In Defense of Lecturing: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Vladimir Nabokov

Here is a recent article I wrote after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just published by the Athenaeum Review. Ginsburg credited this dexterity, and her understanding that language is more than a tool for communicating the semantic meaning, to the time she was an undergraduate at Cornell, where she attended the lectures by one of the greatest literary figures in the 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov.

Vladimir Nabokov writing at his desk, Cornell University, 1957. Photo: Cornell University Archives.

“Ginsburg was the first one to admit her debt to Nabokov’s teaching method, underscoring how illogical it is to condemn the inherently hierarchical and taste-based nature of lecturing. The currently fashionable assault on lecturing is at best a myopic fad, and at worst a case of closet schadenfreude. The basic claim behind the denigration of lecturing as a teaching method is that it is not sufficiently “student-oriented.” Students, we are told, learn better when they can relate to the material on a personal level. Clearly, the operating assumption here is that the material on offer is fundamentally boring, so that the only way to make it more digestible is to present everything through the prism of students’ “lived experience.” The classroom, then, becomes “an interactive learning space” and college professors turn into “learning facilitators.” Out with the lectures and in with the “active learning”! The next time an opponent of lecturing asserts the supposed superiority of “student-oriented” learning, it might be worth pondering whether an anti-meritocratic classroom dedicated to the safe space exchange of (certain) personal viewpoints and “lived experiences” inadvertently stunts the intellect of students, reaffirming whatever prejudices and superstitions they brought to the classroom in the first place.”