headlines that appear with the regularity of clockwork: “Murdoch University disposes of face-to-face lectures for 2021”; “Lectures don’t work: University of the Sunshine Coast moves to new learning model”; “Curtin University plans to ditch in-person lectures and exams.”
Against the rhetoric of management bodies, obscured and occluded by vested interests in modernisation and technocratic moralities, we find ourselves asking a Schrodingerian question: is the lecture alive or dead?
Invariably, the way that one judges the value of the lecture depends upon how one defines the term. For example, many assume the lecture to be equivalent to a transfer model of education. Under this guise, the lecture is merely a forum for academics to talk at students for a period of time, listing off facts and quotations to be learnt by rote. In other words, it is the tertiary equivalent of pouring concrete into the empty skulls of students, and hoping that something fills the gaps that were previously there.
This mode of education has been the subject of considerable scrutiny, perhaps the most notable example coming from Paolo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (a text that I, unironically, learnt about during a lecture). In this text, Freire proposes that “education is suffering from narration sickness.” The lecturer talks about “contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance.” I do not doubt that you will still find lecturers who utilise this model of lecturing. In fact, you are probably even more likely to find them when made to pre-record lectures for online dispersion. But in the face-to-face forum, they are few and far between. In view of this, it is important to quash the false premise that the lecture has not changed since the early 20th century, and reconsider what the term ‘lecture’ actually means within the context of 2021.
In conversation with a number of academics from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, a common thread seemed to emerge: the modern-day lecture is a far more dynamic and varied entity than is often assumed. Dr Stewart Jackson, head of the School of Government and International Relations, noted the interactive nature of lectures, communicating that his own lectures are often “filled with [him] trotting up and down aisles in the lecture hall, asking questions, prompting responses and generally trying to increase interaction.” Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Rick Benitez similarly acknowledged that the best lectures are discursive and unpredictable, guided by the interests of those in the room at the time. Finally, Dr Benjamin Brown of Ancient History and Classics noted that the lecture theatre, like any other theatre, is a performative space built for engagement; “an authoritative pole around which a dialogue can begin to form and coalesce.”
But if a lecture is interactive, dialogic and guided by student interests and engagement, how does it differ from what would otherwise be considered a tutorial or a seminar?
One characteristic that separates the lecture from both of these things is length. As a longer-form exchange, the lecture provides an opportunity to more thoroughly step through a series of interconnecting ideas, crafting a picture from the various pieces of the puzzle along the way. In conversation with Associate Professor Melanie White from UNSW, Dr Nick Apoifis put it this way: “the lecture is a mechanism to tell a story (…) it’s like a little novella.”
The novella analogy is an interesting one, in part because many critics of the lecture will propose that you can acquire all necessary knowledge from books or websites alone. But whilst I am not one to argue against the transformative value of a book, the ability to talk about a book, situate it within a context, and discuss the ideas and movements that have been shaped by it, is an experience that cannot be matched by anything quite like the lecture. Although I cannot speak for disciplines outside of the arts, social sciences and law, what makes the lecture valuable is not that it merely communicates content, but that it crafts a careful narrative out of this content – situating it within a world that is at once familiar and new.
But beyond the merely pedagogical, the lecture is a site for socialisation. The reality is that the vast majority of today’s university students have to work a lot more than they did twenty to thirty years ago. As a result, time on campus to establish relationships and make memories is often limited. Thus conversations that start in the lecture theatre and spill over to outside are invaluable to developing a sense of connection with others at the university. As nerdy as it sounds, when I think of my first years at the University of Sydney, some of my most cherished memories include heated discussions about the value of political theory, or questions about a novel that bubbled in the lecture theatre and exploded once my friends and I got outside. By contrast, online lectures reduce the learning experience to one that is more closely aligned with being kept in a monastic cell — staring at empty black blocks until the hour or two comes to a close, and you are left staring at a blank computer screen, completely on your own.
But the limited amount of spare time common among many of today’s students has of course been used to support the alternative position: ‘If a student has worked all day, the last thing that they want to do is come into university for a two hour lecture.’ This stance may, on the surface, be quite convincing. But, reality says otherwise.
When polled, students show a persistently strong preference for face-to-face classes, acknowledging the inauthentic nature of online learning. Furthermore, the introduction of additional conveniences, such as Echo360, still failed to deter students from attending lectures in person. Naturally, students want a variety of things from their education. But from the perspective of a generation that are being forced to acquire considerable debt for a university education, we expect better than glorified Facetimes and YouTube videos. Heralded as the ‘tech-generation,’ our access to devices and the internet lead many to assume that we are ‘out of touch with reality,’ that we would rather live life with pixels than with other people. If anyone is out of touch here, it is the people who haven’t stepped foot in a lecture theatre for decades and still think that they have a better idea of what is good for students today.
In many ways, the lecture is a micro-iteration of the university’s claim to be a site of public knowledge. But in the grips of an industry that views education as an under-developed real estate opportunity, and measures success by efficiencies, cost-saving mechanisms and revenue projections, it is not the lecture, but the university that is dead.