The perfect lecture?

In reading a post on how the children’s classic, “Goodnight Moon” follows some unexpected tangents, making it a richer and more literary tale, GG was reminded of choices made in making lectures over the years.

Is a better lecture one that is crystal clear, well signposted and free of distractions? Or one that meanders, allows for sidetracks and elements that perhaps aren’t anticipated or even strictly relevant?  Students often plead for the former, but is that really the best?

Consider people who tell stories (as opposed to those who write them).  We don’t have many left; one of the more prominent is Garrison Keillor.  One of his monologues will often start in one direction, suddenly veer off in another, often introducing new characters, perhaps slam on the brakes and return to the first plot line before discovering a third, seemingly irrelevant happening.  Many times these multiple lines collide at the end, revealing connections and insights that were unanticipated. So why does he do that?  Wouldn’t a more straightforward telling be better?

Obviously not.  Of course part of the joy of such story telling is the surprise–and we don’t want surprises in our lectures, right?  One of Keillor’s goals is comedy, which often relies on the unexpected juxtaposition of elements and so benefits from his stylistic choices, but we don’t intend comedy in an academic lecture, do we? And yet listeners will sit in rapt attention listening to Keillor wander through a collection of somewhat familiar but slightly off-center characters and incidents without really knowing why they should care. They don’t know the destination or the punchline and yet they follow the tortured path laid out before them. Wouldn’t it be nice if the students in the chairs in a lecture hall were half as attentive as those listening to A Prairie Home Companion?

GG is a fan of more story-telling lectures than straight linear lectures.  Part of it is, as the lecturer, simply being bored with a path from A to B with no scenery along the way.  Part of it, though, is in response to the other elements of the course.  A textbook is about a linear in writing as is possible.  Sidetracks are carefully walled off in little boxes or endnotes.  Glossaries and indices make it easy to recover the thread of something if the wording grew a little suspect. Should a lecture be a reading from a textbook?  Arguably since the end of scribes with the invention of movable type the answer is “no”.

Years ago, EE professor Oppenheim at MIT taught a signal processing course.  He told the class on the first day that all the math and formal definitions and such not would be in the textbook (which he had coauthored) and that the lectures would be to explain why you would want to do the mathematical manipulations in the text. Although this didn’t remove the math from the classroom, it freed him from making sure every derivation had made it to the blackboard.  It worked very well.

But the lecture without enough signposts inevitably produces students at office hours saying that they have no idea what was important in that lecture.  What will be on the test? (Imagine taking a test after listening to a Prairie Home monologue). Why did you waste time on that other story? How does this relate to the text?  When 2 or 3 students of more than 100 come with such complaints, you are never sure if they represent the tip of an iceberg or the tail of a distribution.

So, where is the balance to be found?  How do you recognize it when you find it? Those days when GG lectures and finds students confused are days that grow grumpy…for it means the lecture failed at some level.


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