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Flip You and Your Flipped Classroom



Being in higher education, one is now barraged with education studies lingo that make leadership-based lingo seem almost meaningful. For instance, last week I received an e-mail from my administration about some talk or something that called classrooms “makerspaces.” I guess that’s the opposite of takerspaces and we are all about integrating 2012 Republican talking points into pedagogy. Anyway, one of the many buzzwords and untested idiotic ideas that drives me crazy is the idea of the so-called “flipped classrooms.” Translated into English, this means that lectures are discouraged and it’s all about discussion and letting students take the lead in the classroom. Now, that’s fine in some contexts. My upper-division courses these days usually include about a 45 minute lecture and 30 minutes of discussion based around a group of primary sources or a historical article that help build specific skills about what it means to be a historian. But the flipped classroom as ideology is about undermining the entire idea of lecture and expertise in favor of vague discussions around how students are feeling about a topic without building any kind of skills that are either discipline-specific or prepare students for a job.

Anyway, I think the lecture is a wonderful thing. I loved a good lecture when I was a student. Now, I think probably just about every professor thinks they are good at lecturing. I do too. And at least some of us are wrong about that. At the very least, I bring a lot of passion and outrage with me. But with the lecture under attack, it’s good to see a strong defense of lecturing and what it can do for students.

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

When Kjirsten Severson first began teaching philosophy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon, she realized that she needed to teach her students how to listen. “Where I needed to start was by teaching them how to create space in their inner world, so they could take on this argument on a clean canvas,” she told me. She assigns an excerpt from Rebecca Shafir’s “The Zen of Listening” to help students learn to clear their minds and focus. This ability to concentrate is not just a study skill. As Dr. Cummins put it, “Can they listen to a political candidate with an analytical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.”

Now, I do think that lecturers, myself included, don’t do a very good job teaching students how to take notes. One thing I am finding is that the skills I assume students have picked up skills before they reach my courses, whether my giant 125-student U.S. history survey course or my upper division courses. And I don’t think they have because no one teaches notetaking or listening anymore. So I think real discussions about what the lecture is supposed to and figuring out how to teach students how to get the most out of it is necessary–even as teaching those skills at the 100-level will end up having to come at the expense of actually teaching content.

But lectures have a real value in the humanities and the social sciences, no matter what our administrators think.

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