Friday, February 1, 2013

On Long Lectures...

One thing that interests me as I begin to teach in Hungary is the difference between Hungarian and American students’ styles of learning.  I have heard, in an anecdotal way, that European students in general are much more accustomed to listening to lectures than American students are today.  I hope to test this impression and to figure out what lays behind this difference while I am here. 
As a teacher of American history I have, of course, a very personal interest in this question about lecturing.  One of the most formative experiences of my own teaching career happened when I first taught a class by myself, at Clark University, in the Fall of 2005.  It had been seven years since the last class of my own undergraduate career, and I modeled my course in part on faculty at my graduate school, and in part on my undergraduate professors.  My undergraduate professors had been almost entirely lecturers, except in explicitly seminar-style classes.  And I had loved it.  The same would not be true of my students at Clark, however.  My plan was to lecture for an hour, and lead discussion for a half hour.  Sometimes my lectures would creep towards an hour and a quarter.  Still, I thought, I gave some awesome lectures on race and ethnicity in American history.  Then the student evaluations came.  They were not pretty.  Let’s just say that the one evaluation that had really nice things to say, well, I treasured that one all the more for its being so unique. 
Since then, I’ve adjusted my teaching style to interweave lecture, discussion, class analysis of primary sources, and some small group discussions.  I think I am pretty successful as a teacher, and students seem much happier now with my teaching style.  Wistfully, though, I still think back to my own undergraduate career, much of which was spent listening to lectures.  Is lecturing a lost art, I wonder?  Is listening to lectures a lost art?  Does it matter?  Are these other methods of learning as effective or more?
                I have not yet even arrived at Pécs yet.  I will travel there on Saturday and begin teaching Tuesday.  Already, though, I have had a taste of Hungarian pedagogical styles.  All week I have been attending the Fulbright orientation for Hungary.  It has been a lot of fun to eat, drink, and be merry with my fellow Fulbright scholars, and to study in brief Hungarian history, politics, language, higher education, and culture.  I will not bore you, dear reader, by dwelling on all of my favorite parts of this orientation.  Suffice to say that language lessons can be a lot of fun, that the Hungarian State Opera House is probably the most beautiful building I have ever been inside of, that few people know how to eat lunch like members of the Hungarian Academy, and that a certain historian named Tibor Frank sure knows how to give a great lecture.
                It is this last point that I want to dwell on for a minute, since it goes to my point in today’s blog about lecturing.  Dr. Frank visited the Fulbright Commission this past Tuesday and covered 1,000 years of Hungarian history in a 75-minute lecture, with another 25 minutes or so of questions and answers afterwards.  Dr. Frank relied on nothing more than his voice, a physical map of the Carpathian Basin and, occasionally, markers and a whiteboard.  Oh, and his eyebrows.  He made sparing but quite effective use of his eyebrows.  With well-considered use of this oft-overlooked feature of the human face, he could accentuate a point quite effectively.  Anyhow, I was mesmerized.  This was the best lecture I’ve heard for a very, very long time.  Moreover, I do not usually respond like this to lectures at home.  Even listening to talks that I am really interested in, I find myself spacing out for a few minutes here or there.  Listening to Dr. Frank, I think I spaced out for maybe a minute.  The other seventy-four minutes I was paying rapt attention, and absorbing every point.  Ask me if you want: I think I could do a pretty good job summarizing his lecture.  Yeah, you might think, but that Gabriel is a history nerd.  He’s been like that since high school!  True, I grant you.  But my colleagues were equally impressed.  Artists and Communications scholars, businessmen and healthcare experts all seemed equally drawn in and raved about the lecture later.  The rule of thumb that I’ve heard – lecture for no more than twenty minutes – simply did not apply in this case. 
                Thus, I am left wondering: what makes Dr. Frank such a great lecturer?  Would my own students have a similar reaction to his lecture?  No doubt he is far superior to my raw, inexperienced self at Clark, and even now.   But I still wonder: is it because long ago I trained myself to listen to lectures that I enjoyed this so much?  Is it just because he seemed to expect people to listen?  Was it the context of Hungary that made this lecture feel so right?


  1. Over on facebook, I've heard some really good insights on the difficulties of retaining student attention whatever the teaching method, on the problems of student participation and group discussions, on the increasing prominence of 'student-centered learning' among American K-12 students, and on other good essays on lecturing. One is here: (Thanks Michelle!) Another is here: (Thanks to John Fea's "The Way of Improvement Leads Home" blog). Both essays have one point in common: that there is something important in assembling students in one place at one time to listen together to a lecture. I agree: thinking together in a certain place and time has important benefits.

  2. Dear Gabriel,

    Not to take away from the enthusiasm about lectures, but I think the Hungarian students would benefit greatly if you found a way to blend the passive lecture-listen dynamic with some of the Socratic method "spice" that is quintessentially American.
    Hungarian university lectures are dominated by the notion that students have nothing to offer to the learning process, they sit through it (more or less attending, it's up to the professors whether they keep tabs on attendance and tie retributions to missing lectures) take notes and mostly try to figure out what of all this may be on the exam (oral or otherwise).
    They are not used to being engaged. That is not to say they wouldn't want to be, but they hardly ever get the offer to express opinions on enter the teacher's monologue. That said, when western (Anglo-Saxon) educated teachers make a well meaning attempt to change this they are often met with that blank, smile-less gaze you've talked about and reluctance that would be taken for nonchalance and disinterest.
    In fact when asked a question, or even an open ended one on their insight or opinion on the matter, students might be spending time trying to figure out what you want to hear. Where is the trap in this? How is this question trying to prove my ignorance? Hungarian teachers tend to be more interested in figuring out what students don't know. It's an old tradition that does not stop at elementary and high school levels.
    So it might take a while to get university students to engage, to feel comfortable enough to create a conversation. However introducing more of that in Hungarian classrooms would be a more effective form of "thinking together in a certain place and time" than what is currently taking place.
    That said, my experience is from 5 years of law school in Budapest contrasted currently with post-graduate research in the US (Georgetown Law doctorate program) where I recently had the privilege to be thrown into the fascinating "lion's-den" as rookie, Hungarian adjunct professor teaching and engaging 55 pro-active American law students about the wonders of international family law. So experiences in the humanities both in Hungary and the US might prove slightly different.

    Edit Frenyo

  3. I wonder how much of this (the effectiveness of a lecture as an information-delivery method) is driven by the reason an individual is in the audience, and how much by the maturity and cognitive skills of the individual. Teaching evaluations are much lower for required courses than for electives, on average. Student "have" to be there, more often than not, whereas you and your Fulbright peers are essentially motivated volunteers.

  4. Great points, and nice to virtually meet you, Edit! My experience so far is that you are right, that my Hungarian students say they like the American style of more engagement with students, and they have embraced it in the seminar classes, but by and large resist it in the lecture course. I agree that the engagement style is good. And I agree with Nathan, too (Hi Nathan) that a lot depends on the listener. I guess part of my nostalgia for the lecture of my own college days is that it required the listener to develop an ability to concentrate for an hour or more, while I don't think American students develop this ability any more. I don't want to go back to all lecture, but I worry that listening to a lecture, like reading an entire book, is a skill that is getting more and more rare!
    Great comments!

  5. I agree that both giving and listening to a careful long lecture are vanishing skills. Maybe if more of us had been good at such talks in the first place, more listeners would still want to have the listening skills!