What Is a Lecture For, Anyway?

A few weeks ago, I had an odd pedagogical moment.  I was at a media event for Hasbro, where they were rolling out their upcoming Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers, and GI Joe toys collectibles. The event was divided into 3 parts: there were 2 hours of PowerPoint-style lectures about the toys.  (“Here’s what’s coming; here’s how it’s different; here’s what we think about X.”)  Then, there was a period of about an hour or 75 minutes, when we could photograph the toys and put questions to the designers, but we couldn’t play with them. (It was an event pitched at collectors–that is, adults who buy the toys. Um, not that I am one, but I do write for GeekDad.)  And then, immediately after the event was over, they gave us all access to an FTP area with–what else?–the PowerPoint decks, and publication-quality images of every single toy we’d just spent an hour photographing.  (I’ve been uploading these slowly. Here are some pics I took.)

To recap, then: They lectured to us; gave us a brief period of pseudo-interactivity; and then e-mailed us the entire contents of the lecture, making our presence at the afternoon somewhat redundant.  In other words, it was exactly like a certain style of class, with a lecture, the slides or notes of which are then made available.

I was a little appalled at first.  There’s a Friends episode in which a highly jealous Ross agrees to go with Rachel to a lecture about fashion, only to fall asleep and embarrass her.  And as the lectures started, the situation seemed quite similar.  Like most ProfHacker readers, probably, I don’t really think of myself as a lecturer, nor do I think they’re effective in the classroom.  And since we were being given all the information online anyway, there wasn’t any real information to be gleaned from ‘em.

But as the lectures wore on, it became clear that they weren’t really about dispensing information at all.  The lectures were designed, instead, to signal that Hasbro understood the interests of collectors, and to perform a kind of collective identification: “we’re geeks like you.  You can trust us not to screw up the mythology or the continuity.”  (Would that were true!)  Plus, there was a little frisson of authenticity and insider knowledge–”turn your cameras off, please–the next section is embargoed.”  All of which was highly effective in its way: Several people before the lectures who had been bitterly denouncing this or that production decision, got increasingly interested over the course of the lectures.  And so when the FTP archive went live, we were motivated to download the information and to study it.

It now occurs to me that this makes room for a slightly different conversation about lectures in the classroom: Not one about whether they “teach,” or whether they’re great at transferring information, but one about whether a lecture, done well, can elicit ongoing attention and interest from students.  That aspect of what Dan Cohen calls academic theater is, I think, underrated–and is something that can probably be improved with practice.


Image by me, of Hasbro’s forthcoming AT-AT walker.  (Stop drooling.)

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