Littlewood on `the real point’ of lectures

We’re often challenged these days to defend the educational value of the lecture as opposed to other forms of delivery, especially with the restrictions on large lectures imposed by Covid-19. But this is not a new debate. The mathematician J.E. Littlewood felt necessary to defend the lecture as a medium of instruction (in the context of advanced mathematics) way back in 1926 in the Introduction to his book The Elements of the Theory of Real Functions.

(as quoted by G. Temple in his Inaugural Lecture as Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Oxford in 1954 “The Classic and Romantic in Natural Philosophy”.)

Temple concluded his lecture with:

Classic perfection should be reserved for the monograph: the successful lecture is almost inevitably a romantic adventure. It is at once the grandeur and misery of a scientific classic that it says the last word: it is the charm of a scientific romance that it utters the first word, and thus opens the windows on a new world.

Modern textbooks do try to be more user-friendly than perhaps they were in Littlewood’s day, and they aren’t always “complete and accurate” either, but I think Littlewood is right in pointing out that they do often hide `the real point’ so students sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees. The value of lectures is not in trying to deliver masses of detail but to point out the important bits.

It seems apt to mention that the things I remember best from my undergraduate lectures at Cambridge are not what’s in my lecture notes – most of which I still have, incidentally – but some of the asides made by the lectures. In particular I remember Peter Scheuer who taught Electrodynamics & Relativity talking about his first experience of radio astronomy. He didn’t like electronics at all and wasn’t sure radio astronomy was for him, but someone – possibly Martin Ryle – reassured him by saying “All you need to know in order to do this is Ohm’s Law. But you need to know it bloody well.”

5 Responses to “Littlewood on `the real point’ of lectures”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Indeed. I admire Feynman for turning down an offer from the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton because it didn’t include any teaching. They then tried to get him by offering a joint appointment with Princeton University, where he could teach, but then, in his Far Rockaway accent, he told them to get lost. 🙂

  2. I sincerely hope that a lasting outcome of the pandemic will be the death of the traditional lecture:

    There are so many better ways of using fifty minutes of a student’s time.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      There’s nothing special about a 50 minute “quantum”.

      The humour would be lost in translation, so here is the original: Man kann über alles reden, aber nicht über eine Stunde. 🙂

      We are too often locked into the idea that our course material has to be delivered in chunks that are just shy of an hour in length. Why not 20 minutes, or 10 minutes, or, indeed, 5 minutes, where necessary?

      That’s not the case everywhere. Some universities have substantially longer lectures.

    • telescoper Says:

      On one of my module questionnaires when I was at Sussex a student wrote “If I knew I only had an hour to live I would spend it at a lecture by Peter Coles… because it would seem like eternity”.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.

        —Marcel Achard

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