Friday, February 22, 2008

Auditorium Classes as Educational Fraud

It is not surprising that the campus shooting at Northern Illinois University last week occurred in Cole Hall 101. This room is actually a huge auditorium with a stage for the teacher and a huge screen for power-point projection. With hundreds of students enrolled, classes in this auditorium have to be organized around lectures with almost no discussion at all. Many students do not bother to come to class. Those who do are passive. Many sleep. Others surf the internet on their laptops. Standing on the stage and shooting down into the deep auditorium, the gunman knew it would be easy to target his passive victims.

Cole Hall will be closed this semester and even into the fall semester. Administrators say that they will decide what should be done with the building, with the thought of doing something that would honor the memory of the students who were killed there.

I have a proposal. Cole Hall now houses two huge auditorium halls. Why not replace these auditorium halls with small seminar rooms for classes with fewer than 25 students? Why not even prohibit all auditorium classes across the university? Wouldn't it honor the memory of these dead students to declare that never again would NIU students have to sit in auditorium classes that promote listless passivity rather than intellectual exchange?

Of course, such a proposal has no chance of being taken seriously. At large universities like NIU, it is economically efficient to herd hundreds of students into auditorium classes. With few exceptions, these classes have almost no intellectual content.

Recently, one of my colleagues at NIU was explaining to me why we needed to have large auditorium classes. He said that undergraduate students are only "warm bodies" to give us good enrollment numbers and to pay the tuition that finances our graduate programs and our leisure for professional research. Administrators and faculty members would never say this in public, but this really is the attitude that supports auditorium classes.

As part of a "strategic planning" process at NIU, faculty were recently asked to submit proposals for reforming education at NIU. I wrote a proposal for a "Great Books" program--a curriculum of small classes organized around the close reading of classic texts in all fields of the liberal arts. The written response to my proposal was that "Great Books programs are based on elitist notions of 'great literature' based on white middle class values."

Gathering hundreds of "warm bodies" in an auditorium for a course of lectures and power-point projections is not real education. But it surely does escape any charge of "elitism."


Anonymous said...

Does the auditorium format necessarily lead to "listless passivity rather than intellectual exchange" as you claim? Or is it rather a broader problem with higher education betrayed by comment of your colleague that undergraduates are only "warm bodies"? To share the blame, on the other side of the podium are students who only appreciate higher education insofar as it promises higher financial returns. At some point, priorities or responsibilities have become distorted or abandoned. The auditorium format may not be as big a hinderance to education as the attitudes of instructors and students alike.

Anonymous said...

The auditorium format certainly hinders most chances of engaging students in conversation about material. As Smith notes above, there is a problem of attitudes here, on the part of instructors and students alike. My experience at a small liberal arts college with very small class sizes is illustrative of this point. Our students have this same passive attitude and literally become angry when they find that I do not use power point in the classroom. Apparently, I am an odd duck at our college in this regard. Yet most of these students have never attended an auditorium class. I see it is as my responsibility to try to break them out of this passivity, which can be done through questions and provocation. Such things, it seems to me, are extremely hard to do in a large auditorium format. If anything, the lack of collegiality among the students in such a setting is as big a hindrance as anything else. If there is a problem with attitudes, the auditorium format only reinforces the problem.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree that the fundamental problem is the attitudes of both teachers and students that are unfavorable to real intellectual engagement in the classroom. Small classes can be just as intellectually vacuous as large auditorium classes.

Small classes are the necessary, but not sufficient, condition for real liberal learning.

The use of power-point presentations is another culprit here. Instead of learning how to think for themselves by learning how to read classic texts, how to talk about those classic texts, and how to write about the questions raised by those texts, students presented with "bullet points" outlines on a screen are taught to be completely passive.

Unfortunately, many teachers and students prefer this, because it doesn't make intellectual demands on them.

Tony Bartl said...

Amen brother

Lori Witzel said...

Found you through Larry Ayer's blog (

Forgive my ignorance, but if I had a very large group of people to manage in my current job, one of the first things I'd do, similar to your journal writing engagement post, would be to make smaller "work groups" from the large group and circulate among group assignments/discussions.

I've been in large lecture classes and the form itself seems to create boredom and disconnection among both students and lecturers. Is small group transformation of the large class something that "is just not done," or are there structural and pedagogical reasons why lecture-and-powerpoint remain the default mode for wrangling large groups?

I ask because at some point I may find myself teaching...and better to know what folks think and have experienced than not.


Kent Guida said...

Bravo. It was exactly this problem that drove me from Columbia to St. John's College in Annapolis many years ago (where Helen Anastaplo was a classmate).
You have to experience both the passive and active forms to appreciate the difference. That so few ever have the active experience is the great tragedy of American education.
As for PowerPoint, it is the work of the devil. I didn't realize it had penetrated into the classroom, but in business it is a huge obstacle to effective communication.
Your ideas on liberal education may be as important as DNR. Good luck with both.

Christa said...

Great post. I appreciate the sentiment immensely.

At UVa they have made great "improvements" to large lecture classrooms. In some students have to buy remote controls at the beginning of the semester to answer questions posed during each class period. The correct answers are scored and the student is given points for attendance and knowledge of the material.

I am, of course, being ironic in describing this attendance checking mechanism as an improvement. As far as I can tell it does improve classroom attendance. But, all the same, I'd sum it up as a sophisticated way to herd cattle. Herding cattle is far superior to 'elitism,' right!?

Thanks for the great post... I hope you are well!


Anonymous said...

Though I'm not surprised at the response to your great books idea, I'm still dissapointed that the university regards such a curriculum as "elitist."

I had the pleasure of taking small great books seminars with a variety of excellent teachers (including Professor Arnhart) both in college and graduate school. I'm happy to say that I've tried to bring this same approach to my teaching of literature and philosophy at the high school level.

At no point did I ever feel that this education was "elitist." In fact, I think a great books program represents the finest commitment to the study of many cultures, both present and past. And I know of no better way to question the legitemacy of "white middle class values" than by reading books that speak to the most important human questions. How could we understand the rights of minorities if we didn't understand the great authors who first proposed the idea of "rights" in the first place? How could we advance any true understanding of social and political justice if we never read the authors who had the most to say about those topics? How could we understand the importance of "culture" unless we read the authors who defined and redefined the meaning of that word?

All I can say is thank goodness for teachers like Professor Arnhart, otherwise the supreme joy and value of the world's great literature would be lost in favor of "cultural studies" courses and reading lists defined by ethnic quotas.

Anonymous said...

"Great Books programs are based on elitist notions of 'great literature' based on white middle class values." Seriously? So, we should have mediocre or bad literature based on poor minority class values instead? Postmodernists insist that teaching the white middle class male view only serves to keep them in power. But at the same time they also claim there is no such thing as truth. If that is so, why teach the minority viewpoint? Because that is the oppressed viewpoint, they will say. Apparently teaching critical thinking means critical of the (dead) white male view. But notice that is the only thing we are supposed to be critical of, everybody else's view we need to tolerate and give a voice to. So, in summary, there is no truth, or at least it is relative to me and you, but one thing is for sure: white, middle class views are out. Ah, so there is truth after all!