On the Unrecognizable

If one has been following news in higher education, one has noted discussions about “lectures”: good or bad, useful or not useful, boring or interesting. The topic is polarizing, so it seems. On the one side, those “lazy” students who want to be “entertained.” On the other, the “earnest” teachers who “must lecture” to “impart knowledge,” because they have “prepared powerpoints.” And, anyway, today’s students need to work on their “attention spans” and teaching is not “entertaining.” And so on.

I read these accounts with a slight frown. That becomes more pronounced.

I learned how to listen to lectures in my junior and senior years as an undergrad. A skill I refined as a grad student. I had to learn how to listen to a lecture: it was not something that came easily. I think this is important: while many instructors need to learn how to lecture, students also need to be taught how to listen to lectures.

I find most lectures (and lecturers) boring. I pass notes. Play on my iPad. Write poetry. Google. And only look up when certain key words are mentioned: food, sex, Africa, family, women, men, gender, food, and sex. Occasionally, I catch a preposition. I have never understood why pedagogy needs to be boring. I have never understood why listening to a boring lecture is supposed to enrich my life or how. I don’t really buy that being bored is “good for me.” And I am quite aware that I have probably missed very many profound things in the world because I did not have the patience to be bored. I’m willing to pay this price.

Simply, I side with students who complain lectures are boring.

But this, I add, is because I’m in a discipline that allows me not to lecture. I do not like lecturing. I am not good at it. Like any other person with an advanced degree, I can talk at people for a good length of time, and I can even perform an entertaining conference paper—I actually take great pride in performing conference papers; I have a method. I perform lectures, when I must, for my peers, that is, for people who have been trained to sit through lectures. Rarely, if ever, for undergraduates. Every time I talk for more than 6 minutes in a classroom, I feel the irresistible urge to apologize.

But this, I emphasize, is because I’m in a discipline that allows me not to lecture. And so much as I pay attention to debates on the merits (or not) of lectures, I don’t recognize myself in them. Which is not to say that folks in English do not lecture. Of course they do. And many very successfully.

Regrettably, we use “lectures” to include all forms of pedagogy, which is a problem. (I sidestep the question of what percentage of university instructors and disciplines favor lectures.) The distracted student will be distracted, whether sitting in a large lecture hall of 300 students or in a seminar room of 12. I have taught this student and I have been this student. The student who finds everything boring will still find everything boring, no matter how many group work exercises, trips to exotic museums, or visits to candy factories the instructor plans. One of my favorite teachers had us stand on desks while we were reading Gertrude Stein! It was amazing! Not so much for those who already hated Stein. (Why would anyone hate Stein?)

Being a student requires committing to be interested. And this is something that very real economic, social, and cultural pressures cannot force. I feel bad for the many students who are forced to attend classes they don’t like to be certified as workers, rarely as thinkers. Our rhetoric about the “value” of being curious and asking big questions is rarely matched by our attention to comma splices and sentence fragments—I’m not against writing well, but we in English can focus on small, petty elements in ways that do not matter. An attention to detail matters, but that detail should itself matter. I’m not a fan of the idea that education is like cod liver oil—good for you.

I’m committed to the idea that education cultivates and sustains interest. Sometimes, that interest will emerge from a deep cultural or political commitment: the raced, classed, gendered, religious student whose areas of focus draw from that background. The pre-med major, for instance, who focuses on research based on her particular geo-history—the African student in the U.S. who studies jiggers, for instance, or Kwashiorkor. Sometimes interest springs from a commitment to deracination—I ran as far as I could from African literature for a very long time into the welcome texts of Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and Susan Howe. Not the Russians. Never the Russians. They are too Kenyan for my taste. Of course, our histories have ways of catching up with us and after many years of drinking coffee, I am now back to black tea. But interest also has rhythms—it waxes and wanes, and expecting students to read a 600-page novel over spring break is simply cruel. Assign a ten-line poem. At least you can read it in class several times when you get back to school. And you can avoid being mad at each other.

While I’m happy and ready to defend “what we do,” I’m less willing to defend our habits, what Kenneth Burke described as “trained incapacity.” Those who say lectures have worked for the past x years and so should be respected as methods of delivery worry me; not because they don’t have a point—they very well might. But because any defense of the present that begins from “if it worked in the past” seems determined to disengage from the present. Our now can never be our then, even though, as Stein teaches in “Composition as Explanation,” we are more comfortable in our then than we are in our now.