Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The End of the Lectern

I began teaching an introductory philosophy class at Estrella Mountain Community College last night. To my horror, the classroom was denuded. That is, it was barren of a lectern. I thought it was a fluke, but today I found from the school that the entire community college has no free standing lecterns and only a very few desk-mounted lecterns. They put in a “work order” for one (don’t hold your breath on “work orders” in a bureaucracy), but said they could not guarantee that the lectern would remain in that room.

I feel rather undressed without a lectern in a classroom or without a good solid pulpit in a church. (Do not give me a music stand! These contraptions cannot even support the weight of a good-sized Bible.) This affection for the lectern is not merely an idiosyncrasy on my part (I hope). The solid object from which a teacher or preacher speaks serves as the anchor for one’s notes, books, and articles. It provides a center point for engaging the class with the voice and the documents. Without a lectern, one loses this point of focus and gravity. One is reduced to standing directly in front of the class, perhaps holding one’s notes in one’s hand and grabbing a book off to the side once in a while. It is not good.

Of course, the lectern is disappearing because of the domination of the computer in teaching. People are punching keys and producing PowerPoint presentations. The teacher, her words, and her documents are left behind. But I do not use these means to my ends simply because they would not serve them. The teaching of philosophy is necessarily oriented toward words, written and spoken. Most philosophical concepts are not amenable to presentation in images—outside of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” but even there, the abstract concepts are more significant than a nifty graphic (in full color or even animation) of the prisoners, the cave, the fire, the images on the wall, and so on.

The end of the lectern—in the sense of telos—is to concentrate thought through lecture and discussion at a fixed point. It provides a grounding or bearing for one’s prepared material. Of course, the object itself does not insure that ratiocination will break out like a happy contagion throughout the class. Yet there is a philosophy of pedagogy built into the lectern. Behind it should stand a person who should be there, who is at home there, who has studied well in preparation (Titus 2:7-8), who wants to teach, and who is thereby authorized to stand at the center of attention in order to initiate, stimulate, and orchestrate philosophical thought in his or her students. The teacher stands behind an object on which are placed texts, notes, or articles. The one teaching is the one who has learned, and who takes those objects of learning with her into the classroom, not as incidental items, but as favored artifacts of inscribed thought.

But the end of the lectern—in the sense of its extinction or endangerment—makes all of the educational sensibilities just discussed more difficult to engender. What does it say about our culture’s view of pedagogy, authority, truth, rationality, and personality? I suggest we need a bully pulpit to advocate for the return of the lectern.


Susan said...

You should contact some local might find that many churches have them stashed away in storage closets and basements, and one might be willing to donate them to your cause. The only thing better than a lecturn is an old, sturdy, well-worn by the preachers of yesteryear lecturn...

Tim said...

That's appalling! No free-standing lecterns anywhere at the entire college? It sounds like there was a deliberate purge; otherwise they'd surely have a few, if only in surplus.

The "meddling educrat" alert level for EMCC is now officially YELLOW.

Douglas Groothuis said...

"The only thing better than a lecturn is an old, sturdy, well-worn by the preachers of yesteryear lecturn... "

Susan: There is a missing word in this sentence. What is it?

Susan said...


the missing word would be


Jonathan Erdman said...

This might be slightly off topic, but education is moving from an authority figure delivering the lecture to a classroom that seeks to engage issues and wrestle through them together as a community.

I think that the style of "lecture" still best facilitates the distribution of raw information, and also facilitates best the distribution of the professor's opinions/thoughts on that information. But shouldn't true education do more than this? What about Socratic method? What about dialogue in the tradition of Plato?

Maybe giving up the lecturn will also relinquish the assumption that the man behind the lecturn has all the answers. I think an open forum is more dangerous for the teacher, but more engaging for the student.

Any validity to the thoughts here, or can we just chalk it all up to "a bunch of postmodern nonesense!"???

Douglas Groothuis said...

Mr. Erdman:

The professor should be an authority figure; moreover, he or she should be an authority. But the one with authority is there to trigger and guide thought; and this does not exclude the Socratic exchange. It does exclude pooling collective ignorance.

Becky said...

My students can't see if I use a lectern...I use all the chalkboard!

The classrooms I teach in are completely overloaded with "smart systems," touch pads, overhead projectors, various media players...all of which are controlled by a system that requires training. The scary looking console is enough of a disincentive to use power point. :)

Edward Tufte (the information design guy) hates powerpoint, for reasons this article points out. A useful perspective for those of us intimidated by consoles (really, just me).

Jonathan, I think that the lecture format can succeed in facilitating the kind of learning you're talking about. Most introductory students I teach, though, want someone delivering information authoritatively and engaging them in dialectic and discussion. Maybe that's a cop out, but the seminar-style format hasn't yet succeeded with my 80+ students.

:mic said...

Given your position on this as well as your well-stated position(s) on technology, you might enjoy reading this related article which covers related ground.

I agree that the lectern helps in facilitating the learning experience. As in many other aspects of our culture (especially our modern evangelicalism), there is too much emphasis being placed upon entertainment value to the loss of serious thinking. Is it too early to suggest that students cannot think creatively or abstractly without pretty pictures being shown in front of them?

Tim said...

Jonathan writes, in part:

[E]ducation is moving from an authority figure delivering the lecture to a classroom that seeks to engage issues and wrestle through them together as a community.

"Education is moving ..."? No, not really. It would be more accurate to say that there are some people in Education schools who, to make up for the fact that theirs is a manufactured discipline of recent vintage and that they have not in general bothered to master any subject, have decided that they will proclaim themselves authorities on how Learning Takes Place -- and that such people have, for quite some time, been telling the rest of us that it would be better not to teach by lecture.

Touchy-feely talk about "working through things as a community" (sorry, Jonathan, but I'm having a hard time believing that even someone with postmodernist sympathies could fall for this transparent a use of a trigger word) and surveys of how students feel about their learning experiences paper over the unpleasant realities of "group problem solving": the students who are known to be smart generally get handed the lion's share of the work, such students are in the minority, and the lazy majority is quite happy to get a good grade by freeloading on someone else's intelligence and industry.

Is anything educational done better in groups than through lecture? Probably some things are, though nothing salient is springing to mind from my field. But it is morally certain that a great many subjects are dumbed down, even trivialized, by this educational "innovation."

Susan said...

This comes from the syllabus for one of the classes I'm taking this semester:

Having come to class with some degree of mastery of the historical facts, the student can meaningfully contribute to the setting of the scene in which his or her evaluative skills can be enhanced. Class time should not have to be devoted to a repetition of the historical, interpretive, and critical material in the textbooks. Rather the class period ought to provide an opportunity for the assembled community of scholars concerned with ancient philosophic problems to work together in coming to grips with exactly what the thinkers of that era said, exactly what impact it had on later thought, and exactly what help it can provide to Christian thinkers today....The professor assumes that the students will come to class with a background of thought on the day’s reading somewhat similar to his own. Thus, he can expect them to ask him for further clarification and justification of his assertions. Likewise, he can expect the same privilege from them....

This prof sounds like he has a healthy perspective on the value of community in the classroom.

Tim said...


That may work ... if the professor is not being wildly optimistic about the level of preparation of the students. As the semester progresses, tell us whether you think the students can live up to it. If they can, it should be a fun class!

staggered in joy and awe said...

The joy of the Lord is our strength. Yes the world has gone mad and worse. But you'll find a lectern. You will. And your lectures/discussions will be impeccable. In the meanwhile -- our joy can only ultimately be found in the ulitmate Lectern, most beautiful and glorious Christ Jesus.
So for this stay in Arizona build strength!

Douglas Groothuis said...

Tim and Susan:

Even if both teacher and student have read the texts the teacher has a deeper knowledge of the material and is the one who should direct the class in light of it. There is a hierachy, especially in larger classes where much discussion is impossible without anarchy. Hierarchy is not bad if it based on objective value. But the authority is there to serve.

Susan said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the teacher of this class has deeper knowledge than the students, and that there will be no anarchy.

The prof is Dr. Obitts!

Jonathan Erdman said...

It just strikes me as too easy to simply prep a good lecture. A good lecture involves work, but if you are going to promote an interactive environment of learning whereby students are forced to engage the subject matter, then I would think a professor would have to take an additional step beyond simply putting together an outline supported by references. This additional step would involve contemplating the issues and questions that will trigger thoughtful interaction from the student.

For clarrification...I am simply trying to point out that people learn best by struggle. When we struggle with concepts we generally take them to heart for the longterm. If we simply reproduce our professor's thoughts on an exam at the end of the semester then we get a degree that is devoid of real learning.

I think some surrender of authority best facilitates a classroom where struggle takes place. Are students really allowed to engage in a struggle, or must they conform to the pre-ordained line of thinking that the Professor will present?

Douglas Groothuis said...

An authoritative lecture grounded in texts need not exclude struggle for the students. The best way to encourage grappling with issues is by raising questions and leaving room for comments. Group exercises may be helpful as well.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Estrella produced a very nice lectern on top of a desk for me Thursday. I hope it continues. What a relief.