Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 by Rob
The Luddite Professor: In Defense – nay, Praise – of ‘Chalk and Talk’
Permalink for this paragraph 0 by Dr. Doug Marshall (Sociology)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Let me clarify right up front that my Luddism is but relative. I write not to argue that technology has no place in higher education, nor that a live lecture course is always and everywhere superior to its electronic alternatives. Neither do I write to defend that bastardization of the lecture, the mere recitation of aged notes into ever-newer generations of student notebooks. What I do contend – as both an experienced college teacher and as a social scientist – is that the venerable lecture course must retain a central place in higher education, including here at South. For all of its wonders, educational technology is most significant as a means of augmenting, not replacing, the live classroom experience.
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The crux of my argument is that the purpose of college education isn’t only, or even primarily, about the mere transfer of practical information or skills – though these are among its more tangible fruits. What universities have historically been uniquely able, and
necessary, to provide is something more fundamental: The socialization of students into an intellectual culture, cultivating in them both the appetite for knowledge and the critical habits of mind with which to analyze, evaluate, and use it. The goal is to equip the student to partake fully of human culture, to participate fully in human society, and by doing so, to perpetuate human civilization.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Though it certainly includes the transmission of information (and, perhaps more than many, I would maintain the importance of such dissemination), socialization is a much larger process that relies upon older and more fundamental mechanisms. Having evolved in our decidedly non-virtual ancestral milieu, such mechanisms capitalize on the states evoked in us by the unmediated copresence of other human beings. Anyone who has decided to attend a live play instead of staying home to watch TV, who goes to church instead of listening to the service on the radio, or who partakes of a live concert rather than plugging in their ipod understands well the subjective experiential chasm between actual copresence with the performers (and, just as importantly, other audience members) and the mediated and asynchronous facsimile that technology makes possible. This subjective contrast reflects, and is a direct function of, the two experiences’ differential potentials as occasions for socialization.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Because it borders upon my own work on ritual processes, I am tempted to dissect the live experience into the multiple mechanisms (e.g. autonomic arousal, emotional contagion, deindividuation, etc.) by which it facilitates socialization. But since this would quickly exceed the bounds of this newsletter (and most readers’ interest), allow me to oversimplify their cumulative effect with my own gloss on what is unique about the live lecture experience. What a good lecture has in common with the theatre, religious rituals, and concerts, and what gives all of these experiences their distinctive power to change the way people see their world, is the sense that something special and utterly unique is being created here and now.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Despite the script, bulletin, sheet music, or outline that roughly sets the course of events, what actually transpires is a joint function of these guidelines, the instructor’s mood and interests, the audience’s attitudes and knowledge, and, most importantly, a particular moment in social and cultural history. The analogy I’ve made many times is to improvisational jazz, in which the lead sheet can be almost incidental to the music being made. The exciting sense that something brand new is being created ricochets and intensifies among all present, creating an immediacy and lasting impression that is hard to obtain in any other way.
Permalink for this paragraph 1 To those who argue that because students today spend their lives doing everything else in an on-line environment, education must do the same or be left behind, I must take exception. It is the very fact that everything else comes to them through the same electronic portal that makes it so important that education not. The live experience makes it clear that what we’re providing is not just another channel of “content” always available for “consumption.” More cynically, we must recognize the reality that in an on-line environment, we as teachers are competing head-to-head with every single member of our student’s social networks, with entire industries of determined commercial interests, and even flocks of angry birds for our student’s limited (and arguably shrinking) attention. I’m sorry to say it, but we as a whole are not going to win that contest.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 To be sure, most students will eventually watch or read their way through the class materials, contribute the requisite posts to the discussion board, and pass their exams. But research suggests that they will do so using tiny chunks of attention wrested from other, more compelling on-line attractions (some research suggests that when they can, students check their email or facebook wall 30-40 times an hour). There is a real possibility that the resulting lack of experience with the discipline of sustaining one’s attention for the purpose of understanding a concept, solving a problem, or completing an assignment exacts serious if hard-to-measure cognitive costs over the long run. For our purposes, it is safe to say that thus reduced to just another asynchronous mediated experience among many others, the on-line classroom has a reduced chance of producing a lasting impact on students.
Permalink for this paragraph 1 Let me leave you with one last thought. As its critics have often pointed out, the University model has changed relatively little over the last few centuries. For all of its well-known foibles, shortcomings, and absurdities, it has undeniably fostered staggering progress in human knowledge, technology, culture, lifespan, and social values (Yes, I know, it’s awfully easy to identify all the new horrors it has also spawned, and I’m hardly modernity’s cheerleader. But ask yourself, honestly, would you really rather have lived a thousand years ago? Five hundred? Two hundred?). In short, it is a model of higher education that has demonstrated its efficacy over the long haul. We must understand that to the extent that we abandon it for an untried alternative, we do so at ours and our culture’s peril.