lecturing, bodily presence, neoliberalism

In general I’m in favor of the idea of defending the lecture, but this piece in Jacobin by Miya Tokumitsu blurs some useful distinctions.

Tokumitsu’s argument that the common critique of academic lecturing amounts to an unwitting prop for neoliberalism — “The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics” — is, first of all, surely the ne plus ultra of the Jacobin ethos. And it’s not on the face of it a convincing claim. But when you read through the essay you discover that Tokumitsu isn’t primarily interested in defending the lecture — her chief subject is quite other than what she says it is.

Here’s a key passage:

The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.

The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.

One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolation during the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.

“Oh,” I thought when I got to this part of the essay, “this isn’t about lectures at all, this is about going to class.” See the full paragraph that first brings neoliberalism into the story:

The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.

But lectures are only one of several reasons students “convene regularly”: they do so for labs and discussion-based classes too. So when Tokumitsu writes,

But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

— I think, yes, indeed, but all this happens in discussion-based classes too.

So Tokumitsu consistently confuses two phenomena that are conceptually distinct, even if they sometimes are blurred in practice:

1) The critique of the residential college that advocates for its replacement by online learning;

2) The critique of the lecture that advocates for its replacement by other ways of using class time — e.g., the flipped classroom model.

The latter argument assumes that students will “convene regularly” and will be bodily present to and with one another while engaging in collective learning; it just argues that lectures are a poor use of that shared space and time. The former argument is more radical in that it dismisses the need for bodily presence and instead celebrates individual learning and, occasionally, the use of digital communications media to connect people to one another. If you’re going to get anything out of Tokumitsu’s essay, you’ll need to realize that sometimes she’s responding to the first argument and sometimes to the second; and that it’s only the first that can with any plausibility be connected to neoliberalism as Tokumitsu understands it.

More on lecturing in another post.

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.