Musings on Learning

Over the last couple of years I have been attending lectures in the English department. I’ve had a certain number of negative thoughts about this. Well, today we had a meeting of the Class Reps and two of the senior members of the English department to discuss the study of English and peripheries. An opportunity, in other words, to rant and rave about how things should be done, because I am, after all, a genius.

Instead of making really any definite statements at all, I actually tried to engage with the staff about the whole range of issues, and I think I’ve found the root philosophical difference between us. As well as some other interesting points.

The first thing which became really apparent (but was not really a point of difference, just interest) was that they were very keen on understanding how students approach learning and how students percieve the role of the lecturer. The most pertinent question they had was: why don’t students collect graded essays? Robert and Kathryn stated that a failing grade paper (that take the longest to mark) might take as long as 45 minutes to mark. When a student then doesn’t collect that essay, at least half an hour of that academic’s time is wasted. The classics department takes the view that whether feedback is valuable or not should be specified by the student, and so allow essays up to one week late without penalty which do not get comments.

When I get an essay back, my first impulse is to check the grade, then read the summary comment, then look at the specific points. I find that when I get back a B+ or better essay, the comments are usually not vastly helpful. They highlight one or two things that I could have done better, but the fundamental content usually seems to be okay. Grades below that I’ve usually made some or other error which would essentially need a whole re-write to fix. But, this is almost as clearly indicated by the grade alone, rather than by the accompanying comments. Once the fundamental argument is deemed unsound, by dint of a C, in order to provide guidance for improvement the tutor must pretty much provide some kind of model answer. Where a tutor has made a comment about a significant omission, yet given me a B+ or better, I usually feel like I could make a strong argument against including whatever point it was I omitted as if it were deliberate. (Such omissions are deliberate only about half the time, and almost always due to word limits. I have taken to including appendices which cover areas I have deliberately culled from my essays, so they may be included but not count against the word limit.)

Based on that experience, do I think that a gade-alone would be sufficient? No: the comments kind of accrue into good advice for the next essay. They definitely confer an incremental but measurable benefit over the course of several essays.

The second major thing that was discussed was related to what actually happens in a lecture. Here my view is divergent from the teaching staff. I regard the essential role of a lecture as a place where information is transferred from the lecturer to the students. I expect a lecture to distill thought processes and reading into a compact and useful form. Therefore, I am not interested in close reading as part of a lecture, nor do I expect a lecturer to provide much direct evidence for what they tell me. Those are two things I am reasonably capable of doing on my own time.

The difficulty with my preferred process is that it does not require the student to be active in their approach to learning, but essentially accept what they’re told. The advantage is that you can cover a broad spectrum of interpretations, points of view and material generally in the space of your two to three hours of lectures each week. The disadvantage is that you risk an over-reliance by students on the views of the lecturers. I can see how, for students less predisposed to individual thought and idiosyncracy than myself, such an approach might lull them into a false sense of understanding.

The view of the academics is that the lecture is not about imparting information at all, but getting students to think critically about the material. Essentially, they want to start the process of understanding each work from scratch in the mind of the student. The disadvatange of this is a certain degree of myopia. You can only discuss a small selection of texts, and only at the rate at which you can discuss whichever small segment is to be read.

So, for example, in From Chaucer to Spenser, we read the Green Knight line-by-line, meaning that it took 5 weeks to complete the lecture series on a single poem which could be read by someone in about an hour. This was extremely helpful because Middle English is a difficult thing to read. Taking the same approach to any of the poets in my restoration paper would be much less beneficial because that language barrier is gone.

The other difficulty is that this approach relies on the individual students’ ability to build a holistic view of an author’s ouevre and themes. Obviously themes can be signposted at relevant sections of text, but there is a risk that you won’t be able to cover a sufficient number of extracts in any given lecture series that all themes can be signposted. So, an alternative would be to say ‘these are the main themes, and here are some passage/page references.’

The main advantage that I can see, is that it puts the onus on the student to read widely and try to apply the techniques of close reading to an author’s entire work. I just worry that some people get lost doing this. I have certainly gotten badly lost in Bronze Age Art and Archaeology which takes that kind of approach to the discovered artefacts. I find the lecturer often says “and as you recall, Cycladic frescoes have a quality of such-and-such”, and at that point, some weeks later, I am able to draw lines between the dots. Most of the time I can’t however, and so am failing the paper. In English, where the greater part of my talent lies, I am in a better position.

There is a middle position, which some lecturers find some of the time[1]. Anna Jackson’s lecture on Gertrude Stein, for example, hit a nice mix between looking at some close reading while also getting to grips with wider themes and motifs. Heidi Thomson’s lecture on Johnson and his Rasselas was also a nice balance. Geoff Miles’ lectures on Romeo and Juliet were the best of three sets of Uni lectures I’ve had on that play for that reason. The paper that I’ve done which most consistently struck a nice balance between close reading and broad overview was Greek and Roman Epic, especially Peter Gainsford’s lectures on Homer and Mark Masterson’s lectures on Lucan. (Though his lectures on The Aeneid had a lot of content about odd uses of words in the original Latin which was of no interest to the vast majority of the class, because we didn’t speak latin; a great example of where being too close to the material is of little benefit to the student)

The third component of the discussion was about tutorials, and how they best aided a student’s learning. I myself have not found most tutorials to be very helpful. Tutorials tend to be one of several kinds. They are either focused around a general discussion of some point of interest, or they may be close reading practice, or they can become a de facto lecture. The first kind are prone to two major problems, being that the class may be too ignorant to benefit anyone’s understanding or that the class may be silent and uncommunicative. The second kind attempts to do under pressure of time what each student must by necessity be able to do for their essays. My main difficulty with this is personal, in that I find it very difficult to do, though sometimes the discussion which follows it is good when there are others who do not share my failing. The third type of tutorial is lamentable, because there is already a time and place for lecturing.

The last major topic under discussion was how best to make use of the class representatives. Typically, class reps do almost nothing. Their only real responsibility is to collect the VUWSA rating forms at the end of a course, but most are not called on to even do that: lecturers end up selecting a student at random from the attendees. Of the 14 class reps invited to the meeting, only 3 actually turned up. There is a lot more that the reps could do, in terms of feedback to lecturers, on a variety of issues. I don’t think any general conclusions were reached about how to get this additional use out of reps, but it’s a puzzler.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the VUWSA survey forms are considered very important and taken very seriously by the administration of the university. I can see how having some nice concrete-looking numbers must appeal to bureaucrats of all strips though. I always try to fill them out as honestly and objectively as possible, but a bald number gives the relevant person no specific feedback on what they did right or wrong. For example, one common question is:

“Were the lecturer’s attitudes conducive to your learning?” If I put a low ranking, what aspect of their attitude are they supposed to improve? Were they too chatty, too aloof? Did I just find their face unappealing? It’s a stupid system, but I am unable to on the instant devise a better one.

[1] Only one lecturer has been entirely in my style. Jose Restrepo my all time favourite lecturer. I think it would not be unfair to claim that pretty much everything I know about structural behaviour was taught to me by this man.

The question in my mind now is: having written this very long discussion of the meeting, would I be doing a service to the relevant staff to send them a copy?

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8 Responses to Musings on Learning

  1. adrexia says:

    I actually think I prefer tutorials to lectures. I certainly find them more engaging.
    My favourite kind tend to be a mix of lecture and group discussion. I don’t like being given a whole lot of information without the ability to discuss it afterwards.

  2. I like getting comments back on my essays. (Yes, I’ve bitched about this before.) It’s a really cool feeling to think that someone has accessed your ideas and is thinking about them enough to argue for or against what you said.
    People who don’t want comments, I just don’t get, particularly when scanning through them would mean your work can improve for next time. But then, people who are just marking time I don’t really get, either.

    Karl was saying a couple of weeks ago that in Canada, if you fail your course, you get put on academic probation and can get expelled for failing another one. That would certainly make people more anxious about passing.

  3. eloieli says:

    I thnk it would be helpful for you to pass this stuff on to the lecturers.

  4. Anonymous says:


    My approach to lecturing was two-fold. 1. Outline the tools needed for the study of the subject, in my case social background, history of the period, reading lists that will give insights, examples in the text to illustrate the points made. 2. Lead the students to specific parts of the text that gave them an ability to explore more for themselves – exegesis (= close-line reading). I ALWAYS EXPLAINED WHAT I WAS DOING AND WHY.
    The trick was really to make them find something in it that excited me so that they would be come excited about the material too. Also to show them that it is ok to test the perceived understanding – encourage them to form opinions of their own – as long as they could be substantiated.
    Tutorials -were to answer the queries raised by the students in no2 above with fall back material if they were a dull bunch only there because they had to be.
    Send the comments to hte staff – after your assessments are finished. Staff are (only)human beings and have egos and spite in equal quantities. Don’t send anything till they have finished assessing your work so that your perceived opinions of them don’t colour their assessment of you.

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