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Unformatted text preview: In Praise of Lectures T. W. K orner October 31, 2004 The Ibis was a sacred bird to the Egyptians and worshippers acquired merit by burying them with due ceremony. Unfortunately the number of worshippers greatly exceeded the number of birds dying of natural causes so the temples bred Ibises in order that they might be killed and and then properly buried. So far as many mathematics students are concerned university mathe- matics lectures follow the same pattern. For these students attendance at lectures has a magical rather than a real significance. They attend lectures regularly (religiously, as one might say) taking care to sit as far from the lecturer as possible (it is not good to attract the attention of little under- stood but powerful forces) and take complete notes. Some lecturers give out the notes at such speed (often aided by the technological equivalent of the Tibetan prayer wheel an overhead projector) that the congregation is fully occupied but most fail in this task. The gaps left empty are filled by the more antisocial elements with surreptitious (or not so surreptitious) conversation 1 , reading of newspapers and so on whilst the remainder doodle or daydream. The notes of the lecture are then kept untouched until the holidays or, more usually, the week before the exams when they are carefully highlighted with day-glow yellow pens (a process known as revision). When more than 50% of the notes have been highlighted, revision is said to be complete, the magical power of the notes is exhausted and they are carefully placed in a file never to be consulted again. (Sometimes the notes are ceremonially burnt at the end of the students university career thereby giving a vivid demonstration of the value placed on the academic side of fifteen years of education.) 1 A lecture is a public performance like a concert or a theatrical event. Television allows channel hopping and conversation. At public performances, private conversation, however interesting to the participants, distracts the rest of the audience from the matter in hand. It must be added that just as good eaters make good cooks so good audiences make for good lectures. A lecturer will give a better lecture to a quiet and attentive audience than to a noisy and inattentive one. 1 Many students would say that there is an element of caricature in my description. They would agree that the lectures they attend are incompre- hensible and boring but claim that they have to come to find out what is going to be examined. However, even if this was the case, they would still be behaving irrationally. The invention of the Xerox machine means that only one student need attend each lecture the remainder being freed for organised games, social events and so on 2 . Nor would this student need to take very extensive notes since everything done in the lecture is better done in the textbooks....
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- Fall '08