Saturday, 2 November 2013

A lecture on the lecture

I bet you any money that, 300,000 years ago on the plains of the African savanna, one of our ancestors turned to another one and said: ‘You know what, it’s just not been the same since we discovered fire. I wish we could go back to the good old days of eating raw meat and being freezing all the time.’

You see, nostalgia is an omnivorous and universal human urge. The belief that things are not as good as they used to be seems to be hard-wired into our brains. Not mine, though. I like progress: email, texting, Powerpoint, all that stuff. It only bothers me when people think these things can somehow substitute for human contact and connection.
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s recent report on the future of universities, An Avalanche is Coming, argued that ‘when lectures can now so easily and cheaply be recorded and downloaded, the value of the live performance becomes more questionable still. Students recognise this and the result is the proliferation of viral videos that challenge the status of the lecture.’ This is a view increasingly held within universities, with moves towards podcasting and video ‘capture’ of lectures. Nowadays lecture theatres are so arranged that the lecture console is at the side and it won’t get in the way of the data projector. The Powerpoint presentation is thus supposed to be the main attraction and the lecturer is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a desk working all the levers and buttons. Perhaps in the future we will be replaced by those audioanimatronic figures they have at Disney World.

It’s odd, because my experience is that students actually quite like having a living, breathing, talking human being in front of them. And beyond universities, the rise of literary festivals and the global TED movement suggests that people will still turn up and pay to hear someone speak. Why on earth would they do this when they could just download the ‘content’ – one of the abstract nouns of our times - on to their tablets? Perhaps because we are social animals, and not just rational-choice consumers?

The best lectures are are not simply reducible to downloadable digital ‘content’, because they are always partly improvised and thus exist only in the moment - although few would go as far as Wittgenstein, who did no preparation at all and said ‘that once he had tried to lecture from notes but was disgusted with the result; the thoughts that came out were “stale,” or, as he put it to another friend, the words looked like “corpses” when he began to read them.’ (David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, p. 146)

The best lectures are also full of what the Elizabethans called ‘lively turning’ – strange juxtapositions, leaps of thought, rhetorical tricks, jokes and the element of surprise. Of course, this is inseparable from risk. You might be ensorcelled by the lecturer’s weaving together of words – or you might be a bit bored. The touching thing is how polite audiences are in lectures, even if they are uninterested. ‘Never, at a literary event,’ Clive James once wrote, ‘have I ever seen even one person rise from the audience and say, “This is too boring to bear.’” Audience members very rarely walk out, and they even try to refrain from openly yawning, or looking at their watches too brazenly. It’s quite sweet, really, this collective agreement to sit still and behave as if all this really matters.

I suspect some of us will carry on lecturing to an empty room, even when we have been told that our lame jokes and bullet points are being downloaded directly from our brains on to mobile devices. Margaret Drabble once gave a lecture in which she told a sad story about Angus Wilson who, when old and in poor health, would sometimes rise from his bed at night with a start and hurriedly collect a pile of papers, saying he had to ‘go to give a lecture’. His partner Tony Garrett would eventually reassure him that there was no lecture to be given, and he would be persuaded to go back to sleep.

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