Metaphors We Teach By

Just read Miya Tokumitsu’s piece in Jacobin about how we shouldn’t give up on the lecture. This is true. The lecture has a lot going for it. But lecture in a vacuum has very little going for it. Nobody wants to attend a lecture because it is a lecture. People want to attend engaging, stimulating events where they feel their presence matters. Without this contextualization, no form of educational method will mean anything to the attendees. This is missed in the essay when she elides between two or three different forms of lecturing as if they were all the same thing — early modern lectures, contemporary college course lectures, and lectures in the public or for organizations or institutions such as museums and bookstores.

These three forms of lecturing all happen within different contexts. The lecture takes on meaning and value due to the role it plays within the situation its in and, most importantly, the master metaphor that the participants feel governs the grammar and meaning of the event. In the early modern period, as Chad Wellmon has pointed out in his book Organizing Enlightenment, the “man of letters” was the agreed upon source of knowledge. We could say the metaphor of the lecture here is that the lecture is knowledge-through-performance. The lecturer is providing knowledge by demonstrating that he has read all of the published books on a subject. This was possible in the early modern period, but starts to fall apart when it’s no longer possible to even catalogue the number of books coming out on a topic let alone read them all thoroughly. Reading and writing one’s own assessment of key books became the new marker of knowledge — the German Ph.D., which is still with us, for now.

The contemporary college classroom lecture is seen as in opposition to mobile and computer technologies which are faster and better than the low-band, real-time lecture often given by someone who is derivative to the expert in the field who can be accessed on YouTube or through open courseware sites. This is in contrast to the public lecture, which is an event where the in-person is special, a unique event where everyone feels that being in the presence of the voice of the expert matters. They come for stimulation via knowledge, as opposed to the college classroom where the lecture is a ritual performance for certification.

It’s not important to create false dichotomies between lectures, group projects, flipped classrooms, and the like. The most important question is what is college supposed to be like? Crafting the metaphor for the classroom is the most important thing you can think about. Once the metaphor is set, lectures are neither good nor bad, they take a role within the metaphor.

One of the most important works ever written about dialogue was framed by metaphor. David Bohm approached dialogue using the metaphor of photons, arguing that within politics, people are like photons, going every which way. But if you could focus them, like a laser, you could cut through anything. This metaphor transformed the relationship between politics and dialogue.

So what is being in class like? What is it supposed to be? Every instructor should start here. Methods of teaching are not useful unless you can figure out what teaching is meant to be.

If the classroom is a shop, a customer service center, or the like, then lecturing seems pretty bad if it disappoints the customer. But if the classroom is a laboratory, then lecturing can be the principal investigator’s framing of the research the lab is engaged in, and what experiments the other researchers are going to run.

If the metaphor is that the classroom is a community, then the starting point might be to determine when and who should be allowed to address the community. What are the reasons that someone should be given time to speak to all of us, collectively? And what roles do the others have?

Any discussion of the form of a teaching method such as “lecture” or “seminar” trades off with attention that should be paid to the central question, “Who are these students, and what are we all doing here?” That question will set in motion a number of practices that defy the traditional definitions of lecture, exam, paper, or what have you as they take their roles as elements in a community, a community of practitioners who would like to improve their knowledge and wind up becoming better through an intense relationship with knowledge, one governed by the careful teacher who thinks metaphorically.

The metaphor I often find myself thinking about is encounter — it’s something that brings up images of the wilderness and encountering one another wandering in the woods. We traverse the wilderness together for a few miles, learning the land and sharing our knowledge of the plants and trees. Sometimes there’s a lecture, more often there’s communication. Communication about what we are doing and what we should be doing, what something might mean — a sign in the woods — and what we should do in accordance with it. After a while, our journey ends, and although a few might stick around longer than others, most go back into the trees to wander toward their next encounter. Hopefully our ability to move through the forest has improved in some way due to our interaction.

This works for me, but doesn’t for everyone. The biggest trick to avoid is the false dichotomy or false choice that can happen — do we have a neoliberal classroom or not? Do we have a technology-free classroom or not? Such questions do not permit the instructor his or her central role, which is to set the stage, set up what the classroom “is like,” and ensure that this judgement governs the interactions, assignments, and activities across the term.

Without a governing metaphor, the classroom is just a classroom, and the script writes itself no matter how innovative your lecture might be. Using or banning a method won’t save education, but imagining what education is most like could bring a number of powerful methods to bear on the question of why we all gather in classrooms at certain times every week during a semester, and what that can mean for everyone involved.