On lecturing and learning

[I found this sheet in the folder for the course that I'm teaching this quarter. I have no idea where the quotation comes from and I have no idea whether these were notes to myself or something that I shared with the class. I'd annotate this more, but I'm still not ready yet for class tomorrow!]

Dr. Johnson to Boswell in 1766: “People have nowadays, said he, got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chemistry by lectures. --You might teach making of shoes by lectures!”

Problem in studying history
• Learning both a body of facts and a way of thinking about life/the world/human experience
• Not really like any other subject in this way: object much bigger than in most humanities courses (e.g. art, literature, language); techniques change with the material, so no clear methodology as in most social sciences—very little “theory” in history that historians can agree on, even to disagree about
• Highly empirical: grows with experience

Problem in studying history formally
• Can go about it in a number of ways: reading series of books, visiting historical sites, talking with older people
• Why lectures?: old medieval style of university education: exegesis of texts. A “lecture” was a “reading” of a text with commentary.

What is the best way to learn history? Debates about how people learn are very old
• By drill: memorize all those dates and names
• By preaching: history as exhortation to moral behavior; but also, learning as something that takes place through the ear rather than simply through the eye: memory works differently on things that we listen to
• By demonstration: close textual work, teasing out information from particulars; but history also involves the construction of narrative
• By example: reading other people’s work
• All of the above


  1. Do you use Cooperative Learning strategies?

  2. Not consciously, but I teach pretty much all of my classes by discussion.

  3. I love the notion that the making of shoes is something which should be taught by lecture!


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