Thursday, February 14, 2013

Damn, but I can be rash sometimes.

I just volunteered/agreed to submit an essay to an online "collected volume" -- a cluster of papers, in other words, peer-reviewed, but not blind.

  • It's going to be an interesting collection
  • It'll be fast, since it's online.
  • It'll be my first publication on the new material, and I really need to stop dinking around and start publishing.

  • It's ground-up work: I haven't done a conference paper or anything. Just a bunch of transcribed documents and a three-quarters-baked abstract.
  • The piece is due July 1.
  • I am out of the country the entire month of June.

Hm. Fear = motivation?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why I'm Never Lecturing on the Norman Conquest Again (an accidental defense of the lecture format)

Yesterday, I lectured on the Norman conquests of England and southern Italy, and I will never be doing that again.

Let's set aside all the glaring factual errors I had in that lecture (I actually had to post an entire page of corrections on the class' blackboard page). Let's also set aside the fact that the English part of it is the one thing that my handful of fanboys know about in obsessive detail, and delight in asking questions that begin with "But isn't it true that...?"

What really went wrong was that the lecture was a dumb idea from the git-go. Don't get me wrong: I don't think the Normans are unimportant. They're actually pretty damn interesting. But lecturing about their eleventh-century conquests? Dumb, dumb, dumb.*

This brings me to a rumination about the lecture format itself. "They" are constantly telling us that the lecture is dead, boring, droning, and on and on. Only crusty old farts give lectures. Students don't learn. It's too passive.

I agree with that last one, which is why my "lectures" are mish-mashes of me talking and us diving into the primary sources to have the students dig out how they illustrate a point we were just talking about (or, in some cases, are about to talk about). And as far as my end of it, I'm a damn good talker. I know, everyone thinks they're a good lecturer. but organizing a talk and holding an audience is actually something I'm really good at. If you haven't met me, you'll just have to believe me.

Lecturing also plays to another one of my skills (and the skills of academics in general), and that's drawing connections between seemingly disparate ideas, in a way that a first-year student can see it. Granted, a nice monograph will do the same thing, but when I'm talking about lecturing, I'm talking about an intro-level course.  By the time we get to the level where we're reading monographs, I've ditched the lecture format. But for those survey students, the important point about a good lecture is that it provides students with something that they couldn't get from reading a textbook or looking it up on Wikipedia.

And that was where this lecture went wrong. It was basically "some stuff about the Normans." When I finished it and was analyzing the problems, I realized that students could have gotten almost the same thing on Wikipedia. Actually, they could have gotten better from Wikipedia, because my lecture was riddled with inaccuracies, conflations, and was just a freaking mess.

And I gave that lecture because... well, because somewhere along the way, we decided that the Norman Conquest was Very Important, and therefore deserved one of the limited-number lecture slots in a survey course. I've got no problems with the first half of that statement, but the second part is problematic. There are more Very Important Things in my field than fit into a semester or two, especially now that I've given over 20% of my course to one-on-one tutorials. But I'm still making some of my selections based on some idea that you can't have a lecture course on the Middle Ages without talking about the Normans, but the lectures on sex, or poison, or children, or foodways are "only if there's time." Yet those latter things are precisely the things that most textbooks don't spend a lot of time on.

In any case, I'm starting a rethinking process, one where my decision-making process starts with "Can I add something to the textbook account here?" If not, I'm just being redundant. And I've become that dead, boring, droning crusty old lecturer, the straw-professor that all the MOOC-heads are talking about.

*At least for me. Your lecture on the Normans may be riveting.