Gilstrap, Martin and the definition of a lecture

A couple of weeks ago, I was reflecting on something written about lectures when I paraphrased a definition/description of the lecture. I paraphrased it as

A method for transferring the content of the lecturer’s paper to the paper of the students without it passing through the minds of either.

I’d forgotten the exact quote and certainly never had a reference.

In comments on that post, Ian Reid shared the following version and reference

“A lecture is a process in which information passes from the notes of the lecturer into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.” (Gilstrap & Martin, 1975)

Peter Albion shared his experience of first hearing this definition in the late 1960s.

So, the question was where did this definition/quote originate?

Gilstrap and Martin

As it happens, Amazon had used copies of Gilstrap and Martin (1975) going cheap, so I ordered one. The intent being to trace the quote back a bit further. Here’s what I found (Gilstrap and Martin, 1975, p. 7)

As has been said, the words of the teacher quite often do go into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.

Not exactly definitive.

An earlier source

Searching a bit further brings up this blog post which mentions Eric Mazur mentioning a similar quote (Mazur, 2009, p.??)

I once heard somebody describe the lecture method as a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either (3).

Where the reference to 3 is actually Huff (1954). That’s going back a bit further. As it happens there is a scanned version of Huff (1954) available online. With this version and the OCR abilities of Adobe Acrobat I can do a search of that book to reveal (Huff, 1954, p. 47)

It is all too reminiscent of an old definition of the lecture method of classroom instruction: a process by which the contents of the textbook of the instructor are transferred to the notebook of the student without passing through the heads of either party.

The context of this quote is in the examination of a number of flaws about how various findings are reported. In particular, how some phrases are taken uncritically. They aren’t picked apart further to determine what is said, or not said. The example to which the lecture quote is compared is a sentence from a magazine report

a new cold temper bath which triples the hardness of steel, from Westinghouse

Huff asks what exactly does this statement mean? Does any kind of steel become three times as hard once put through this bath? Or does the bath produce a particular type of steel that is three times as hard as any previous steel?

The quote has passed from the publicity release of Westinghouse and into the paper without it troubling the reporter’s mind.

The original source?

So, is this the original source of this quote. It looks like a good candidate. 1954 is fairly early and I’ve sighted the book.

But then there are other attributions such as this (and others) which ascribe the comment to R.K. Rathbun. Interestingly, I’m having trouble identifying Rathbun via Google. Am I showing my ignorance? Anyone help address my ignorance?


Gilstrap, R. L., & Martin, Wi. R. (1975). Current strategies for teachers: A resource for personalizing instruction. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear Publishing Company.

Huff, D. (1954). How to lie with statistics. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Mazur, E. (2009). Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51.

3 thoughts on “Gilstrap, Martin and the definition of a lecture

    1. Thanks for the further pointer. There seems to be some confirmation of your recollection in versions of his auto-biography online. So, a good step closer, if not there.

  1. I am also trying to find the source of the quote “College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either” attributed to Mark Twain but maybe it is not …

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