Sunday, March 06, 2011

At the Chronicle: "Actually Going to Class?"

Over at The Chronicle, "Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century" asks a question and raises a few more:

Learning outside of this structure engages students more deeply, recent data indicate. Professors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten. . . .
Courses won't go away completely, Mr. Bass argues—they do provide a handy framework. But he said he hopes that professors will stop thinking of them as a goal unto themselves and focus more on linking skills conveyed in the classroom to hands-on student activities.

Really? "Quickly memorized facts"? Where do these people go to school, the Mr. Gradgrind Academy? Yes, if you set up a straw man of a Facts-O-Rama education and then test for the kind of learning that takes place, you might see that it doesn't work very well.

The second quotation has more going for it and a couple of things wrong with it. The first point is that hands-on student activities are important. Here's my question: where do you do the "hands-on student activities" if you don't have a class? If you have a course in which content (as in "a body of knowledge," not "how I feel about looking at this video") is important, hands-on learning can't do everything, although it can help.

The second point is that the author is almost apologetic about the concept of a classroom. What is a classroom but a place where presumably interested parties get together to work on learning and contributing to a body of knowledge? Unless you're Stephen Hawking, rattling around in your own head with a text doesn't get you nearly as far as discussing it with others.

Another person quoted in the article has made the astonishing discovery--hold on to your seats--that "The class discussion only really works when everyone is prepared." Instead of seeing that as a reason to give up on class, however, I see it as a reason to keep trying harder with the admittedly useful "framework" of a class rather than to give up and send them to YouTube.

I can't speak to the efficacy of podcasted lectures in, say, science classes, but in the humanities, which apparently nobody cares about anyway, there's a give-and-take in the classroom that can't be replicated. In short, let me state a fact:

I have never given the same exact lecture twice, and my classes have never discussed the texts in the same way twice. We see each others' faces, hear each others' voices, and learn from each other, and it's that process that's valuable.


Anonymous said...

I will not let my child attend a specific large (and prestigious) state university where we get a lot of graduate students from precisely because their graduates think that memorization and regurgitation is the end all and be all of learning, regardless of major, even among graduates of their honor college. I had thought that type of "learning" went away in high school, but apparently not.

And they punish us the first semester for making them think. For having to deal with ambiguity. They're not used to it. Actually, we met about the problem a few years back and now all the core courses have a section in the syllabus and on day one on how graduate school is different and there's going to be some cognitive dissonance, so they don't punish us as much as they used to.

Anonymous said...

OK, I had a nice comment written up and Blogger ate it.

Quickly: I wish they would define "hands-on." Here it often seems to mean the kinds of things that were formerly considered extracurricular, not academic activities.

Anonymous said...

I'm back. I wish my original comment hadn't gotten eaten by blogger, but one of the my questions is when reading and discussing primary texts is not hands on, when archival research is not hands on, etc.

Why is it only hands on if it is some sort of activity I would call extracurricular ... related but more social or vocational than academic?

I don't know. Many around here used "hands on" to describe courses in the faculty led study abroad trips, meaning, they'd have cultural tourism instead of, not in addition to class, and then (of course) write about it in their journals. So I don't trust the term, I think it means something like "basket weaving."

I feel like an old crank. But it really does seem that a lot of this is about turning regular classes into events which more closely resemble recreational ones.

Jonathan said...

I've never given a lecture course. I teach in a foreign language, and the students have to not only listen but respond to questions and talk to one aonther in Spanish. The "hands-on" experience is in the classroom. When I find myself lecturing for more than 10 minutes I try to stop.

Of course if profs are giving canned lectures then they might as well be on podcasts. Even in terms of what I communicate to the students, I often have more interesting ideas in response to student questions.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie, they ought to know better, especially if they are graduate students. That syllabus section sounds like a smart idea, if you ask me.

profacero, that's what I'd like to know about "hands-on." Does it count as "hands-on" if students are, say, looking at archival materials or working with each others' papers? I think it does, but you're right: "hands-on" has come to mean field trips or service learning. If you're in a content field (unless it's social work), that isn't always possible.

undine said...

Jonathan, you're right: in a foreign language classroom, speaking is the "hands-on" part of the class. I don't lecture a lot, and never for the whole period, but the reason I started introducing material that way sometimes is that early in my career students demanded it. I'd been taught to see lecturing as bad, and then I came to see how for my field it could be helpful in small doses.

Anonymous said...

Undine, I love this post.

Anonymous said...

Well, sure, I'd love to do more "hands on" activities! Discussion in a history class is highly beneficial to learning to think critically and to learn about some of the ambiguity of sources. Oh, wait, I now have enrollments of 300+ in freshman survey! The stated desires of the U to inculcate all sorts of critical thinking/participatory classroom work is contradicted by their ever increasing class sizes.

Describing multiple interpretations or conflicting interpretations isn't the same as wrestling with a few and defending them in class.


undine said...

Thanks, Ink!

Dutch, this ought to be sent to administrators everywhere: "The stated desires of the U to inculcate all sorts of critical thinking/participatory classroom work is contradicted by their ever increasing class sizes." They say they want participation/hands-on/critical thinking, but when they think about classes, they think about "content delivery," as if content is a UPS package.

Anonymous said...

Blogger just ate my comment again. It was brilliant. I favor lecturing for numerous reasons. I am very good at it my own self. But really: if your professor is Natalie Davis or someone like that, don't you want to hear her speak? I did as a freshman. Fucke, as the CPP would say!

Anonymous said...

I am still thinking about this, as I know one is supposed to create more and more exercises. My preference would actually be to do the first two years or so via exercises and start the heavy info-packed lectures later ... by people engaged in research in field only ... but I note students like the opposite: once again today in my freshman class that is supposed to be interactive they said they were Confused and could I just lay all the cards out straight, so to speak? So I did, drawing a table on the board and everything, and they were, like, OH. So who knows.

However. I didn't take science in college but I took lots of math instead. The math courses the majors took. I actually did the first two years of a math major or so. And I never, ever went to the lecture because all that would happen was, the professor would read from the book, which was projected onto a large screen. Verbatim. It was just a better use of time to go study.

However, the TA led sections for those classes were really good. They explained things in other ways, showed how to do the hard problems, explained the implications of the principles, told math jokes, and talked about math as it appears in literature, math and religion, etc.

Meanwhile, the people taking math for people in other sciences (emphasizing computation only) had more trouble because they didn't get so much theory, didn't focus so much on how to derive things, and so on. So I got a stellar GRE score in math, all because of these TAs. Which means, the professors might as well have been replaced with podcasts.

Meanwhile, though, the humanities professors lecturing were like rock stars (and actually were in many cases the rock stars of the relevant topic). You wouldn't have wanted to replace them with anything and the lectures weren't canned, and they would talk about very current work on the issues at hand, and take questions from the floor. This is why I am not anti lecture in principle.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and: we're getting online classes here. Once a class is created, it cannot be changed. So it's a podcast by definition. Bleah.