Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Awfulness of College Lectures

What do the children of privilege do when not engaging in conspicuous consumption while wearing fashionable clothes? Why attend class, of course! This bizarre, yet widespread, affectation seemed intriguing enough that I decided to pursue a further investigation in my inimitable “first-person snob” style.

The Harvard students sit patiently outside the lecture hall as they wait for the previous class to end. Many simply sit, but others, showing the go-get-it-ness that got them into Harvard, begin attempting conversation with their neighbors. The awkward situation shows through in the awkward conversation (which, no doubt, they will learn to smooth over as they get older) about superficial topics of schoolwork (never school content, of course).

As the previous class exits, we file in and take our seats. Gabbing continues somewhat for a while until, all of a sudden, as if by some mysterious consensus, it completely silences. The professor seems surprised too. “Well, uh, it got quiet all of a sudden,” he says haltingly, “so I guess I better start talking.” For a professor in social psychology, you think he’d show a little more interest.

He begins the lecture in the standard way since PowerPoint: a title slide (with a cute illustration), a table of contents slide (which he walks through interminably slowly), and then a series of chunks of text and illustrations, which he walks through one by one. It’s so bad it makes we want to tear my hair out. The content is largely superficial; the presentation is unnaturally slow. (We literally spend a good five minutes talking about a specific gross-out gag.)

But while this may be an extreme version of it, at its essence, this is the college lecture. Someone who (we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) is quite smart appearing stupid for fifty minutes so that they can communicate basic facts to kids “at their level”. Edward Tufte teaches us to always ask about the information density of a method of communication. The information communicated in this lecture could have fit on one side of a single piece of paper.

There was a camera in the back of the hall, presumably recording the proceedings. But had this been available online, I doubt I could have forced myself to watch it. (The other day someone asked me why more people don’t watch the recordings of MIT lectures made available for free online. This is why.) The only reason the lecture is tolerable at all is because there’s something captivating about being in the presence of another human being, regardless of what they’re saying. But it doesn’t seem like that communicates anything additional — whether you see the guy in person or watch him at home, he’s still saying the same stuff. And so when you watch him at home, there’s just not much there.

So if what he’s saying isn’t very interesting, why do we subject ourselves to it? How did this become the primary method of education? Why do kids paid tens of thousands of dollars, in large part to fly someplace else to see someone say something they would have been bored to watch at home?

Back at Harvard, as I walk out of the class I hear the students gabbing. “Wow, I’m so glad I took this class,” one says. “That was the best lecture I’ve ever been in.”

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October 3, 2006


Have you watched the MIT Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs lectures that were given to Hewlett Packard staff members some time in the 1980s? I’m interested to know if you think they are exceptions to this rule or do you find them just as bad? I really enjoyed (some of) them, although I watched them from the bath so there was little temptation to flick over to something else (the laptop would have got wet). I couldn’t quite get around to them out of the bath. But I’m glad I watched them.

posted by Thomas David Baker on October 3, 2006 #

“…my inimitable ‘first-person snob’ style”


posted by Nicole on October 3, 2006 #

While my experience is mostly with Dutch lectures (although I’ve also attended courses at Wittenberg University for a year), most professors are just BAD. But there are a few exceptions. For example, I’m currently in this Distributed Systems course with Maarten van Steen (a close colleague of Andrew Tanenbaum, of whom you might’ve heard) and he is excellent. He engages the students, asks for lots of questions from class AND gets them, often rewards questions by telling the student that it is a good question, and generally shows a great amount of enthusiasm for his field of study.

But he’s one of 2 or 3 professors who I’ve encountered over 6 years of college that can do this. Most of them are just bad.

posted by Manuzhai on October 3, 2006 #

“The information communicated in this lecture could have fit on one side of a single piece of paper.”

I truly hope you never, ever, ever subject yourself to working for Corporate America (tm), because the vast majority of communications and interactions have that same information density…and the same - if not worse - presentation values. People with little to say, and saying it poorly. People with much to say, but never saying it. People who should never be allowed to interact with other human beings, talking interminably.

And remember: Friends don’t let friends PowerPoint.

posted by Reg Aubry on October 3, 2006 #

You are a snob, Aaron Swartz. You really are. ;) Then again, you are the only person I have ever seen use powerpoint well.

(By the way, is there a handy non-brandname word for such software as PowerPoint?)

While I agree with the general gnosis, there certainly are some profs who do more than waste your time. I had one math prof in particular who really got me to make a lot of connections that I’m not sure I would have without some prompting. But then, he talked rapidly and never used slides.

And you must admit that in some areas, particularly music, art, foreign language, and skills such as martial arts, direct instruction from a master can really be of help. Perhaps it’s that these areas are at the farthest remove from the part of your brain that can read books. This reminds me of a certain lecture (I don’t know any related books): http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-533537336174204822&q=alan+kay

Man, if you think the class you sat in on was bad, let me tell you what you get at third-rate schools. I had an anthropology prof who did nothing but show videos all semester, two to four days a week. What videos? TV documentaries! Nova! National Geographic! 8th-grade reading level! No lower info density hath ever been known. I wrote a polite but biting letter to his department and got not even a form letter in return. And, like all lousy professors, he rigged the grading so that we had to attend to pass the class.

Speaking can potentially be such a very high-density channel that it’s a great pity that so few lecturers can do it well.

I gave a little talk at Wikimania and was very dissatisfied with it. I thought I did poorly. I wonder if you have any advice or resources or things to read to improve my presentation skills — this is a problem I’d hate to be a part of.

posted by David McCabe on October 4, 2006 #


Before PowerPoint became the only choice, the generic term for such was presentation software. Examples: http://microsoft.toddverbeek.com/present.html

As a former speech/theatre major, I can give a couple of recommendations for improving presentations.

Two books by Ron Hoff: I Can See You Naked and Do Not Go Naked Into Your Next Presentation: Nifty Little Nuggets to Quiet the Nerves and Please the Crowd (Paperback)

The first book gives a fuller treatment (still very fun to read), but if you want the REALLY quick tips, go with the nifty little nuggets.

And then, go here and read the words of the master himself, Edward Tufte: http://www.cs.ualberta.ca/iip/IIP/C400/Tufte.html

And even more fun, Aaron’s version of Tufte: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/000931

posted by Reg Aubry on October 4, 2006 #

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