Sunday, March 30, 2008


Gordon RakitaGordon Rakita
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
I write this from Vancouver, Canada where for the past four days I have been attending the annual Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meetings. (And yes, the city is beautiful and it did snow while I was here!) As with other meetings of this genre, they consist of long uninterrupted blocks of presentations by scholars. The presentations are clustered into topical symposia and there are typically a dozen symposia running concurrently in both the morning and in the afternoon.

To give you a sample of a typical day, on Thursday I participated in a symposium in the morning that had approximately 10 papers (2.5 hours). There was an hour break for lunch, and then I attended a symposium in the afternoon, logging another 2.5 hours of sitting in a darkened room watching presentation after presentation. Presentations vary at the SAA meetings. Some are highly theoretical; others describe the results of recent excavations. Some present the results of sophisticated chemical analyses; others explain sampling strategies or statistical results. Some symposium are scheduled for large ballrooms as the organizers expect a large audience of interested members, others are placed in more modest sized rooms. 95% of presenters use PowerPoint these days.

These meetings can be very draining. By the end of the second day, most of us respond to inquiries about our wellbeing with phrases like “I don’t think I can sit through another paper today.” Bare in mind, this is not because the presentations are bad; indeed they are often quite good. It is simply that the amount of information we attempt to absorb during this four day bacchanalia of archaeology is overwhelming. Most of us are physically and mentally exhausted when we gratefully climb on the plane home.

But sitting in the back of one of those dark rooms one day I let my mind wander to a comparison of attending these sorts of meetings and attending classes at a university. The similarities are considerable and I think illuminating.

Let’s take for example the schedule of a hypothetical, full-time, freshman. She enrolls in five, 3-credit hour classes. This means that she will have 15 hours of class time to attend each week. Typically students will try to arrange their schedule to meet other commitments or interests, but let’s imagine that our student has spread her courses across the full working week. That’s three hours of class time each day.

Now what does our intrepid student’s class time consist of? Well, since she’s a freshman, most of her courses are going to be surveys or introductory courses. Some will be large lecture hall classes with 200 students; others will be smaller, say with 25 classmates. Many of these courses will be heavily lecture-based, with the professor presenting information using PowerPoint slides filled with text and images. Individual classes will range from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes long.

So, our hypothetical student is essentially attending an SAA-style symposium each and every week day. If I asked my colleagues here at the meetings if they would like to do that, they’d look at me as if I had had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night (as a matter of fact, I did). Simply put, they would react with horror at the idea. Why? Because, as I mentioned earlier, these meetings are draining. Well, why?

Here’s my point. Despite the fact that we are archaeologists attending symposia on topics of great interest to us, the presentations we attend are not that much different than any lecture. Presentations are filled with ideas and information that we are desperately trying to assimilate and retain at high speed. Most presentations are good, but some are not so good. The presenter rambles, goes over time, uses cruddy slides or tables of data. Some presenters do not articulate an overarching important question that frames their talk. Others talk in monotone. The darkened room is stifling with people and the blur of presentations makes your eyelids heavy.

The same things that make a presentation at a professional meeting a draining experience are the same things that make a lecture at a university draining. We faculty attend these sorts of events for a few days each year; students attend them five days a week for 16 weeks. On the other hand, the things that make for an interesting and engaging symposium apply to university lectures. Good presentations have a well crafted question or goal or theme. This question/goal/theme should be presented in such a way as to draw the listener and make him or her interested in the content of the presentation. Good presentations walk the audience through the material cleanly and clearly. And in the end, good presentations return to the question/goal/theme and tie up loose ends. But overall, a good presentation is engaging, compelling, and entertaining. Yes, I said entertaining.

My brother likes to refer to what I do as “edu-tainment.” I’m not sure I have a good rebuttal for that. On the one hand, I know that when students are engaged and attending to the activities in a class, then they learn better. So if a bit of entertainment does that, who am I to scoff at it. On the other hand, I do know that by brother’s term has a more pejorative connotation. That I’m actually a very low paid entertainer (do stand up comics make more that college professors?) and that perhaps the entertainment aspect of my classes might degrade the actual learning. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that I appreciated those speakers this week who took the time to develop and engaging and entertaining presentation. Because if you asked me if I wanted to spend 2.5 hours each day attending presentations, I’d ask you if you had too many over-priced ales at the hotel bar last night.


Dan Richard said...

Great post.
As we become experts, we come to associate certain situations with certain goals. Because you have been in the conference environment before, you know that attending to some people in this situation will produce rewards for you (I am speaking of intellectual rewards, here).

I agree that we must have one's attention before we can facilitate learning. One problem I see with making the college classroom entertaining, however, is that students are not accustomed to thinking while being entertained. Does the entertaining environment activate goals in the student to sit passively and watch without critically thinking about what they are seeing?

I think the motivation of the learner plays a larger role that we often are willing to admit. I do not intend to suggest that motivations cannot be influenced by the instructor, but that the motive of the person sitting in your classroom is what will need to change before learning takes place.
If students are being entertained in the classroom, then great. They should not check their brains at the door, however. They have tuned in to a college professor, not a comedian.

Anonymous said...


Great point! I think David Jaffee's essay entitled: "I am Not a TV" speaks to the issue you raise. (I wonder if we could persuade David to post on the issue…)

Perhaps I could be clearer on the entertainment bit. Think in terms of a really great PBS show...say NOVA or American Experience or Frontline. These are entertaining and definitely grab your attention. However, they also lead you to critically think about various issues. Was it Edward R. Morrow or Edwin Neumann who said that television has the power to teach….can we aspire to that? I certainly don’t want my students to check their brains at the door. But if they bring their brains into the classroom and use them to text message their friends or doodle in their notebook or day-dream, then I’m not sure what good it’s doing to have them or their brains there. I want them attending to the conversation I’m trying to have with them. If I get them listening, then I might just spark their interest…..


David Jaffee said...

Since my unread classic -- “I Am Not A TV” -- was mentioned here I feel an obligation to comment on the notion of “info-“or “edu-tainment”.

The common theme between that piece and this discussion centers on the often overlooked fact that teaching and learning is an interactive process and any time there is a lack of acknowledgement of the social exchange and interaction between faculty and student the entire enterprise is threatened, or at least rendered ineffective. In my piece the professor faces students who make no symbolic gestures acknowledging their humanity or existence. This is written off, in satirical style, to the fact that students believe, as a result of their social conditioning by this medium, that any talking person is just another TV-screen talking head that does not require any social niceties. “It” will continue the program no matter what students do, say, or exhibit in terms of behaviors. It represents the death of symbolic interaction (a nod, a smile) in the classroom.

But, as the more perceptive students point out, this student behavior is as much a product of the way teaching is delivered as it is a deficiency among the students. That is -- and it is here where the issue raised by Rakita is joined -- to what extent is the faculty member oblivious to the audience and the engagement of the students. I am sure there are cases where students sit in a room, and faculty talk and cover (shouldn’t we “uncover”? – that is for another posting) the material. As long as it is “covered” and students take notes there may also be the assumption that something is being learned. But sensitivity to the audience would prompt ways to get the attention of, engage, and involve the students, and move them out of an entirely passive role.

I have had the same experience as Rakita at my own national conference of the American Sociological Association where a presenter who is there to “read a paper” actually reads a paper, word for word, with head down (and these readers often seem surprised when they come to the realization that they will not be able to complete the reading of the 35 page paper within the allotted 15 minutes). This behavior betrays a wholesale disregard for the “audience”. To what extent are we sometimes guilty of the same behavior? To what extent are our students the unfortunate victim of similar practices across several hours of classes? In raising this question Rakita has demonstrated some critical self-reflection.

To use the term “audience” (rather than “students” or a “learning community”) is to suggest that teaching is a type of performance and, therefore, one must “perform” or “entertain” or “humor” the students in order to get them to pay attention, connect, or engage. If this means they are more likely to listen (rather than hear), think, respond, and retain ideas, it is difficult to dismiss it as pandering.

Eble, in his wonderful book The Craft of Teaching, presents “Twelve Myths of Teaching”. The second myth is that “That teaching is not a performing art.”

He goes on to say:
"Of course it is not only a performing art, but to deny the importance of performance is to countenance teaching that employs the professor but little engages the student...
College teachers can be phony, hokey, flashy, trashy, thin, unsound, shallow, deceptive, and false. But in my observations...I have seen fewer charlatans than mediocrities and been less appalled by flashy deception than undisguised dullness. And I have never encountered any evidence that that a dull and stodgy presentation necessarily carries with it an extra measure of truth and virtue."

I will leave it there.

David Jaffee