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May 28, 2009 - 9:59am



I rail against distance learning, laptops in classrooms, PowerPoint, and other trends toward too much technology in university life, yet yesterday I made an audition lecture cd for the Teaching Company.

If the sample audiences around the country to whom TC will now send it like UD's lecture, she'll prepare a TC lecture series. Instead of lecturing to fifty or so people every semester, she'll have an audience that spans the nation. She'll become a distance instructor. Big time.

How to wrestle her way clear of this hypocrisy?

Well, how about this:

Universities are one thing, and companies that make educational videos and disks are another. Throughout her years of blogging about universities, UD's been arguing for the survival of four years of liberal arts education on a campus set apart - physically, metaphysically - from the world of the streets. Professors dwarfed by PowerPoints, students invisible behind laptops, destroy the immediacy of human interaction, the give and take of spontaneous, attentive discourse that challenges and changes you in college.

Universities that move more and more toward downloaded stuff and in-house distance learning units betray their fundamental responsibility as universities to be the unique place in the culture where our full capacities -- public and physical as much as private and mental -- are engaged in the dynamic setting of the classroom. However good it is, distance learning will never be as good as proximity learning -- learning that takes place with other living, breathing beings close to you, with whom you press an issue, embody thought's passion, generate the energy of conflict and complexity.

The university has given you - professor, student - the removed setting in which to express this immediate intellectual activity. How perverse to disdain that setting and stick your nose in your slides and your screens...

But most people are not in a university, and have no plans to be there. The impulse toward enlightening yourself transcends one's university years, and it's fitting that other forms of education, non-university education, exist to respond to that impulse. Yet watching UD talk, in a Washington studio, about how to write well will never be as good as being with her, week after week, in a classroom - challenging her, watching her fuck up, having her get all excited and spit on you while she speaks, laughing at her and seeing what effect that has, running your berserker theory about metaphor by her and getting her riled, etc., etc.

The classroom's unplanned to a large extent. That's the best thing about it. I mean, lesson plans, yes. To be sure. But they're a framework. They exist as something you depart from in the interest of free-ranging inquiry. If UD gets to do Teaching Company lectures, they'll be beautifully sculpted by many careful hands. There will certainly be some spontaneity on her part, some departure from a script, but for the most part this form of instruction will indeed be instruction -- a profoundly valuable thing, but not the same as the experience our universities were established to provide.


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