On eliminating the university lecture, from Nabokov’s Pnin, 1957

September 7, 2014 Comments off

Recently there has been much discussion about radically reforming university education. Many of these reforms advocate the elimination of the lecture. The Atlantic magazine profiles the upstart Minerva Project this month, which is a “university” predicating itself on no lectures. This is thought to be revolutionary and new to our times. 

However, anybody who has been in the education business knows that these ideas and close variants of them have been talked about and tried and abandoned and tried again for many decades, if not centuries. My personal view is that social science researchers’ ability to quantify the value of the lecture is severely lacking. But that discussion is for another time. Instead, what I wish to do is demonstrate how long-standing this debate is.

At the end of this post I give an early reference from 1957 of professors discussing the elimination of the lecture. It is written by Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Pnin. Nabokov of course is the famous writer of Lolita and other outstanding literary works. He also emigrated to the United States and taught at Wellesley College and Cornell for more than 18 years.  Pnin is a semi-autobiographical account of a Russian emigré literature professor taking up a non-tenured teaching post in Waindell College in New York. Timofey Pnin is lonely, devoted to his scholarly work, frustrated with his lazy American students, and somewhat clueless about the political machinations around him. Toward the end of the book he throws the academic party of the decade at his college, only to be told after it by a colleague that he will be out of his job by the next year.

It is at this academic party that three university professors at Waindell college get into a discussion about their frustrations in educating students. Hagen ventures after a few drinks to tell his colleagues his view that the lecture should be eliminated. Instead “phonograph records” should be made available once and for all. Not too different than us saying today that a video should be made once and for all, and no more lecturing (“flipped classroom”). It degenerates into teasing hapless Timofey Pnin, the host of the party, by saying, “The world wants a machine not a Timofey.”

Clements is the voice of teaching orthodoxy and his style is to put his own strong words into someone else’s mouth (Tom) and to make jokes to lighten the discussion (“We could have Timofey televised”). He ends the discussion with a dismissive “sure, sure” when Tom protests and implies that there is something to Hagen’s ideas of eliminating the “old-fashioned lecture.”

Nabokov was surely familiar with such debates during his time as professor at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is the same debate we are having today, sixty years later. Whatever position you might have on this question, keep in mind that it is not a new debate, and there may be reasons why changes advocated by the Hagens of the world were not so quick coming.

Excerpt from chapter 6 of V. Nabokov’s Pnin, 1957 (character descriptions given in brackets):

At a still later stage of the party, certain rearrangements had again taken place. In a corner of the davenport, bored Clements [philosophy professor] was flipping through an album of Flemish Masterpieces that Victor [son of Pnin's ex-wife] had been given by his mother and had left with Pnin [Timofey Pnin]. Joan [Clements's wife] sat on a footstool, at her husband’s knee, a plate of grapes in the lap of her wide skirt, wondering when would it be time to go without hurting Timofey’s feelings.

The others were listening to Hagen [German professor] discussing modern education:

“You may laugh,” he said, casting a sharp glance at Clements—who shook his head, denying the charge, and then passed the album to Joan, pointing out something in it that had suddenly provoked his glee.

“You may laugh, but I affirm that the only way to escape from the morass—just a drop, Timofey: that will do—is to lock up the student in a soundproof cell and eliminate the lecture room.”

“Yes, that’s it,” said Joan to her husband under her breath, handing the album back to him.

“I am glad you agree, Joan,” continued Hagen. “However, I have been called an enfant terrible for expounding this theory, and perhaps you will not go on agreeing so easily when you hear me out. Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal …”

“But the personality of the lecturer,” said Margaret Thayer [wife of English professor Roy Thayer]. “Surely that counts for something.”

“It does not!” shouted Hagen. “That is the tragedy! Who, for example, wants him”—he pointed to radiant Pnin—“who wants his personality? Nobody! They will reject Timofey’s wonderful personality without a quaver. The world wants a machine, not a Timofey.”

“One could have Timofey televised,” said Clements.

“Oh, I would love that,” said Joan, beaming at her host, and Betty nodded vigorously. Pnin bowed deeply to them with an “I-am-disarmed” spreading of both hands.

“And what do you think of my controversial plan?” asked Hagen of Thomas [anthropology professor].

“I can tell you what Tom thinks,” said Clements, still contemplating the same picture in the book that lay open on his knees. “Tom thinks that the best method of teaching anything is to rely on discussion in class, which means letting twenty young blockheads and two cocky neurotics discuss for fifty minutes something that neither their teacher nor they know. Now, for the last three months,” he went on, without any logical transition, “I have been looking for this picture, and here it is. The publisher of my new book on the Philosophy of Gesture wants a portrait of me, and Joan and I knew we had seen somewhere a stunning likeness by an Old Master but could not even recall his period. Well, here it is, here it is. The only retouching needed would be the addition of a sport shirt and the deletion of this warrior’s hand.”

“I must really protest,” began Thomas.

Clements passed the open book to Margaret Thayer, and she burst out laughing.

“I must protest, Laurence [Clements],” said Tom. “A relaxed discussion in an atmosphere of broad generalizations is a more realistic approach to education than the old-fashioned formal lecture.”

“Sure, sure,” said Clements.


Categories: Education

Factors that determine success in learning

August 26, 2014 Comments off

It’s the start of the new academic year and many first-year university students will find that they must sharpen their study skills to be successful in demanding majors. I came across an edition of “Student Success” by Walter and Siebert which gives excellent advice to those who wish to “succeed in college and still have time for [their] friends.”

In their survey of the research literature they found ten factors that students should know when attempting to learn and remember new material:

  1. “Information can’t be remembered when it isn’t learned well.”
  2. “Recognizing the material read is not the same as learning for recall. Recognition is the easiest learning; recall, the most difficult.”
  3. “You don’t learn or retain information well if you are distracted. Noise, television, music, and people talking all divert part of your brain’s attention from what you are studying. Being preoccupied or worried can also distract you from learning and remembering.”
  4. “Information does not transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory without effort, repetition, and practice.”
  5. “Your memory of information lasts longer when learning is spread out over a period of time.”
  6. “Your ability to remember information drops very sharply following the learning. Although the main points of a morning lecture may be recalled while talking to a friend at lunch, much of what was learned will be forgotten two weeks later. Only a small percentage of information is retained if you do not use it or practice relearning it.”
  7. “Trying to learn too much information too fast interferes with accurate recall. The nervous system needs time to assimilate new learning before taking in more.”
  8. “Information recently learned will be interfered with by similar information learned soon after. This is a process called retroactive inhibition, in which you have difficulty recalling new information too similar to other new information.”
  9. “When you have an emotional dislike for the material being learned, you will have difficulty recalling it objectively and accurately.”
  10. “Learning and remembering are less efficient when you lack interest in the material or motivation to learn.”

In addition to knowing what it takes to learn and remember new material, they also state that active time management is a key to success. Here are a few of the questions they pose that one should answer “yes” to in order to increase the odds of success:

  • “Have I outlined a weekly study schedule for myself?”
  • “Do I write out and follow daily time schedules?”
  • “Is my study free of distractions?”
  • “Do I avoid studying one subject too long?”
  • “Do I record my progress at achieving study goals?”
  • “When I achieve study goals, do I reward myself?”

Good luck students in the new academic year!


T. Walter, A. Siebert. Student Success, 5th edition. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.

Categories: Education

Precision electroweak analysis after the Higgs boson discovery

June 24, 2014 Comments off

Released on the arXiv [arXiv:1406.6070]:

Authors: James D. Wells, Zhengkang Zhang

Title: Precision Electroweak Analysis after the Higgs Boson Discovery

Abstract: Until recently precision electroweak computations were fundamentally uncertain due to lack of knowledge about the existence of the Standard Model Higgs boson and its mass. For this reason substantial calculational machinery had to be carried along for each calculation that changed the Higgs boson mass and other parameters of the Standard Model. Now that the Higgs boson is discovered and its mass is known to within a percent, we are able to compute reliable semi-analytic expansions of electroweak observables. We present results of those computations in the form of expansion formulae. In addition to the convenience of having these expressions, we show how the approach makes investigating new physics contributions to precision electroweak observables much easier.

Categories: Particle Physics

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