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.


squadtrato said...

I had that same realization after teaching the Magna Carta once a while back. I was uninspired; in consequence, the students were bored; and nothing I said was original or insightful. I was delivering a lecture on that topic *only* because it was a Very Important Thing. Except that I, personally, have no passion for it, and that was entirely evident in my lecture.

I have since moved over towards making most of my surveys about medieval culture and learning to read medieval texts, rather than being about medieval names, dates, kings, and wars. It seemed crazy to me to lecture on the Crusades as wars, but not the idea of pilgrimage, or how to weigh different versions of Urban II's speech; to discuss Magna Carta, but not Marriage Law; Monasticism, but not Inquisition, heresy or dissent movements; Cathedrals, but not saints' relics; Scholasticism, but not geography or T-O Maps; the conflicts of kings and emperors, but not the humoral system as a basic underpinning to physiology and personality.

I now think of my surveys as preparing students to understand medieval culture sufficiently well so that they can move into a more focussed thematic class that includes more names & dates stuff.

squadrato said...

Clarification: I do teach some (not all) of the first terms, in the pairings above -- it's more a question of showing a range of cultural viewpoints and ideals, rather than focussing on the "great personalities and achievements of the Middle Ages" narrative, which is ultimately too teleological and triumphalist for my taste.

Historiann said...

What Squadrato said. I feel the same way about the U.S. Constitution and the Civil War the way you and she talk about the Magna Carta and the Norman Conquest. They're definitely my least favorite lectures of all time.

I lecture in all of my undergrad classes except seminars, although just once a week. I use my lecture in the way Squadrato uses hers--to offer context and (ideally) some fresh interpretive frames that will help students understand their readings better & therefore lead us into good discussions thereof.

Have you seen this post at Tenured Radical?

I thought that the way Prof. Roberts talks about her lectures was interesting and insightful. (And don't miss the comments, in which we are all informed that lectures are just "bullshit.")

Anonymous said...

But... the Magna Carta is so important! It's one of the big cornerstones of democracy! (And there's all those questions about whether or not it was inevitable or just the product of a weak ruler... and what are the longer term effects of giving nobles more power...) I guess that's my specific social science bias showing.

And the civil war is important because it introduced union army pensions... also the slavery thing.

I admit, I do find lecturing about taxes boring, even though they're important.

Historiann said...

But nicoleandmaggie, we're not arguing that these things are not important. We are arguing that 1) because these are not our specific fields of research and 2) we have little original thought to contribute to students' understanding of these things, 3) we should lecture about other things and let readings or other media fill the students in on the basic facts of Magna Carta/the U.S. Constitution/the U.S. Civil War/the Norman Conquest.

At least that's what I am arguing, and that's what I took to be the sense of Squadrato's and Notorious's points.

squadrato said...

@nicoleandmaggie: Democracy has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, though, which is my topic. The Magna Carta is more important to modernists than to medievalists, in some ways. Very influential on the US founding fathers, but arguably the evolving definitions of marriage (the item I paired it with in my list) were of greater relevance to more people, and involve really interesting debates about what combination of factors constitute a binding union (some combination of consent of the partners and sexual consummation being the two factors that are most weighed and debated).
More pragmatically, I can give a great lecture on the latter topic, but only an uninspired one on the former. There is enough left out of *all* surveys -- especially on the quarter system, as with my uni -- such that I believe we all can present a pretty balanced syllabus while still playing to our own strengths. THe students learn more, overall, if they sense passion and engagement in their profs.

Bardiac said...

I, for one, have always been amazed that a bunch of guys named Norman got together and invaded an island and actually won. And William the Bastard. Who can blame him for wanting to change his name? Duh, who wouldn't!

I blame Edward the Confessor. And the Bayeux Tapestry, which, way cool.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I got that. Hence the rest of my comment.

Squadrato's followup comment does make a lot of sense though-- in my context the Magna Carta is really important. In her context it means something to a king and a small number of nobles... I bet it doesn't actually have much of an effect on the day to day lives of other folks (but maybe it did, I don't know). So maybe it isn't actually all that important in that context compared to other things that have more real effects on people in that time period.

Good Enough Woman said...

I touch on the Normans just enough to explain why Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is so different from Beowulf. Otherwise, it's like, How the hell did that happen? And I often mention the Normans at home when my husband complains about how "English" words are spelled. "Blame the c11 Anglo-Saxons who couldn't keep out the Normans," I say.

But I get your overall meaning. I had similar epiphanies that led me change my syllabus and throw out the Cavalier Poets and Pope's "Essay on Criticism." Enough!

Susan said...

What is really funny here is that lecturing on Magna Carta a few years back actually led me to develop a new course on law and society; and Magna Carta is a touchstone because it helps students see the ways a document changes meaning over time - so what is basically a boring feudal peace treaty gets reinterpreted to serve a range of political needs. And that makes a cool history course...

undine said...

Notorious, I had a similar realization just recently when I was putting together a lecture about something that I did know about but that students wouldn't care about and didn't really need to know, when you came right down to it.

Anonymous said...

I agree that to make a lecture worth giving, and therefore by extension worth hearing, you need to have a hook. The last lecture series I was giving, I saw there was a gap into which &Aelig;thelred the Unready fitted, and grabbed it for myself because I have an idea or two about Æthelred. (And also because I wanted to read a chunk of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English in full fire-and-brimstone style. That was *fun*.) But if I hadn't had some stuff to say that wasn't in the standard accounts, yes, there'd have been no point in it and I would have used the slot for something else. Really, the students shouldn't be expecting to get an adequate level of information from a lecture. It's what, 7,000 words, effectively? Even with pictures, that's an article's worth of learning, and pitched at a more basic level. And it's one-time-only, so they won't get most of it anyway. The only point in a lecture as pedagogy is to leave the audience with the mental message, "Now, read on..." and a set of reasons to do so, or else to give them one or two things they never thought before about something they already read about. Given the which, the speaker also needs those reasons.

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