A couple of years ago, a book appeared which might as well have had the title The Pedagogy of Zaniness. (Let's just call it that, to avoid giving it any more publicity.) The author was an academic; but more, he was also one wacky dude. And by following his instructions, you, too, could be a wacky dude, or dudette, as the case may be.
His argument was simplicity itself. To break through the wall of sullen indifference in a classroom full of students expecting to be entertained, professors ought to learn to tell jokes, make knowing references to contemporary pop culture, adopt the prevailing slang, and in general cultivate an ironic detachment from their own authority - as if much too hip to take "taking things seriously" all that seriously.
It is possible that the author gave tips on what to wear and how to rap. I did not get that far in the book before dropping it with a shudder of disgust.
Now, any competent teacher learns that you do what you gotta do to square the demands of presenting the course material with the limitations of students' previous knowledge and existing cognitive skills. Whatever works is, ipso facto, good. But The Pedagogy of Zaniness went way beyond pragmatism. Its outlook was one of abject surrender to "the World of Total Entertainment," as Philip Roth once called contemporary American culture.
Perhaps the most important lasting effect that education can have is to instill a lasting sense of how much you will never know - but could, if you worked at it. But the instructional philosophy of Professor Yuckmeister boiled down to flattering kids for having watched a lot of TV. Maybe each class should end as the game shows once did, with the professor/host saying, "Don Pardo, tell them what they've won!" (Or "learned," if that is the word we really want.)
O brave new world, that has such edutainment coordinators in it!
Not everyone is celebrating the changes, of course. Last fall, The Midwest Quarterly published "Can We Discuss This? The Passing of the Lecture," by Stanley J. Solomon, who teaches film and literature at Iona College in New York. The journal itself isn't available online, though you can find out about subscribing to it via this quaint Web site.
Solomon's essay is, in part a lament for the days when he devoted "about seventy percent of the class period" to lecturing - with the firm sense that his "methodology provided students with materials the could not get from books accessible to them." But he now recognizes the error of his ways, thanks to "the determined efforts of various theorists, many of them administrators who had not actually taught much in a classroom, or at all, but had read a great deal." From them, he learned that lecturing is "another form of child abuse, aimed at nominal adults, of course, but still young people presumably subjugated and entrapped in an environment controlled by an authoritarian leader" -- leaving them no self-defense except "to fall asleep to escape the painful environment they have paid so dearly to join."
The author cites the recent pedagogical literature contra the lecture, making it clear that the idea of the traditional classroom as Foucauldian torture cell is, in fact, pretty much the received wisdom now, at least in some disciplines. (Probably more so in English and film studies than, say, microbiology or accounting.) For example, there is a recent British book called Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity by Ronald Barnett, who says that the formal lecture "keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturers and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond."
That oppressive rigidity has been replaced, writes Solomon, by the professor's more flexible role as "a discussion-leader, a questioner, a presiding organizer whose main task is to keep a discussion on track (not in itself an easy feat, but one that is manageable with experience)."
The abolition of lecturing is not simply a matter of meeting the expectation of students for whom the talk-show host is the embodiment of discursive authority. The old arrangement was hard on professors too, notes Solomon. It "required concentrated reading and annotation of primary texts, research into secondary sources to assimilate [them] into my materials, and an organizing plan" for each session in the classroom.
"The more I studied the advantages of discussion as a replacement for lecturing," recalls Solomon, "the more obvious the evidence of professional benefits appeared, simultaneously with a notable increase in my leisure reading and television watching." The age of the lecture is over. "Indeed," he writes, "the podium, the final resting place of lecture notes, and the little platform it used to stand on are relics of the passing hierarchical age."
Still, there might yet come a day when people want to revive the practice. If so, the best place to start might be with a lecture by the late Erving Goffman called, simply "The Lecture." It was first presented at the University of Michigan almost 30 years ago, and can be found in his last book, Forms of Talk (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981). Goffman was that rarest of birds, a sociologist who wrote with a minimum of jargon. And the fact that he often concentrated on the most routine sorts of interactions among people will sometimes leave readers with the sense that they aren't learning anything they hadn't already noticed.
But just as there is deceptive complexity, so there is such a thing as deceptive simplicity. The cumulative effect of reading very much of Goffman's work is that you discover just how many unstated but very exact rules govern even the most "informal" of human interactions. Looking up from Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, you return to your own everyday life like an anthropologist visiting a strange new culture.
In "The Lecture," Goffman did something a bit different. He analyzed, in effect, the presentation of self in academic life -- in particular, when a scholar is "holding the floor" in an auditorium. Most of his remarks pertain, not to classroom lecture, but to the sort of formal occasion when a university invites a distinguished person to give a presentation.
But some of Goffman's model applies just as well to the classroom lecture, r.i.p. He notes that a common experience of "joint tasks, theater performances, or conversations" is that people "get caught up and carried away into the special realm of being that can be generated by these engagements." And the audience of a lecture might become similarly engrossed. "However," he writes, "unlike games and staged plays, lectures must not be frankly presented as if engrossment were the controlling intent."
Take that, hipster doofus professor!
"Indeed," continues Goffman, "lectures draw on a precarious ideal: certainly the listerners are to be carried away so that time slips by, but because of the speaker's subject matter, not his antics' the subject matter is meant to have its own enduring claims upon the listeners apart from the felicities or infelicities of the presentation. A lecture, then, purports to take the audience right past the auditorium, the occasion, and the speaker into the subject matter upon which the lecture comments. So [the] lecturer is meant to be a performer, but not merely a performer."
All of which may be moot. Stanley Solomon's essay suggests that the art of the classroom lecture is disappearing -- and won't be missed. "That there was ever a time in history when students loved lectures," he writes, "especially those given in large lecture halls, seems so improbable a proposition that I cannot recall anyone venturing to make it, even in the old days, in recorded history or in literature."
Well, for what it is worth, let me testify a little, just for posterity. When I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, there was a professor who taught the basic course on European intellectual history from Descartes through (if memory serves) existentialism. It covered two semesters, and consisted almost entirely of lectures.
As if that were not authoritarian enough, the prof announced, on the first day of class, that every figure we would be studying was important -- and that, in short, we had no right to form an opinion of their work. "Some of what you are going to hear," he'd say, "might sound ridiculous to you, and you might think that means you don't have to take it seriously. That's because you don't know anything. Even if they are wrong, their mistakes are important, and you need to learn to understand why they thought the way they did."
He then went on to give lectures that were utterly (to use Goffman's term) engrossing. The hall was always packed. Besides the hundreds of students who took the class as an elective, there were people who showed up without enrolling. During the final lecture each semester, the audience spilled out into the hallway, and invariably gave him a standing ovation.
When the professor did not get tenure, a number of us were prepared to take over somebody's office in protest -- a gesture that he quietly discouraged. Since then, he has published at least three major works of scholarship; the last I heard, he had become the chairman of his department at another university.
This professor never made jokes. There was no "sharing." And he didn't pretend to respect our capacity for judgment -- only our capacity to develop one. (At least eventually, with serious effort.) He just taught like a man with a mission, totally unwilling to let our ignorance get in his way.
I remember the first time I was struck by the desire -- no, need -- to go back to school and study higher education. It had been two years since I graduated college with a degree in psychology, and I was going through the motions in the fourth job I had acquired and soon tired of. At this particular moment, however, I was sitting in a stuffy university gymnasium in Fort Collins, Colo., listening to my brother’s high school valedictorian talk about the promise of a college education, and the challenges and opportunities awaiting the soon-to-be graduates. Despite the speaker’s nervous and self-congratulatory prose, I found myself fighting back tears, and suppressing the uncomfortable lump of emotion rising in my throat: Her words were hitting home.
Not two weeks after attending that graduation ceremony, I was poring over graduate programs and course listings, and checking out university ratings in the latest U.S. News and World Report. I began studying for the GREs with a feverish pace, eagerly slipping out of the office at lunch time to memorize vocabulary words and mathematical equations printed on the back of unused business cards. The enthusiasm and engagement I had experienced in my college education courses came rushing back, and I found myself wondering how I had possibly strayed so far from exciting words and concepts like pedagogy, access, student development and educational opportunity. On the whole, I had found the business world lacking imagination and intellectual stimulation, and counted the months, weeks, days before I would begin my study at the University of California at Los Angeles.
My naïve anticipation of a graduate career characterized by intellectual curiosity and communal investigation into the promise and potential of the American system of higher education was dealt a blow the first day of class, when I learned that I was expected to turn in (the following week!) an outline of the research agenda I planned to pursue during my time at UCLA. A research agenda? Although I had some knowledge of the issues in postsecondary education from my undergraduate studies, I had expected the first year, or at least the first month, of my program to allow for a broad exploration of the ideas that define the study of higher education.
Boy, was I wrong. I soon learned that this field -- at least from what I could glean from my own and my colleagues’ experiences -- was less about a passionate engagement with ideas, and more about carving out a nice little piece of the scholarship pie: adding an independent variable here, a variation on a theory there, and hoping that someone will find your work to be worthy of publication in a refereed journal.
Although it initially saddened me, this understanding of what it really means to study higher education sunk in quickly, and like all good doctoral students, I closed my office door, defined my research questions, and set about writing articles and attending conferences. It didn’t even faze me when a professor stated that the “limitations section is the most important part of your dissertation.” It makes sense: A scholar must define exactly what she can and cannot explain. Findings, in the study of higher education, rarely go unqualified. Okay. But what, then, does it all mean? Can we ever truly say anything? I entered graduate school hoping for stimulating intellectual debates and passionate investigations into evocative and important topics. Yet more often than not during the past two years, I have lost the meaning in the minutiae.
This realization came to me as suddenly as the decision to go back to school, as I was sitting in my writing seminar on a beautiful spring afternoon. I had just finished reading aloud a few pages of my historical analysis of the student affairs profession when I realized that somewhere in my discussion of the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View, my mind had wandered. As I stared at the last neatly typed sentence, I wasn’t sure what I had said or if it had made sense to the other people in the room. My disorientation was exacerbated by a fellow student’s polite question: “This is well written, but I guess I don’t really understand the problem you are addressing.” I froze. It wasn’t that I couldn’t articulate contemporary issues faced by student affairs administrators, or present why I believed a historical analysis was appropriate; I just, at the moment, couldn’t see why any of it mattered.
Do all graduate students -- at some point in their studies -- hit a stage like this, when the work you’re doing feels so disconnected from the reasons you were compelled to join the field in the first place? Perhaps these feelings are natural: A mid-(doctoral) life crisis of sorts, and I should just push on through. But maybe there is something to them. In focusing on the particulars and the probable we, as scholars of higher education, can easily become separated from our passions. I don’t mean to come down too hard on the scholarly community; it can be scary to write honestly about our fundamental beliefs and values in a piece that will be publicly discussed or peer reviewed. Yet it saddens me that an 18-year old valedictorian could so powerfully reconnect me to the transformative possibilities inherent in a college education, and so often in my doctoral studies I find myself grasping for the very reasons I joined the field in the first place.
Graduate school can be an alienating place. Ostensibly we all returned to the academy because higher education means something to us -- for me it is a belief in education’s ability to empower students and transform lives; for others it may be a deeply felt conviction that academe can and should assist society in becoming more socially just. But these are not the ideas we focus on in our graduate studies; instead we are trained to dissect discourse, pare down problems, and limit our attention to what is manageable in a 20-page article or 15-minute presentation.
Perhaps this disengagement from the greater meaning occurs because we -- as a community of scholars -- are constrained by the very environment we hope to change. Academic life has a way of stripping from us what is most basic to our work. Faced with impending deadlines, it becomes convenient to see methodology as procedures for conducting research, rather than as guidelines for interpreting or understanding meaningful information. It becomes increasingly easy to accept that passions and inspirations detract from empirical analysis, because employing the two together -- while it may lead to greater insight -- is exhausting and time-consuming work.
And in our haste to build an attractive resume or achieve tenure, we so often focus on the doable, at the expense of what might be possible. Our whole system is set up to create knowledge in smaller, more manageable, and more incontrovertible pieces. Yet this way of thinking brings with it the possibility that we become disconnected from the very reasons why our findings are meaningful in the first place.
Is it possible to infuse our scholarly work with more meaning? I believe it is. We can incorporate our beliefs, passions and inspirations into our work. Indeed, I believe we have a responsibility to include these big ideas; without them our contributions to the literature reduce to isolated findings and distant, scholarly implications for future research. When our writing acknowledges and draws upon these notions, however, we breathe life into our results and vitalize their importance. And then, perhaps, our work will lead to even greater change in the academy.
I have yet to meet a scholar of higher education who lacks passion for his or her chosen field. Yet in our hurry to see the world in terms of research questions and methodological limitations, it is all too easy to become alienated from the very ideas that give meaning to the whole enterprise. We need to remember what inspired us do this work in the first place -- a passionate professor, a poignant passage, or even a valedictory speech given in a stuffy gymnasium -- and allow these muses to spark in our writing our fundamental beliefs about the power and potential of higher education.
This will not be easy, of course. Staying connected to our passions and inspirations is a constant and evolving process, and one that is often overshadowed by the myriad challenges and expectations that accompany academic life. Writing this article has been, for me, a powerful reconnection to my beliefs and reasons for entering this field, but I still struggle on a regular basis to connect these thoughts and ideas to the piles of paper that each day conquer another inch of space on my desk, or the list of deadlines, inked in red pen, that is pasted to the corner of my computer screen.
Yet as I sit in my office, watching rays of sun infiltrate the vertical blinds that are nearly ubiquitous in professorial offices across the country, and listening to the electric hum of a campus alive with students moving between classes, jobs, and extracurricular engagements, I am reminded again of my faith in our system of higher education… and also of the importance of remembering.
Carrie B. Kisker
Carrie B. Kisker is a doctoral student in higher education and organizational change at the University of California at Los Angeles.