What's a Lecture, Anyway? The Lecture and the MOOC.

As folks in higher ed discuss moving lectures outside the classroom, online, and into MOOC’s–massive open online courses–it is maybe a good idea to consider this genre we all so well: the academic lecture.

Know, sure: we are familiar with it. But should we perhaps know more and differently?
  • What are the academic lectures' features–its traits, properties?
  • How, were we so asked, could we produce one–on demand, that is?
  • Is this genre really well suited to helping people learn?
  • Or should we, perhaps, avoid this genre–somewhat or altogether?
An Example.

An inductive approach is reasonable, and a specimen lecture is not hard to find.
  1. Go to Coursera.org and sign up for their MOOC–massive open online course–on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
  2. Download the very first lecture–a pre-lecture, in fact, a lecture before the course starts in earnest.
  3. Watch, listen and see if you can parse the elements of this familiar kind of academic performance.
What the Lecture Says.

Certainly this lecture is interesting and skillful enough–highly skillful, in fact. The contents are not obscure to any degree. The presentation can be summarized handily.
  1. The lecturer asks what fantasy is, but doesn’t answer his own question.
  2. He points to fantasy literature, again without defining either term.
  3. He points more broadly to fantasy (still undefined) in: film, architecture, and design. And he associates fantasy with utopian thinking (which he does define).
  4. He gives several etymologies for the word “fantasy.”
  5. He points to a Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (without mentioning that it’s a play), to children playing with dolls, to fantasy as personal, as shared myth, as coping mechanism.
  6. He discusses Cinderella, Auden on detective stories–there’s no explanation of who Auden is–to the raising of Lazarus.
  7. He talks about a short story (“The Monkey’s Paw”) and Frankenstein, and he connects these to the fear of death, and to fears about science exceeding the bounds of morality. (He gives the dates for these works, but he doesn’t identify the latter as a novel, nor mention its author.)
  8. He quotes Alvin Toffler (again not saying who that is). And he says the course will focus primarily on science fiction literature as a place where we can see our hopes and fears about our future.
I’ve left out lots of detail, but a longer summary is here.

This all seems rich enough. There’s no lack of detail.

But since this presentation begins an online course, an important question arises. Namely:

Is the form of this presentation apt for learning?

I will say: not. And some stylistic features of this presentation can suggest why. (They’re not all discrete features: there’s some overlap. But I don’t think that’s fatal to my point.)

There’s a lack of parallelism.
  • Something about literature, architecture, design.
  • Something about linguistics.
  • A fable and an interpretation of it.
  • Something about dolls and psychology.
  • A story from the Bible.
  • A novel. A short story.
It is almost impossible to identify any relationship amongst these things. Yes, the word “fantasy” crops up here and there. It’s almost impossible to lay a sentence about dolls and a sentence about industrial design side by side and see any relationship. E.g.,
  • ‘Some industrial designs contain an element of fantasy.’
  • ‘Childrens’ play with dolls shows something about fantasy.'
Fantasy in the latter sense has something to do with an attempt to achieve mastery. Does this also apply to futuristic ‘airstream’ type designs? Presumably, the psychological fantasy gives actual benefits–but the design not so. Without paralellism, it is difficult to connect all the interesting tidbits.

No definitions are offered. 

The word “fantasy” is never defined. Various root meanings are named. The word is used in various contexts. No doubt an astute listener can infer various subtle threads and echoes: counter-factuality, psychological investment, images of power, whatnot. But:
  • Should the listener have to do this inferring?
  • Is the very topic of the course, fantasy, so subtle and multifarious that no initial working definition can be provided?
That seems to be the assumption.

The explanatory principles which old the discourse itself together are not explicit.

There are almost no transitions.
  • How do we get from one topic to another?
  • Is all this analysis “literary”?
  • Is the analysis “psychological”?
  • Certainly the organization is “topical”: it’s not chronological; it doesn’t seem to be the application of a rule or principle. Perhaps it’s various facets of a single phenomenon.
  • But ought the listener be required to guess how the topics are connected?
  • Is it really impossible to use any kind of transitions in this kind of presentation?
  • Are transitions for some reason somehow taboo?
Few markers are given as to what containers or categories are being used.
  • Is this a course in urban architecture?
  • In design? The history of language?
  • Bible studies? Psychology? Poetry? (Auden is mentioned.)
  • Futurism? (Toffler’s name comes up.)
Any number of disciplines are trotted out. But do the containers matter? What is the big box in which all these other boxes so freely mix? (Of course, we could answer “the humanities” or “literary studies,” but that wouldn’t tell us what we’d like to know about.)

Names and works are unevenly mentioned or contextualized.
  • Who are these authors?
  • Should I know them? What should I know about them?
  • Why is Toffler mentioned and quoted but not contextualized? (We see a photograph, so presumably he wasn’t a contemporary of Marlowe.)
  • Why does Mary Shelley not deserve to have her name mentioned?
  • Is Jesus an historical figure here? Or a literary character from the Bible?
There are more things than labels. 

Things have labels. The car parked outside my window is variously: a car, a Ford, a sedan, a mid-sized car, American, made in 2010, etc. The same thing has many labels.

In this lecture, we find many things–definitions, authors, fictions, places, historical events, outboard motors, theme parks–but not so many labels. Indeed, there seems to be a proliferation of things and a paucity of labels.
  • Frankenstein is a ‘story’–but not a novel.
  • Marlowe wrote a “tragical history.” Should we know that it’s a drama?
Inspiring peroration. 

Even and especially if all that preceded it lacked paralellism, definitions, transitions, containing categories, context and labels, the summation is worth waiting for. It’s elegant. It’s concise. It’s inspiring. And it somewhat spells out that which was missing before.
  • Fantasies condense hopes and fears. They are a form of mental experimentation–hypothetical thinking.
This works well enough for sci-fi. But does it apply to the Bible? Or to Doctor Faustus?

So this closure doesn’t bear scrutiny. It’s forced: a literary device rather than a logical conclusion.

Which must then lead one to ask: why?
  • Why, if the speaker can indeed name the topic and purpose, would he wait until the ending?
  • Is it that the claim that’s launched only at the close cannot actually be supported, neither by what came before, nor by any amount of additional talking?
  • Is the conclusion in fact more of a hypothesis or a wager, one the entire course will attempt to cash out?
A hypothesis would be fine, but the final remarks' status as a hypothesis is not stated, and its position as a peroration implies either an appeal or a logical conclusion.

If you just want to hear a jumble of interesting thoughts, this all seems fine.

But all of these things seem very confusing to someone who wants to learn–and I’ll say in my next blog post why this type of lecture seems very ill-suited to fostering learning.

–Edward R. O'Neill


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