The Lecturer's Tale

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.

March 8, 2005

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.


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