Bad lecturing may be bad, not by accident, but by intention.

by reestheskin on 08/10/2015

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This post is essentially an excuse to share the sight that greeted me when I was visiting family in Rome last weekend. Taken from my bedroom window at around 9:24am (that is metadata for you…) at a small hotel Ilpostiglione in Campagnano just outside Rome.

Rich DeMillo spent some time in Italy, and one section of his first book on Higher Education, dealt with the issue of how the Jesuits disrupted and dealt with the prevailing civic model of university education in Europe in the 16th century (for more on the Jesuits and higher education see, O’Malley JW (1993) The first Jesuits, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; and Carlsmith.   DeMillo drew parallels with attitudes around Open CourseWare at MIT in the early 21st century. If the materials you use, are freely available, what value do you add to them in return for fees? Content commoditisation forces you to think sharply about what the value you bring.

The first Jesuit universities realized that they could not possibly produce the quantity of course materials that had been in use for many decades at civic universities. That presented a dilemma to new colleges that wanted to concentrate their meager resources on teaching, not on textbook publishing. “It has been said in town that we do not have a method for teaching,” Father John Paul Nicholas explained in 1558 to the bishop of Perugia, who had asked why Jesuit instructors were reluctant to adopt Latin grammar textbooks. It so happened, said the bishop, that there was an adequate text, written by a professor at the University of Perugia named Christopher Sasso. John Paul replied, “If we use Sasso’s book, they will say what our students have learned, they learned from Sasso, not from us.

When I was a student the only ‘free’ course material were photocopied handouts. Since I didn’t enjoy most undergraduate lectures, I didn’t attend very many(the best bit of advice I received from a lecturer was: ‘perhaps you shouldn’t go to lectures’). I did of course go on the first day, but I remember the apparent disquiet of lecturers who would see me stride in before the lecture, grab the handout, and then walk out. I sympathise with their disquiet, but they needed a reality check. So, in DeMillo’s most recent book this meme is followed up, and it makes me laugh. The scene in not Italy now, but France.

In 1229, the liberal arts faculty members of the University of Paris decided that the lecture was primarily for their own benefit when they enacted the following statute: The masters of philosophy [must] deliver their expositions from their chairs so rapidly that, although the minds of their audience may grasp their meaning, their hands cannot write it down.… Henceforth in any lecture, ordinary or cursory or in any disputation or other manner of teaching, the master is to speak as in delivering a speech, and as if no one were writing in his presence. A lecturer who breaks the new rule is to be suspended for a year. Students had little say in the matter. The statute prescribed a one-year suspension for any student who complained by “shouting, hissing, groaning, or throwing stones.”

So maybe this is the underlying logic of abysmal lecturing (and of Powerpoint)? Of course, it seems to me that we have only moved on a bit. Presently, people claim it is unethical for students to recall — and pass on — exam questions (or in the case of the for profits, possibly illegal). I think this view will soon look as absurd as the views of the ancient French faculty do now.