For many arts students, lectures are a running joke; no one goes to them and they’re pointless when you do go. I say this as somebody, for the entirety of my second year, went to an average of one lecture a term. I justified this to myself with a series of increasingly elaborate statements of how well I was using my time outside of lectures, with student journalism, mental health and passable essays all featuring.
But the fact that I could write passable essays without attending lectures is a weakness of the Cambridge system, not a strength. It allows teaching to diverge massively, both in content and in quality, and encourages students to pigeon-hole themselves.
We don’t need the Tompkins table to know that there are massive divergences in teaching in Cambridge; students at certain colleges are given far more contact hours than at others, while some students get PhD candidates for supervisors, while others get emeritus professors. To some extent, this is an inherent part of the Cambridge collegiate system, but lectures provide a unique equalising opportunity. We can get all students in a course, in one place and ensure that they at least start in one place, even if they don’t end up in one.
Lectures also ensure that students actually see all of their course, rather than the narrow selection they get supervised and examined on. Too often in Arts subjects, we pick the eight topics we’ll write essays on and then couldn’t care less about the rest of the course. By attending lectures, we could gain connections between our individual essays. All to often, context is all that is needed for all the pieces of a subject to fall into place. We would actually understand our subject much more – and this would surely be reflected in results.Medics are required to attend lectures for this very reason, other subjects should be held to the same standard.
A common complaint against lectures is that it often feels like lecturers aren’t even trying, and that people don’t connect with it as a teaching style. Too often, the solution to this is simply not to attend them. However, if lectures were compulsory, students could pressure on lecturers, to make them worth both our time and our money. By not attending lectures, we give faculties an excuse not to focus on them, rather than make them worthwhile.
Lectures can similarly ensure that students take our subject seriously. Although extra-curriculars can be useful and a great deal more fun than lectures, getting sucked into them does not necessarily make the best student. A lack of contact hours engenders a ‘race to the bottom’, where we see how little work we can get away with. A mandatory morning’s work outside of college would provide structure to our week and ensure that even the most exhaustive of procrastinators would be tied down to do some work.
Lectures do not have to be the weakest part of the Cambridge curriculum; they have the capacity to be central.
Read the first half of our debate on whether lectures should be compulsory here.