The Professor’s Lecture Notes Go Straight to the Students’ Lecture Notes

Mark Twain? Edwin E. Slosson? Harry Lloyd Miller? Professor Rathburn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain is credited with a very funny description of college lectures. For some teachers and students I think this quotation is accurate:

College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.

I would like to use this statement in an academic paper, but I have not found a proper reference. Could you explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence connecting this saying to Mark Twain. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in a 1927 book titled “Creative Learning and Teaching” by educator Harry Lloyd Miller which contained a version mentioning fountain pens [HMCL]:

In the inimitable phrasing of Slosson, “Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

QI believes that “Slosson” probably referred to Edwin Emery Slosson, a scientist, editor, and author. QI has been unable to find a statement in his corpus that closely matched the quotation. However, top-notch searcher Dan Goncharoff did locate precursor passages in Slosson’s 1910 book “Great American Universities” that were thematically similar. For example, the following excerpt emphasized the replication of a lecture without understanding [ESGU]:

As it is, the professors give too many lectures and the students listen to too many. Or pretend to; really they do not listen, however attentive and orderly they may be. The bell rings and a troop of tired-looking boys, followed perhaps by a larger number of meek-eyed girls, file into the classroom, sit down, remove the expressions from their faces, open their notebooks on the broad chair arms, and receive. It is about as inspiring an audience as a roomful of phonographs holding up their brass trumpets. They reproduce the lecture in recitations like the phonograph, mechanically and faithfully, but with the tempo and timbre so changed that the speaker would like to disown his remarks if he could.

The next excerpt humorously alluded to the curious theory of the pineal gland held by the famous mathematician and philosopher René Descartes who “regarded it as the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed” [RDSE]. The pineal gland is a small organ near the center of the brain. Slosson contended that students were duplicating lecture material in their notebooks without thinking about it [ESGU]:

They take it down. The secret is that they have, without knowing anything about physiological psychology, devised an automatic cut-off which goes into operation as they open their notebooks and short-circuits the train of thought from the ear directly to the hand, without its having to pass through the pineal gland or wherever the soul may be at the time residing and holding court.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1927 a version of the saying was printed in a periodical about municipal government, and the words were attributed to an anonymous cynic [NRWM]:

Some cynic has averred that the lecture method is one in which words pass from the lips of the instructor to the notebook of the student without going through the heads of either. In lectures the student’s thinking is done largely for him by the lecturer or by the text-book writer who presents the material in predigested form. There are exceptional lecturers, of course, but they are as rare as spendthrifts in Scotland.

In 1928 the saying appeared in chapter one of a text about education by Edward Randall Maguire. The attribution and wording were nearly identical to the version given in Harry Lloyd Miller’s book. Interestingly, Miller wrote the introduction to Maguire’s work [GSHL]:

Lecturing has been defined by Slosson in his happy phrase as that mysterious process by which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrumentation of the fountain-pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.

In March 1929 “The American Journal of Nursing” printed a version similar to one immediately above, but the words were ascribed to “a University of Michigan student” [JNEF].

In January 1931 a Texas newspaper printed a version without attribution in an article titled “Worth a Smile” [BDWS]:

“What are these ‘college lectures’ you mention?” wrote the father.
“A college lecture,” replied the son, “is an extended series of remarks passing from the notebook of the professor to the notebook of the student without entering the thought of either.”

In April 1931 syndicated columnist Rex Beach offered an unattributed version [RBSD]:

Who was it who defined a college lecture as a process by which the contents of a professor’s notebook are transferred by mechanical means to a student’s notebook without passing through the mind of either?

In 1939 the saying was ascribed to a Californian professor in a statistics journal, but this is a relatively late date [JSRS]:

The limitations and deficiencies of the lecture method need not be detailed. Professor Rathburn of Stanford University exhausted the topic when he declared: “A lecture is a process whereby the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.”

In 1943 the inveterate joke and quotation collector Evan Esar presented this anonymous definition [ECDL]:

lecture. A talk by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the students, without passing through the minds of either.

On June 26, 2012 an article was posted on the TED blog about “Massive online education” that included a version of the expression credited to quotation magnet Mark Twain [TDMT]:

Are universities obsolete? Mark Twain thought so, writing, “College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence Edwin E. Slosson was the first person to receive credit for the saying, and he was the first to write thematically similar passages. But there is no direct evidence yet that he wrote one of the clever and concise versions of the quip. Harry Lloyd Miller wrote a fine version in 1927, but he credited Slosson.

(Thanks to Xavier Laurent whose query inspired QI to formulate this question and motivated this exploration.)

[HMCL] 1927, Creative Learning and Teaching by Harry Lloyd Miller, Quote Page 120, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (HathiTrust full view) link  link

[ESGU] 1910, Great American Universities by Edwin E. Slosson, Quote Page 520, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) [Thanks also to Stephen Goranson who linked the quote to Edwin E. Slosson] link

[RDSE] 2011 Summer, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes and the Pineal Gland by Gert-Jan Lokhorst, CSLI: Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, Stanford, California. (Accessed plato.stanford.edu on August 17 2012) link

[NRWM] 1927 May, National Municipal Review, Volume 16, Number 5, The Case Method of Instruction in Municipal Government by William B. Munro, Start Page 314, Quote Page 314, Column 1, National Municipal League, New York. (Internet Archive) link

[GSHL] 1928, The Group-Study Plan: A Teaching Technic Based on Pupil Participation by Edward Randall Maguire, [With Introduction by Harry Lloyd Miller], Quote Page 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (HathiTrust full view) link  link

[JNEF] 1929 March, The American Journal of Nursing, Volume 29, Number 3, Cooperation in Education by Edith Foster Flint, Start Page 317, Quote Page 318, Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (JSTOR) link

[BDWS] 1931 January 28, Bonham Daily Favorite, Worth a Smile, Page 2, Column 5, Bonham, Texas. (Google News Archive)

[RBSD] 1931 April 17, Evening Tribune, Son of the Gods by Rex Beach, Page 14 [GNB Page 31], Column 1, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)

[JSRS] 1939 December, Journal of the American Statistical Association  Volume 34, Number 208, On an Experiment in the Teaching of Statistics by Jerome B. Cohen and John M. Firestone, Start Page 714, Quote Page 714, Published by American Statistical Association. (JSTOR) link

[ECDL] 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Page 161, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[TDMT] 2012 June 26, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, [TED Conferences: Technology, Entertainment, Design], Massive online education: Daphne Koller at TEDGlobal 2012. (Accessed at blog.ted.com on August 17, 2012) link