August 2, 2005

Listening to one person talk.

The playwright David Hare is trying to revive the love of the lecture (via A&L Daily):
The prevailing wisdom is that enlightenment may best be reached through argy-bargy. And yet in practice how infrequent it is, on television or radio, that the Socratic equivalent of men's tennis - massive slams hit back and forth from the baseline - actually illuminates anything at all. Panels are even worse. Taking part frustrates me as much as listening. What's the point? Why attend a forum in which as soon as anyone says anything interesting, somebody else has at once to be encouraged to interrupt, supposedly to generate conflict, but more often to dispel the energy of the previous speaker?

And picture the law school classroom. The conventional wisdom is that properly conducted classes are Socratic or at least "discussion." We think that if we can get everybody arguing with each other, it's just great.

(By the way, I love the word "argy-bargy." I've got to use that more... I mean, for the first time.)
When one person speaks and is encouraged to develop his or her ideas, then it is we, the audience, who provide the challenge.... In each of our hearts and minds, we absorb, judge and come to our own conclusions. The dialectic is, thankfully, not between a group of equally ignorant people thrashing out a series of arbitrary subjects about which they know little and care less. It is between an informed individual who, we hope, has thought long and hard about their own area of specialisation, and an audience which is ready honestly to assess what the speaker has to say.
Hmmm... so, do you want to hear more lectures? Should more of the law school classroom experience be listening to lecturing? Or should we stick with the argy-bargy?


leeontheroad said...

I vote for argy-bargy-- both the term and the method. My own experience is that the usual 80 minute or 2 hour lecture is poor pedagogy, over the long term. Only through interaction are undergraduates, at least, engaged. Interactions also better enables me to gauge their learning.

Lecture is passive for students, and active learning is ultimately what I'm seeking to encourage. (Indeed, in nmy view, most true learning is outside the traditional lecture setting.)

Selfishlessly, too, I would find it boring to merely listen to myself talk all the time. It limits my learning from students.

Timothy K. Morris said...

The best professors I had in law school combined the mentods. My crim law prof would do mini-lectures for 5, 10, 15 minutes, then start asking questions about both the assigned cases _and_ the ideas developed in his lecture. He might have two of these units (for lack of a better word) in a single class period, or only one.

PatCA said...

Funny that Hare tires of the argy-bargy. He must have gotten an earful about his, play, Stuff Happens. Or perhaps it was meant as a lecture, not a discussion.

Bruce Hayden said...

One problem with the argy-bargy method is people like me, who do like to participate, and end up doing more than their share of debating with the prof.

About 2/3 of the way through first year torts, I had one woman suggest very strongly that I participated too much in class. My response was that I was paying my money, like she was, and was going to get my money's worth, even if she wasn't, but that I was sure that if she wanted to participate, the prof would rather hear from her than from me.

I also found this a great technique to minimize my class prep. If you are one of the students who always volunteered to debate with the prof, she invariably looked elsewhere for a volunteer when no one did so voluntarily.

For me, I could never really see the point in sitting around and listening to others engage in the Socratic Method. It really never worked as well for me, as opposed to being the one engaging the prof in that method.

Of course, what has to be remembered about law school is that most students and profs have seen "Paper Chase". The problem is that in a lot of classes, it is not that Socratic, but rather just profs trying to make the students look dumb. (I am sure our esteemed hostess is much more enlightened than many of her peers in this respect).

Jack said...

Surely the subject matter and the level of the course determine the teaching style. Mathematics must involve some lecturing because it imparts information that the student could conveniently obtain on his own. But humanities must, at some point, involve discussion and interaction with the text. I suspect law should combine the two approaches, as noted above, since there is a definite benefit to interaction but one assumes that the prof really does know more about the false trails that people can head down, if left to their own devices.

I wonder, though, how much any of this is appropriate to a play since didacticism usually undermines artistic merit. Does it say something about this guy's competence as an artist that he is using a classroom metaphor for his work?

Jack said...

Actually, I see that he is using the term lecture more broadly than simple classroom lectures. I incautiously commented without reading the full article. Mea culpa.

chuck b. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
chuck b. said...

I've experienced both and I generally prefer lectures. The worst thing about school: listening to the students' lame ideas and enduring their dumb questions. Honestly, I don't want to be bothered--especially since I'm (usually) paying for the experience! I'd rather be free to absorb the material quietly, mull it over in my head, and engage the professor outside of class on points that interest me.

Drethelin said...

I think both have benefits. The problems with the lecture style are that you can't question or correct. I've often been talking with someone about something where they've made a crucial error in one of their assumptions, but which they insist makes no difference if only I would let them explain the whole thing.

On the other hand, everyone talking alot at once can often accomplish a whole lot of nothing. In general, I've noticed that the argy-bargy method accomplishes the most when the participants are at a similar level. When a group consists of diverse levels of understanding and frankly intelligence, it generally descends into "This is what I think" "Ok now this is what I think", simply because people are unprepared to respond to each other's assertions. If I make a claim to my english teacher (who in these kind of things generally plays the part of an intelligent listener) or to someone who understands as well as I do about the use of a recurring motif in a book to signify whatever, I can expect either a rebuttal or a confirmation, and maybe even an expansion on what I said. but if the next person whose turn it is to speak hardly understands what a motif is, or did not read that part of the book, the best they can do is go, uh ok now onto my point. Similarly, if someone says "um... I think that one joke, you know, illustrates shakespeare's, like, ability to be humorous", what can I respond but to say "ok". Obviously an intelligent discussion is possible, but due to the neccesity to have the whole class doing something, and to the fact that in general people are good at different things means that you unavoidably end up having discussions where those who actually know what they are talking about either end up doing all the talking or get disappointed and decide to work on their own.

The style I've enjoyed the most is the one where the default is lecture, but responses and comments are allowed. This means that you spend most of your time thinking and recording (if only mentally) what the teacher is saying, but if you hit a snag (or if the teacher makes a mistake), there's room to stop for a bit and clarify. I doubt this would work very well in extremely large classes though.