on the history of lectures

This is going to be an off-on-a-tangent post, but anyway…. I was reading this typically smart post by Ian Bogost on the idea of the “flipped classroom” and the right and wrong ways to think about it, and my eye was caught by this passage:

More recently, Duke professor Cathy Davidson has reminded us that the lecture-style classroom is itself a product of industrialism, a tool meant to train students to sit quietly and conform to a single set of processes and ideas. No matter the learning content deployed in a classroom, its form embraces a disciplinary practice purpose-built for the factory or corporation who might later hire its compliant graduates. Given the collapse of industrialism and the rise of the knowledge economy, Davidson advocates for a more process-oriented, distributed, and exploratory method of learning more suited to today’s post-industrial age.

I followed that link and I’m not sure that’s precisely what Davidson says there, but I’ve heard a lot of people say something like it: for instance, that the rise of the classroom lecture is linked to Taylorism and other late-modern products of the cult of efficiency.

But is that true? Is lecture-based teaching a relatively recent phenomenon? In the strict sense, certainly not: there was a great deal of lecturing in medieval universities, for instance, as was perhaps inevitable given the shortage of books. (Advanced students had to acquire dialectical skills also, of course.) But how, for instance, did Augustine of Hippo teach rhetoric, when he was in that business, and how had he learned it as a student? And in the famous Chinese imperial examination system, how were students typically prepared for taking the exams?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and right now don’t have time to pursue them. Maybe lectures always happen when there are considerably more students than teachers — something that can happen in any society, not just in industrialized ones. One day I’ll find out.

Rortyan hacking

Cathy Davidson:

A “hack” is a reconfiguration or reprogramming of a system to function in a way different than that built into it but its owner, designer, or administrator. The term can run the gamut from a clever or quick fix to a messy (kludgy) temporary solution that no one’s happy with. It can refer to ingenuity and innovation — or sinister practices that border on the criminal. We hope to avoid the kludge and don’t plan on breaking any laws. But reprograming traditional learning institutions so they function in a different, more original, and more efficient way than is intended by current owners and administrators? Sign me up!When David Theo Goldberg and I came up with our incendiary definition of “institution” as a “mobilizing network,” deconstructing the very solidity and uniformity of “institution” by emphasizing the potential for unruliness among its constituent members, we were hacking the institution.

Cathy Davidson has some good ideas at times, but heavens! — the self-regard is pretty thick. Saying that you’re going to define “institution” as a “mobilizing network” — not actually doing anything, but just choosing in your own conversations with people you already know to redefine a term — is “incendiary”? And is “hacking”?I blame Richard Rorty, because it was Rorty who argued (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and elsewhere) that the chief task of philosophy is not to make iron-clad arguments but to redescribe the world. “The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior.”Nice work if you can get it, because this “method” never asks you to change how you live one iota. all you have to do is talk, and leave “appropriate forms of nonlinguistic behavior” to the “rising generation.” So all Cathy Davidson and Theo Goldberg have to do is to say “an institution is a mobilizing network,” and Shazam! — the university is incendiarily hacked.It’s always good in this context to note Umberto Eco’s account, in Kant and the Platypus, of a debate he had with Rorty on these matters:

Rorty also alluded to the right we would have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with. . . . A screwdriver can serve also to oen a parcel (given that it is an instrument with a cutting point, easy to use in order to exert force on something resistant); but it is inadvisable to use it for rummaging about in your ear, precisely because it is sharp and too long to allow the hand to control the action requires for such a delicate operation; and so it would be better to use not a screwdriver but a light stick with a wad of cotton at its tip.

Words may not be particularly resistant to redescription, especially if you’re among like-minded people; but screwdrivers and institutions (such as the university) and other things are much more recalcitrant. Genuinely hacking them is harder and riskier, which makes it tempting to follow the safer route of redescription. Leave the hard labor of tangible change for the “rising generation.”
As for me, I’m putting more trust in the alt-ac crew to actually, you know, do things differently.