Against the Solo Lecture

After spending four years as an undergraduate at a university, you grow to notice the inefficiencies of the university setting. Whether it’s due to catering to trustees, a political agenda, excess conformity to tradition, or some other factor, there is a lot of friction when it comes to making changes at universities.

Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of being in the university setting is the ability to hear highly intelligent and well-known speakers fairly frequently. This also serves as a positive externality of living near a university since many speaker events tend to be open to the public.

When bringing in outside speakers to universities, the most popular method of presenting their ideas is through a lecture. The speaker generally speaks at a podium for about an hour—sometimes accompanied by a PowerPoint (which is almost always a mistake)—and then takes questions for about fifteen minutes.

While this method can lead to an enlightening speech, it is less likely to do so than a setup that involves multiple speakers. When speakers give a lecture, they have a no-questions-asked hour of unaccountability. The frequent result is a speech that drags on for too long and/or lacks sound logic. Since most people struggle speaking publicly, a solo speech can be torturous for both the speaker and the audience. The Q&A, on the other hand, is often the most exciting part of the event because the speaker is finally held accountable. Why not make the whole event like the Q&A?

Just adding a single speaker can make a speaker event a lot better. Not only is the speaker held accountable, but he is also more likely to discuss novel topics introduced by the discussant. The problem with a lot of speakers is that they give the same speech repeatedly and, if you’ve read his works (or heard a past lecture), there simply isn’t much novelty to the speech itself (see: any talk by Thomas Friedman). The introduction of a discussant can generate such novelty by bringing a different perspective and questions that the speaker has not answered in the past.

I have to applaud Richard Dawkins for actively promoting discussions as opposed to monologues. The link above includes Dawkins’s fascinating discussion with Lawrence Krauss (Professor of Physics at Stanford). Even though Dawkins actually is an exceptionally talented public speaker and could get away with doing solo speeches, he recognizes that the benefits of an actual dialogue are enough to merit doing almost exclusively discussions.

Will this format become more widespread and take hold? I’m dubious. First, different departments and organizations at universities are often endowed with a certain amount of money to bring in keynote speakers. It is obviously cheaper to pay for one speaker than two discussants. The result is that the structure of funding emphasizes bringing in an individual keynote speaker. Second, while it’d be excellent if education were the only goal of these speaker events, the fact is that it’s not. Organizations that host the speaker events want high attendance and publicity. Why spend scarce resources inviting Lawrence Krauss when Richard Dawkins alone will get you just as much attendance and publicity? Third, some speakers don’t like to be held accountable. It’s easy to give the same speech repeatedly so why force yourself to think by agreeing to a discussion? Of course, discussions do occur, particularly moderated panel discussions (which are generally not as educational as two-person conversations for a variety of reasons) but they simply are—and probably will continue to be—underprovided.

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] popular book tours. Josh might have something to say about that, given its promotion of the solo lecture. Meanwhile, in this week’s New Yorker, Gladwell reviews a new book by Chris Anderson of […]


  2. […] some kind of research or independent study period, followed by another 40-minute period. Josh has already identified the shortcomings of the “solo lecture,” so it makes little sense to expand the school day by simply devoting more time to them. The only […]


  3. […] Third, more can be taught and written. We type faster than we write, in some cases a LOT faster. When handwriting essays, people can easily think of more to write than they had time to write. Typing helps to lessen this gap. Taking notes is also easier since they can be reorganized after class, which is especially important since most teachers are not good lecturers. […]


  4. […] Josh isn’t the only one against the (solo) lecture. […]


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