A couple of years ago, when I began thinking about the courses I teach as places where content is created and curated rather than transmitted and tested, lecturing was one of the teaching modalities I most wanted to jettison. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy lecturing, it just seemed that so little of it “stuck” — and what did stick often sounded parroted or parodied when it came drifting back up through the prose of a midterm essay. My lectures articulated my explanation and interpretation of historical developments I’d spent twenty years studying and thinking about. Did I think they were good? Yes. Did students get a lot out of them? I liked to think so. Did what they learned from them stay with them past the midterm? Doubtful. Was there a better way? Probably.
So when I embraced networked learning as the main modality for my courses, it seemed that lecturing might not be compatible with the kinds of active learning and knowledge production I wanted to support and facilitate. I’d been so impressed with what students could do when they were given the opportunity to explore and pursue a topic that interested them in depth and in conversation with their peers. Subjecting those often disparate and always unique presentations to the constraints of my own interpretive arc — no matter how elegant and “good” I thought it was (it was mine after all), just did not feel right.
But finding an alternative has taken a while. I’ve found that students embrace the responsibility of having more control over what they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Putting them in conversation with each other and engaging with the substance of their work and the questions their work raises elevates the quality of what we create together as a class and what they leave the class with as individuals. We spend much of our F2F time discussing student work, identifying and analyzing source material, and debating the merits of particular interpretive models and historical debates. For assessments I ask them to show me what they’ve learned, reflect on their learning process, and suggest how their work addresses the broader issues of the course.
But to make it all work we still need some lecture to provide context and draw connections between the students’ work on particular topics. I’ve tried various things, including giving short (15-20″) overviews of the main themes we will work on in the coming week and thematic presentations that connect discussions from different parts of the course. But the one that seems to work best uses the students’ work as its foundation.
The outline for a student-centered lecture on the transition from the upheaval and violence of the Russian Civil War to the economic and social transformations of the 1920s might look something like this:
I. Civil War / War Communism (1918-21)
A. Militarization of Labor:
B. Party Membership:
C. Kronstadt Rebellion:
II. The New Economic Policy (1921-28)– Capitalism as a road to socialism?
(several good posts on this topic)
A. Lenin’s Pragmatic Approach with the West
B. Entrepreneurs and the Re-emergence of Capitalism
III. Soviet Youth: Promise and Peril
A. Young, Wild, and Communist
B. The Invisible Children
The URL’s are all posts written by students over the previous weekend. I make this outline available to the class on a Google Doc, and give a brief (2-3 minute) explanation of what we’ll be talking about and why I selected these posts and topics as references. (This semester there are 25-40 posts submitted every week.) Then I lead a guided discussion anchored by this outline, and elaborated with the perspectives of the individual authors and the collective expertise in the room. Everyone can read or review the posts, and the authors have the opportunity to talk about their work in some detail and ask questions raised by their research. Students can take notes individually or add to the outline as we go along. I still have an interpretive arc in mind, but we support and develop it together. Because it uses student-generated work as the jumping off points for the presentation and explanation, the connections between what students “know” individually and the big picture (both the macro-level view, and my perspective as the “expert”) are made explicit. I believe this helps construct an analytical framework and understanding of a particular period or topic that has a longer half-life than the traditional lecture did.
This is a working theory and it will certainly continue to evolve. I’m not ready to kick lectures to the curb or the dustbin, but would like to imagine the “student-centered lecture” taking its place in the ranks of this versatile transmedial pedagogical form. (A big thank you to Practice in Pedagogy for bringing Friesen’s article to my attention.)