Monday, July 25, 2011

Lecture is not "Broadcasting": A rant in two parts

Monday, Monday.....

I just spent 3 hours responding to Discussion Board posts on my Distance Learning course.  I have two 5 week courses running for our Summer II term.  One Cultural Anth and one Archy class.  I have many lessons fresh in my mind.  Yes, they, always, teach me something these classes and students of mine.

At my institution we are being required to undergo 5 separate trainings in a two year window.  Somehow, we faculty have become a "problem".  That degree-thing that we have?  That makes us content-masters and we shouldn't be that.  We are to be facilitators.  I feel a bit like the intelligentsia under Pol Pot being sent off to the agricultural collectives.  That is, of course, a horrendous metaphor but the package of behaviors driving these trainings are remarkably similar and that is worth noting.

This is my understanding of the content of these mandatory trainings.  The methods of teaching a standard lecture class have been labeled "broadcasting".  Someone, somewhere (I do know who but I choose not to invoke names) has decided that I stand in front of groups of students and deliver information as if "broadcasting" to the multitudes.  This is a "bad thing" because it does not engage students nor make them part of their own learning process.

It is a ridiculous and inaccurate straw man.  I am not teaching classes of 400.  I have a cap of 36 and given that it is a community college, my attendance is likely to be in the twenties at most.  I don't stand there droning on, I interact with my students in an educational discussion.  However, this is deemed "not good".  I am to let them learn themselves through group activities.  I don't, necessarily, have a problem with groups activities.  In fact, I did a lot of them many years ago when I was at University.  This, of course, doesn't fit in with the straw man of the educational consultants and experts of today and, thus, the re-training that I require.  They argue that I teach through lecture because that was the method I learned by.  I wonder if these folks, in fact went to a University.  We learned a lot of different ways.  In many science classes we had labs, in my Archaeology classes we did lots and lots of group projects.  Steve Plog made me work in a group counting the trees on campus (survey strategy exercise)--thanks for that, Steve.  Shocking to think that my professors dovetailed their teaching to the skill/knowledge needing to be learned!  Shocking to think that one size fits all wasn't and isn't part of the educational process anywhere that I know--that is, outside of Distance Learning classes.  OH, SNAP!

When Groups Go Bad:  how about we talk about what groups can't do that an expert can?

Back to my Distantly Learning class.  (I did bring that up for a reason, you know.) I have a series of Discussion Boards in which my students discuss important issues in Cultural Anthropology.  One of the Boards is on anthropological ethics.  I give them a case from the AAA website and ask them to discuss what they might do.  (I know this isn't really doing ethnography but I am opposed to allowing survey course level students to conduct any fieldwork for fear of the potential damage they could do to a community.  We can debate that at another time.)  At the moment, the case I have posted is Case 16:  What's in that Bottle, What's in that Pipe.  Here.  I like it because Vine Deloria has a comment up which, completely and quite beautifully, turns the whole issue on its ear (and makes me chuckle with evil glee.)  I ask them to refer to our ethics code in their answer.

I was greeted with a pile of new posts over the weekend which, first of all, excerpted pieces of the ethics code which were completely misunderstood.  I have noticed that in recent years that many students feel that just any old quote will do and it really doesn't matter if the quote supports the argument or not.   Further than that, however, was the disconcerting trend for the students to engage in their own group think.  Each successive post tended more and more to an agreement that it was the job of the anthropologist to inform these "Native Americans" about the dangers of alcohol abuse.  Whatever we all think about "students today", I think most of us in the trenches would happily support the notion that they are not reading with any care nor are they very good at critical thinking.  And they want to "save" everyone.  Who in the group is capable of revealing their own cultural biases?  I assure you that it is rare for them to do it for themselves.  Who is going to use the very skill set that we anthropologists are taught?  Who is going to ask these questions:

 1.  My brother is a welder.  At the end of a hard week of manual labor, he has been known to pick up a six pack of beer and throw some hamburgers on the grill for his family.  Do you assume that my brother has an alcohol problem?  Why would you assume that a person of Native American descent abuses alcohol because they want to purchase some form of alcohol?

1.  If you were writing an article on British music and had the opportunity to interview (the regretfully late) Amy Winehouse on her musical influences, would you take that opportunity to lecture her on the dangers of drug abuse?  Would that be individually respectful, as required by the AAA Code?  Would it, in fact, "work"?

2.  If you were an anthropologist in Peru studying the thought process behind the "guinea pig healing" that you saw, would you communicate to the people you were interviewing all the things that were "wrong" with what they are doing?  If you objected to the killing of the guinea pig, do you have the right, as an anthropologist, to share those objections or demand that they stop this practice?  Should you tell them they need to go to a "real" doctor?

Who can continue to frame the issues in the terms they need.  And, let's be honest, I can't always do that easily.  But I know how to try to do it.  I know how to push them and push back against them.

While all those people making money and prestige are busy injuring our educational system and forcing me to waste hours in training in an attempt to stop my evil "broadcasting", the reality of my life is that I miss my lecture because I could redirect students when they first go astray rather than waste time forming and reinforcing opinions that aren't very helpful.  Because talking is always faster than writing.  Three hours later.

106 degrees in Houston.  Hang in there air conditioner.  You can do it.  I know you can.  Please.


Tony Waters said...

Your teaching consultant forgot to mention the administrative fad of about ten years ago. "You are not a sage on the stage, but a guide by the side!" Your teacher training office should try to get their money back!

Bulletin Boards on the other hand can be real cool thing for distance students, if they are kept on track. Some of my best thoughts/comments come from remote students commenting there. Funny, but our teaching consultants have never tried to instruct me on that!

Pamthropologist said...


I agree about the discussion boards. I have grown to like them. They can take a long time but there is a purity in their writing that can be appealing.

Thanks, Tony.

Elizabeth said...

My favorite classes, as a undergraduate student way back in the 70s, were those that were small enough to allow the kind of interaction and discussion you had in your classes...but without leaving the lecture format behind entirely. As I see it, the lecturer has a body of knowledge and expertise that I, as a student, am there to acquire. Sometimes the lecture is the most efficient way to impart it.

On the other hand, only a hand-on opportunity to play with batteries, wires, and light bulbs was ever going to make me "get" that electrical circuits only work when the circuit is closed. Suddenly wiring diagrams were comprehensible, instead of an impenetrable mystery.

I was deeply frustrated by my only online course, in American History, at a community college. The only communications with the instructor were his directions, and his grades. The other students in the forum seemed to take whatever material they found at the web at face value, and they never cited sources. He didn't participate in the discussions at all. The only feedback, other than a numerical score, that I ever had was a single comment "This is excellent work," on one of my papers. There was no give and take, no play of ideas.

Pamthropologist said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Its nice to know that most of us share the same core beliefs about our College experiences and not this version that is being spun.

I find that when I try to spark discussion in an online course that it gets viewed as criticism. Something happens with the written word that simply isn't the same as a good old face-to-face conversation. Distantly Learning is a real challenge. I would hate it if I were a student but some students make it work, somehow.

northierthanthou said...

I am continually frustrated at the cavalier attitude that staff and administration consistently take towards teacher's ideas about what they do in the classroom. If we prefer lecture, this is consistently described as prejudice, backward thinking, and resistance to more enlightened teaching techniques. But frankly, I am VERY skeptical about a lot of the material coming from education specialists, especially when it is used to leverage policies that then become mandatory in my own classroom.

It's strange to see just how easy it is for these folks to dismiss the notion that people who know subject might have worthwhile ideas about how to teach that subject.