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?