The Lecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2013)

Questioning Lectures

The old-school lecture is taking a thumping. In a world where more and more of our experiences are web-based and disconnected from location and time, the idea that we would find it logical to get students together in a single location at a specific time to hear a presentation seems increasingly odd.

“Imagine”, Donald Clark writes, “if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That’s face-to-face lectures for you: it’s that stupid.”

Others focus more on the instructional value of lectures — regardless of the role of technology. Graham Gibbs:

“More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.”

So why do we hang on to lectures?

Explanations of the persistence of lectures point to the usual suspects: the challenge of introducing new instructional strategies, the dictates of the physical space, class size, the time required to use more interactive instructional experiences, and more.

Privileging the Original and One-of-a-Kind

One factor that we haven’t considered, to my knowledge, focuses on lectures are “original” and “one of a kind” and, in a sense, pre-industrial.

The majority of information we engage with in the 21st century is packaged and recorded. Music, journalism, fiction (screen and print), etc. Yet, it wasn’t too long ago - in historical terms - that we shifted from one of a kind, live events. Stories were told by grandparents. Dramatic performances were performed on stages before audiences. Music was performed at the pub. You get the idea.

But technology made it easier to reproduce cultural artefacts and to distribute to an ever-wider audience. This, in turn, led to an appreciation of the difference between original or one-of-a-kind artefacts and reproductions. The difference between the original and copy, if you will, became part of our language and way of understanding the world. The original is valued a great deal more than the reproduction. This fundamental distinction is realized in similar ways across different areas of society:

  • One-of-a-kind artisan crafts v mass manufactured “crafts”

  • Live music performances v recordings

  • Paintings v photographic reproductions

  • Haute couture fashion v “pret a porter” (or ready-to-wear)

The increased capacity to make reproductions, according to theorists like Walter Benjamin of The Frankfurt School, served to reconfigure the meaning and value of both the original and the copy. The presence of ubiquitous copies can weaken the value of the original, but it still maintains a privileged status. The original has an “aura”. (See “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, 1936.)

In this context, we can understand the shift from lectures to online higher education as not merely a migration from one instructional model to another, but also a shift from a one-time, “original”, live event to a recorded and reproducible event or object. As with art and other cultural artefacts and practices, the original is privileged.

The distinctions often reveal themselves through language; the choice of words and the metaphors we use. Defenders of the lecture, like Mark Edmundson, for example, tell us that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” The lecture, Abigail Walthausen explains, “is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at.”

Clay Shirky rightly notes that defenders of the lecture assume that face-to-face education is the only “real” education — everything else is a facsimile, at best. (Shirky proposed The MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” when questioning the value of MOOCs.)

Given that we tend to privilege live/original experiences, it is understandable that academics would celebrate the live educational format — and want to protect their place within it. There are few professions that involve strapping on a microphone and speaking to large groups of people — sometimes hundreds at a time — on a daily basis. Fewer occupations, still, provide - indeed, expect - the individual to offer their own unique perspective on a topic. (The sacred but often questioned link between teaching and research is key here.) I wouldn’t be the first to identify the link between the identity of the academic and the archetype of the lone artist — an individual working doggedly on a personal project before presenting it to the world.