In Defense of Lecturing
Dee Gillespie is a Professor of US History in the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy, and a winner of the 2022 Teaching Excellence Award.
“No more sage on the stage.” “No more chalk-and-talk.” This is a familiar refrain at pedagogical workshops and conferences. “Actively engage your students,” we’re told. Critics of lecturing can paint with a broad brush, characterizing all lectures as dull content dumps. In contrast, on a recent evaluation, a student described my approach as “storytelling, not lecturing.” A good story is not a dull content dump. Instead, I see lectures as an essential part of getting students’ attention, drawing them into a time and place, and encouraging critical thinking. I humbly suggest that there is still a place for good lecturing.
I study and teach US History. This place we call the United States has always been home to diverse groups of people who don’t look the same, act the same, or think the same. That fact makes for a compelling and complex story. I argue that good stories can be good pedagogy. Through narrative, the past is no longer a preordained series of events leading in only one possible direction. When students relate to historical actors and see that these people had choices, they ask questions. Why did they make particular decisions? What did they experience before each decision? What happened as a result? How did other people respond? That is historical thinking. When students recognize contingency in the past, they ask critical questions about their world. This process begins with a good lecture.
Many students enter a history class expecting to be bored. I don’t like spending time with bored people, and I sure don’t want to be the one who is boring them. I’m a storyteller, and each lecture is a chapter in a semester-long story. I take time to set the stage and introduce key historical figures. Then, over the course of lectures, I explain how actions and decisions cause conflict, resulting in change or retrenchment. Telling a story transforms iconic figures like George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. into real people working without the benefit of a preordained script. Likewise, broad sweeping changes are translated into lived experience as individuals adapt to complicated circumstances. For example, 19th-century westward expansion gets personal with a retelling of Wild Bill Hickok’s desperate attempt to remain relevant as his “Wild West” rapidly disappeared. The broad and abstract social, cultural, and economic changes brought on by late 19th-century industrialization are more relatable and accessible when we consider the contrasting experiences of young entrepreneur Richard Sears and immigrant workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
I know many talented instructors can “wing it” in class. I can’t. I write each lecture out in full before crafting an outline for display on PowerPoint slides. I spend way too much time searching for the perfect image or map. I rehearse to fix rough spots or clumsy transitions, translate my written script into a conversational tone, and edit if there is too much material for one class period. I have the flow in my head before class, because delivery is important. I do my best to get and keep students’ attention by moving around, acting out important parts of the story, and drawing on the board. They remember important people, events, places, and concepts, all situated in historical context, because they can repeat the story. With this foundation, students are prepared to analyze factors that influence continuity and change. The lecture also provides context for primary source analysis. Ultimately, we are tracing how the meaning of freedom, liberty, and equality, as well as our collective understanding of what it is to be an “American,” is constantly reshaped. This is the foundation for engaged citizenship.