Thoughts on “A Lecture From the Lectured”

On Chronicle Vitae yesterday, a group of fifteen writing students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a thought-provoking essay on the value of lectures from their perspective. At the risk of oversimplifying their point of view, I’ll summarize the article as follows: lectures can be effective when done well, but are overused and often regurgitate the textbook or slides, thereby failing to illuminate the subject matter and make it relevant to students.

I couldn’t agree more, so I posted a comment saying as much. (Scroll down from the article to find it.)

Unsurprisingly, the comments section is full of polarizing responses from educators, many of which were dismissive of the student view. Examining these reveals some insights worthy of discussion:

You’re paying to be educated. It’s up to you to get something out of it. You’re not doing the faculty member a favor by showing up, listening, studying, or doing your work. All of that is something you do for your own benefit.

As I see it, education is a shared responsibility. Students need to take ownership of their learning, but the professor needs to add value to the process. Note the conflict between the first sentence and the rest of the passage. The initial sentence, “You’re paying to be educated,” is in passive voice, acknowledging the responsibility of the institution to do their share of the educating. The rest of the passage tries to put all the onus on the student.

(Y)ou should have gone to a smaller school.

You need to go to a different school or find a major at your current one that has small, discussion-oriented courses as the norm…

I find these sorts of comments to be unhelpful. While I acknowledge that students need carefully research prospective schools and do their due diligence, I doubt the U of I touts large, anonymous lecture classes as a selling point on their campus visits. It is disingenuous for us as educational insiders to say na├»ve students “should have known better” than to make the choices they did. It’s our job to educate and help them make the right choices in the first place.

Demand that universities place more value on teaching as an integral component to academia, and not just research.

The real problem is that large state universities do not rank teaching highly on the tenure and promotion scale. Publications and grants count for a lot more. So faculty learn to see teaching as a distraction from their real job and sometimes resent it.

The existence of an imbalance between teaching and research at some institutions may explain the lackluster undergraduate experience but should not excuse it. Where such inequities exist, it is up to us as stewards of those institutions to work to correct them.

Most of the faculty comments deflected the blame to the students and the institution, thereby seeking to absolve the professors of their responsibility for a major part of the student experience. Isn’t it more important for us to take ownership and change the things we can than to blame factors beyond our control?

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