What Style Is Best Suited to the Lecture?

Bashing 'The Lecture.'

Lately, everyone in higher ed seems to have some axe to grind about The Lecture.

  • Many are against the lecture.

  • Some are fine with the lecture: they just want it online rather than face-to-face.

  • Some want the lecture front-loaded and abbreviated.

  • Still others want the lecture captured--taped, watched-on-demand, put in a tin can, in single-size servings, and perhaps even wrestled to the ground.

Pity the lecture: more sinned against than sinning.

But do we even know what a lecture is? Don't different lecturers in fact do different things?

(Sometimes I think all debates are started by closet monists--those who thing All Is One, because if you are a pluralist, and you accept that x contains variety within itself, you really don't get enmeshed in some pretty silly statements.)

  • Isn't it rather foolish to think of the lecture as one thing?

  • Does the lecture simply "deliver information"--like Domino's 'delivers' pizza?

  • Is anyone generically against the book or the essay? Yes, people may be against the tweet or the Powerpoint, but there I have more sympathy.

It's like being against bottles--because some contain unhealthy stuff.

Against such facile assumptions, it should be a given that: a lecture can do many things.

  • Orient and preview. Think of a tour guide. 'We are here, and we're going there.'

  • Demonstrate how to do something--or how not to. 'Watch me do this, step by step.'

Doubtless there are many other things a lecture can do, but orientation and demonstration are probably central to lecturing.

This doesn't even yet get at: what a good lecture is or does. But we can get partway there by asking What style is best suited to the lecture?

The Classic Style.

One very nice framework for thinking about verbal style is the one offered by Thomas & Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Thomas and Turner outline a classic style, which they differentiate from a number of other styles, the two most important being: the practical style and the plain style.

  • The classic style pretends not to make an argument. It hides its argument under the guise of 'showing.' The writer seems only to present a clear sequence of descriptions. But the descriptions and the sequence are carefully arranged to bring the reader to the conclusion the writer plans out in advance.

    • Descartes' Meditations would be a canonical example. Descartes wants to make an argument about knowldge and introspection, but he does it by describing himself sitting by the fire over a series of evenings.

    • Indeed, Descartes all but invents the classic style, because he needs to assume that, in contrast to arcane scholastic mysteries, divine revelation or mere belief, reasoning and observation alone are needed to gain access to unshakeable truth, and he cannot prove this--it's unprovable--so he must instead build the assumption into his style.

  • By contrast, the practical style presents a professional discussing how to solve a technical problem with other professionals. The practical style is a report rather than an essay. It explicitly argues where the classic style feigns merely to show.

  • The classic style is also at one degree of remove from the plain style--which aims to set forth a basic or common understanding. "When I was a child, I spake as a child." The classic style, by contrast, assumes that common knowledge is not worth communicating: it's already known.

    • Therefore, the classic style concentrates on things that are surprising. The classic style even has a characteristic gesture of taking a common expression and twisting it slightly to produce an arresting insight--like an epigram.

    • "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" is both an instance of the classic style and one of the assumptions behind it.

Why We Have So Few 'Public Intellectuals.'

Now if you ask yourself "Which style do scholars write in?" you come to the sad conclusion that scholars write in the practical style: they debate about professional squabbles and quandaries, and they urge their fellow professionals to view and do things this way, rather than that.

Little wonder it is so hard for undergraduates (and even many graduate students) to enter into scholarly debates. The prose practically screams out "for professionals only--do not enter!" And many are content to walk away.

This explains why we have so few 'public intellectuals.' Scholars can't speak to a wide audience, because they are entirely trained to argue technical matters with other professionals. Scholars are professionals first and members of the public second--or third or fourth.

It is a sociological fact (yet open to inspection to anyone who cares to see) that the harder it is to enter a profession, the more one gives up and the less one gains, the more strongly one is yoked to one's identity as a professional.

Law and business degrees take less time to earn than Ph.D.'s, and the former professions pay better: the lawyer or MBA can afford hobbies; the professor, on the other hand, must needs be a professor first, foremost and always. Being a professor is more like a scar than a hat: you cannot doff it at will.

But this frame allows us to see why so much academic work seems so irrelevant--both to students and to the wider public. Scholarship is simply not written to be read by anyone but experts. And this means that scholars largely don't learn how to write or speak to be understood--not even by undergraduates. (Any undergrad can understand what Descartes says: it's what he means that's challenging.)

The Lecture as Collateral Damage.

Hence the lecture becomes impoverished, because the lecture should be in the classic style but can't be. All of which leads to some sad contradictions.

  • In the first two years of college, students often read texts in the classic style--and yet they are asked to write in a scholarly mode which is far closer to the practical style. There is a mismatch here: 'read something like this but don't write that way.' (The students aren't encouraged to write in the classic style largely because most professors can't.)

  • Thus, lectures should be at least partly in the classic style.

    • If you are orienting students towards something they do not already know, then they are not yet experts, not yet fellow professionals, and you cannot reasonably speak to them in the practical style--as you'd address fellow professionals.

    • So at some point, you must likely begin by orienting students towards the discipline and the subject matter using the classic style.

    • Lectures may descend into the practical style--'solve this kind of problem using this technique, and here I'll demonstrate it'--but it is the classic style which is best geared to engaging non-experts in something interesting and complex.

The fact that so few lectures avail themselves of the classic style only shows that we have failed to train scholars to speak or write in more than one style. Stylistic facility should be one of the main learning outcomes for graduate school--at least if we want our scholars to be understood, which I sometimes doubt. (Economists are a different matter: they clearly do not wish to be understood, because if they were understood, we would likely take them somewhere quiet and punch them.)

And if you doubt what I have said, I propose you perform a simple test. Go back and read some Descartes. Then watch one of the many video lectures now flooding the interwebs in things called "MOOC's." I think you will find you agree with me.

Lectures may be spoken but that is a far cry from being understood.


--Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Nice point Edward. You give words to an inner voice in me. But I'm wondering, if the quality of the lecture has degenerated so badly, and it certainly has for so many reasons, not least 'academic capitalism' then those who simply call for its end are agreeing with you. Perhaps you hold out how for its revival, but on the scale that the format is currently used, I greatly doubt it. In Descartes time I'm sure the were hundreds of wanna-bes running around (thankfully not podcasting their efforts. Today's Descarte is drowned out by hundreds of thousands of wanna-bees podcasting from lecture rooms crammed with hundreds of fee paying disgruntled students. In today's context I can see God reason to generally ask for something different. The Descartes of the world will have a better chance of being heard.
    That said, your point is a good reminder to keep our eyes open as we go.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leigh.

      I'm not sure if the lecture has gone downhill, or if we just see more of them--on Youtube, in MOOC's. Here I take the first lecture from a MOOC and parse it in some detail: http://managinglearningtechnology.blogspot.com/2012/07/whats-lecture-anyway-lecture-and-mooc.html It's an interesting lecture, but I'm not sure it's well suited to learning.

      My own take is: academics are largely professionals first and communicators to non-professional audiences third or fourth. And so the skill of speaking to those who are not experts and don't plan on becoming experts--it's hard to find.

      Those New Yorker writers like Toobin and Gates and Gladwell: they can write clearly and convey complex information to an educated but non-expert audience.

      Descartes is a good model: I'm sitting here in my robe by the fire...It's all so concrete! And from that he goes to doubting EVERYTHING (except God, of course).

      While we often worry about what technology supports learning, perhaps there are simpler features of discourse we should worry about as well, if not more: What's the topic? Can the audience visualize what you're talking about? What are the real-world implications? Can you define what fits under concept x--and what does not?

      As a society, we can certainly do better--with or without Descartes.


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