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.

Bogost on blogs

Here’s a wonderfully thoughtful post by Ian Bogost about the limitations of the blog as an intellectual tool, especially in academic contexts. This is an old theme of mine, so it’s nice to have someone pick up on it. Bogost writes,

Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining [“exhorting,” maybe?] them to “figure out what they are about in this new environment.” But the same is true for blogs and other forms of digital writing as well. We’re no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals. . . .

I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher’s native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?

I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work.

This is great stuff. Blogs are very poor tools for fostering genuine intellectual exchange, which is one reason why, increasingly, those exchanges happen for many on Twitter — despite the 140-character-at-a-time limit. We might ask why that is: Why do some many people prefer to exchange ideas on Twitter rather than on blogs? I don’t think it’s just laziness. And then we might ask another question: What might a tool look like that combines the best features of blogging and tweeting, while minimizing the flaws of both instruments?