What is a History lecture for?

Once upon a time, a typical History degree in the UK would be taught through a combination of lectures and small-group teaching. That small-group teaching would be based on discussion of reading done in advance. To enable that reading, libraries would stock multiple copies of relevant books, next to little cardboard boxes of offprints – authorised photocopies – for reading in the library, not for borrowing.

This all sounds rather quaint in the era of digital reproducibility. When JSTOR first appeared, lecturers publicly lamented that students no longer learned how to use library catalogues, but privately welcomed the way it abolished the old access problems. Every student could read the same chapter or article in preparation for the small-group discussion, and a course could be easily updated if something new and brilliant came out.

Now, though, reproduction technologies are being applied not just to the reading but to the lectures, through lecture capture.

UK students and university administration alike often see lecture capture as progress with no downsides. You can listen to your lecture again and again, at your leisure, whenever and however suits you. Staff concern about dropping attendance is countered by the benefit the technology clearly offers to students who unavoidably miss a lecture through illness, family emergency, or other bona fide commitment, quite apart from university ‘business continuity’ if a lecturer falls ill or is otherwise unavailable.

But these debates, though important, are missing a key point: reproducing something inevitably changes the original in some way.

This year, a number of bright students have politely emailed me, weeks after a lecture, to ask for references to things I referred to in passing in a lecture – and not just book titles (which I of course provided), but page numbers. In essence, they are asking for my lecture’s footnotes. Digital reproduction means the lecture has become a resource, not an event, and that is what these students are treating it as. Now that they can listen to it again, their expectations of the lecture have understandably changed. In due course, we may well see requests for recorded lectures to be subtitled.

Does this matter? As it happens, most of my lectures are texts, since I tend unfashionably to write them out in full. Is there any reason I shouldn’t simply upload them as texts, so all the students can read them for themselves? Why not treat undergraduate lecture series as essentially recited textbooks?

That might be the inevitable outcome. But there are two problems. The first is that if we expect lectures to receive the kind of scrutiny that published texts come under (especially if they end up on the internet, which these days is more likely than not), lecturers will have to spend rather longer on writing them: polishing them up, equipping them with footnotes, and removing those wry quips that might sound awkward taken out of context.

The second is deeper-rooted. I think most History lecturers don’t want their students to ‘learn’ their lectures by dint of repetition: these lectures aren’t e-How videos, teaching a historical technique to be repeated back in an exam. That’s because a History degree, at heart, isn’t primarily about rote learning lots of details about the past – it’s about learning how to construct, for yourself, reasoned and persuasive arguments on the basis of incomplete evidence. Lectures are generally intended to introduce students to a wider body of historical literature, to help guide them through it; they are not supposed to stand in for that literature in itself, or to give the answer for the exam. As lectures change from real-time event to digital resource, though, that is precisely what they may end up having to do.

In other words, as lecture capture becomes ever more prevalent and normal, there is the risk that undergraduate lectures become obstacles to the kind of learning that History degrees are intended to inculcate. It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. Ironically, rather than bringing lectures into the 21st century, could lecture capture end up killing them off?

*Update* 13.11.2018
To my slight surprise, a few people have read this blog as just an(other) attack on lecture capture. But I wasn’t arguing straightforwardly for or against (and I specified the advantages of LC for many students, though I accept I ought to have mentioned disabled students explicitly).

My focus was rather on how LC changes the nature of a lecture – in disciplinary terms, it effectively makes it into a secondary source – and how this has pedagogical (as well as workload) implications. Actually, I suspect many students have long considered lectures to be secondary sources, rather than guides to them, so in that sense LC is just bringing a latent issue to the fore,  but in a way that merits reflection.

Making use of LC technology in an imaginative and properly thought-through way could improve teaching, but perhaps not in a way which leaves the standard lecture-based teaching model intact (whether that’s a good or a bad thing).

2 thoughts on “What is a History lecture for?”

  1. Dear Charles, wanting to have a fully annotated lecture is indeed mistaking its nature. A history lecture is more akin to a road map than to a detailed navigation chart, or if you prefer another metaphor, it is mistaking the menu card for the dinner, which you must create yourself. Of course it might be possible to give afterwards details about some point, but a lecture should invite to think for yourself!

    1. Dear Otto,
      Thank you for your comment! It’s precisely that quality of the lecture which I think is altered by its recording. For a medieval historian these are familiar questions: it’s ‘From Memory to Written Record’ territory.

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