Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

There is a narrative that goes like this: most educators promote active learning. Educators present at conferences. Therefore they should use active learning approaches at conference talks. Practice what they preach, and all that.

I disagree. I love a good lecture. Good lectures can be memorable and informative. Yes, that was me stifling back a tear when Martyn Poliakoff gave his Nyholm lecture at Variety. Yes, that is me falling in love with chemistry again every time I hear AP de Silva talk. And yes, that was me punching the air at the final Gordon CERP talk by [redacted] at [redacted].

Requesting audience activity at conferences is confusing the process of learning by students on a module with identified learning outcomes, with learning by an academic who define their own learning outcomes when they look at the book of abstracts. Worse still, it is confusing learning by novices with learning by experts. As experts, we are in a position to go to a lecture and immediately scoop up information that is relevant and useful to us. We have the prior knowledge and expertise to call upon to place quite complicated information in context. That’s what being an expert is. The purpose of the presentation is to place the work in context of the speaker’s overall research programme; bring what might be several publications under one umbrella, and present it as a narrative. Argued with good data. Links to publications for more information. Hopefully with a few jolly anecdotes along the way.

Audience participation is a folly. Consider an education talk where the speaker requests the audience to have a chat about something that’s being discussed and predict what’s next, or offer ideas. Academics are blessed with many talents, but we’re not social beasts. The little chat is prefaced with social niceties as we try to get over the fact that we have to speak to other humans, followed by some discussion on what we’re meant to be talking about as we were too busy checking our Twitter feed to see what people said about our talk earlier. Of course, some amazing gems might come out in the feedback to the presenter. But are they really things the presenter isn’t aware of? Was it worth the time? I don’t think so.

I say this with hand on heart, as I have given a lecture at a conference which relied on audience participation. It was a lecture on the flipped lecture, and I agreed with conference organisers that it would be a fun thing to immerse the audience in a flipped experience. As a Friday morning keynote after the conference dinner the night before, the slot made sense. It was great fun and we had some great discussion – but was there anything that came back from the audience that I couldn’t have discussed in my talk? Probably not. It was very popular (thanks Twitter) and I did learn lots, but that’s not the purpose of the conference. Speakers aren’t there to learn. They’re there to inform. Especially keynote speakers – hey we paid for your fees y’know! Now let’s all discuss this over coffee.

(c) The New Yorker
(c) The New Yorker

7 thoughts on “Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

  1. It’s possible I started laughing when I saw the title of this blog post…I wondered when this particular thread would spread to blogs. Great post, and for those excellent lectures, absolutely spot on. A great lecture is like a great movie – you become completely immersed and aren’t aware of time passing. And sometimes even a sense of loss when it finally has to finish.
    But then there are the not so great lectures…

    1. Thanks, Katherine. Yes, the tweets were so busy I thought I could say something more sensible in blog form. Some not so great lectures are always in the mix – I know I’ve delivered a few clangers myself. But even when I have sat through a lecture that I thought was the seven circles of hell, I’ve heard other people say they really liked it. Fickle bunch, academics!

      Now can we get back to the bit where we don’t have to talk to each other?! 😉

  2. Completely agree with respect to conferences. Mostly disagree when it comes to teaching. I think everything you have said about experts at conferences can be analogous to students, albeit at a lower level of complexity. A good (and that is my main caveat to my argument) teaching lecture will have students with the pre-requisite knowledge to fully understand the lecture to ‘scoop up’ the new knowledge just like a seasoned academic at a conference. Well, that is the hope…

    1. Thanks Neil for your comment. Yes, considering the academic conference lecture, I think good and bad, they can be typically characterised by a monologue, and possibly a very engaging and interesting monologue. We have a very clear idea of what a conference lecture is, because as academics we go to a lot of them.

      On the question of student lectures, I’m not sure I said much about lecturing in teaching here to disagree with! It is more nuanced, because I don’t think we really have a clear definition of what this is. We only experience our own. Is it the 50 minute monologue? I think it is often characterised as that, but wonder how common that is. So when people talk about lecturing students, I wonder if they are talking about the same thing. Lecturing – whether it’s good or evil (or probably somewhere in the middle) isn’t going anywhere. So the question then is – what makes a good lecture(r)?!

      1. True, you didnt make any overt statements against the lecture in teaching, however I think there were enough implied statements to that effect (my reading of it at least). The title “Why I love the academic lecture (at academic conferences)” implied, to me at least, that you don’t love it in teaching. The “(at academic conferences)” bit seemed almost apologetic for making the first statement, on why you love lectures, to presumably a lecture-opposing flipped-teaching readership. The distinction between experts and novices implies that maybe novices cannot scoop up info from lectures like academics, and hence, implies that lectures in teaching are not good for them. Being opposed to lectures in teaching is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, especially if you have got flipped teaching working for you. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

        What defines a teaching lecture is problematic, especially given that seems universally classed as passive in the EduLiterature. And we know passive is bad (unless they are learning, that is). For me, almost all sessions are 2 hour lecture slots. That is an institution/historical/timetabling issue which I have no control over. If nothing else, our students have stamina. However I really love the rare opportunity to do a shorter slot. If I have a 50 minute slot, it will indeed be mostly me talking and explaining things with a smattering of questions and pauses. Maybe that fits the 50 min monologue idea. If a two hour slot, it will be a generous pre-amble putting the session in context, 40 mins of me talking, 10 mins of students writing answers to some questions (with peer instruction) linking the key concepts together and putting these into context. Then coffee, and repeat. So proportionally more time spent on active learning (as defined by the EduLiterature) in a two-hour slot than a 1 hour slot, especially as the discussions usually carry over in the coffee break.

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