• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


To Lecture or Not to Lecture. What Was the Question?

Reflections on lecturing.

July 18, 2016



Please know, I come neither to bury nor to praise the lecture, but to contextualize it to my own experience, to reflect on its shifting role in my pedagogy, and perhaps spur others to do their own considering.


It’s a real thrill to stand in front of a crowd of students and feel smart, to feel like you have something to say to them.

This feeling was all too rare during my years as an English 090/101 TA in graduate school. Teaching a developmental level class at an open admission college, I had many underprepared students, and they were taught by an underprepared instructor.

I was comfortable with the one-on-one, coaching aspect of teaching almost immediately. Working with students on their essays I asked many more questions than I gave answers, trying to nudge students toward things they needed to discover for themselves.

But I did not make the connection between that one-on-one mode and class, and so I struggled as a lecturer during my entire three years. But following a post-graduate period in corporate America where I honed my presentation and speaking skills by delivering marketing research results to clients, when I returned to the classroom, I found that I’d become really good at lecturing.

I was organized, understood the visual aid game, and learned that I could speak extemporaneously and still have the sense to land the plane on schedule. I was engaging, entertaining, funny, illustrating my points with prepared readings and examples. My only regret was that, unlike high school, college classrooms didn’t have bells that would punctuate my finishing flourishes.

I embodied part of the thesis of a recent “defense” of the lecture format by Christine Gross-Loh in The Atlantic, in which she argues that one of the reasons lectures get such a bad rap is because the push toward flipped classrooms and active learning has crowded out preparation for getting good at lecturers.

No doubt, practicing lectures, particularly within the high stakes of a salaried job that expected me to deliver presentations to paying clients made me a better lecturer.

Back in the classroom after my 5 year detour, I enjoyed my newfound competence. I remember realizing that I actually knew what I was saying, that I wasn’t bullshitting or papering over holes in my knowledge or experience, hoping the students wouldn’t notice.

It felt good. It felt good also, that when students failed to incorporate something I’d delivered in lecture, I could say, “We covered that in class, don’t you remember? Isn’t it in your notes?”

I was embodying the traits we expect in a good lecturer, a model of achievement, the person my students should aspire to be. I was giving them everything they needed if they wanted to learn: Isn’t it in your notes?

I don’t remember precisely when I began to question this version of myself. I always have been restless about my teaching, ready to change something that even seems to be working, but it was probably related to getting one too many answers of “no,” when I asked students if they remembered that we covered something in class.

Rather than deciding that the students were defective, I remembered my own days as a student, where lecture content routinely got past me, often because I was sleeping in my bed, rather than in class for the lecture, but even so, the limits of the mode, particularly in teaching a subject like writing, began to seem obvious.

Learning to write is an exercise in each individual reinventing the wheel for themselves, discovering the things proficient writers already “know.” Being told things only goes so far. Ultimately, the learning happens when you wrestle with the demands of writing, the choices one makes when trying to communicate a specific idea to a specific audience with specific needs.

Over a period of years, I realized that one of the disservices I was doing with my highly competent lecturing about writing was to suggest to my students that I had won this struggle. Sure, it is nice to be the object of aspiration, but for me, it was also a lie, as every single day, I was engaged in the same struggle as my much less experienced students.

Where are the g-d right words?

I now often speak to my classes for 10 or 15 minute stretches of time, sometimes even longer. I guess you could call them lectures, but rather than deliver information, I am now more of a storyteller, and the stories I tell are almost invariably about the struggles of writing.

For example, I talk about going 0 for 200 in submitting short stories for publication at the start of my career. I talk about my job in marketing research, when I was tasked with writing a questionnaire for a quantitative study and I considered quitting my job, rather than risking what seemed to be inevitable failure.

I talk about being given 18 months to deliver a book manuscript and procrastinating so thoroughly that I did 90% of it in the last four months. I talk about in summer 2011 being asked to fill in for a friend’s blog at a certain higher education website and literally panicking over what I could say. I talk about the frustrations of knowing that some incredible idea is trapped in my head, but it seems impossible to grab the right words to put it on the page.

Now, my lecturing, if you want to call it that, is not about demonstrating competence, but sharing my vulnerabilities. I want them to know the struggle is real, but the struggle is survivable. It can even be fun.

I want to be clear to my students that I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I have yet to definitively figure anything out, that doubt is my constant companion in my work and that’s OK.

In fact, it’s better than OK. It’s natural. It’s necessary. As soon as I am certain about something, I have squeezed the life out of it and it’s time to move on.

For me, lecturing in a way that suggested my questions had been settled, that competence was something worth pursuing over curiosity and doubt was a lie.

If I want my students to experience the necessary freedom and feel emboldened to form their own world views, I have to tell them the truth.




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