Molly Worthen, an assistant history professor at UNC, recently defended the lecture format in a New York Times editorial.
“Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship,” she wrote.
She is right. But in defending it, she glosses over the form’s flaws and mischaracterizes active learning. The lecture is a worthwhile component of education. A well-delivered lecture, especially in the humanities, should not be removed from higher education. However, to pretend that the vast majority of lectures are done well is wrong, and to pretend active learning dismisses it is false, too.
While some lecturers, Worthen perhaps among them, are worth deeming excellent — many in the comparative literature and history departments come to mind — the lecture format can be an excuse for a professor to put up a PowerPoint and go through the facts.
Almost every student has had a course where a professor has read off slides on a PowerPoint, while they sat in the back watching their classmates on Facebook. That’s not a real lecture, but it happens under the same name.