Monday, March 21, 2011

The Survey: Written Lectures?

What’s the best method of incorporating an ever-increasing amount of new work into a survey, meanwhile keeping the readings manageable? One possibility is to include a section on the syllabus for optional readings cited during lecture. Another is to write the lecture, with citations, and post after class. I’m trying the latter method this semester. So far, each class averages 15-20 double spaced pages, which I then post on TWEN. Not sure how students will handle the expected 200 + pages of lecture in preparation for the exam (I’m calling it a book draft), but unanticipated benefits have emerged nevertheless. For example, the process of writing lectures has lent itself to a more detailed reconstruction of events, a more frequent use of direct quotations, and a smoother transition between topics. Also, typing lectures has encouraged me to emphasize recurring themes, particularly original themes, making class prep a little bit like writing book chapters. For example, one theme that is coming out strong this semester is the regulation of inequality, the idea that American law has never sought to end inequality so much as manage it. What are the dangers? One of the worst classes I had at Yale was a history course drawn from written lectures (professor not to be named). Part of the problem was a lack of narrative interest (characters were not fleshed out, stories were absent, facts and dates marched through class, zombie-fashion). By contrast, Yale History Professor Glenda Gilmore held students spellbound in her course on Jim Crow. One thing that Glenda did, which I have tried to emulate, is to rely heavily on story-telling and also to pause periodically from reading – provide extemporaneous analysis – and ask questions. Another technique, employed by Gilmore, Pete Daniel, and others, is to use power point as an old-fashioned slide projector, foregoing text-clogged frames for simple photographs, adding drama to the spoken/written word.


  1. Anders, this sounds so ambitious--and quite a lot of work, although you are prepping the lectures anyway. But posting them on TWEN has the effect of releasing your intellectual product to everyone, whether or not they come to class. I've been wondering whether I was doing the right thing in posting my powerpoint files this semester, which are a mix of text, photos, and weblinks.

  2. I agree that this is especially an issue w/ lectures. But in non-lecture classes, I think it's helpful to put powerpoint on Blackboard (or whatever you use). I use powerpoint in my constitutional law classes, and reminding the class that the powerpoint will be on Blackboard helps avoid the problem of students spending class trying to copy down all the slides, rather than thinking about them.

  3. To solve the problem of students simply reading the lectures, I require attendance, grading down for excessive absences. As for intellectual product, the more students absorb the better (would be interesting to learn if they actually process more by reading the lectures than listening). Potential payoff is a body of writing that I can then return to in upcoming semesters, possibly shaping into a book.