On teaching as authority and mediation

In its fourth chapter, the Chicago Handbook for Teachers (2nd edition) advises the following when lecturing:

“Speak loudly and forcefully, both to ensure that everyone in the room can hear you and so that you do not seem tentative or unsure…Look directly at your audience as much as possible…be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way…Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one kind of statement to another…And finish on time.” (43)

Overall, the above advice leaves the following impressions:

  1. For the purposes of teaching, it is best that the teacher be both knowledgeable and confident. But if the teacher is lacking in either of these areas, feigned confidence is on the whole preferable to candid disclosure of one’s weakness.[1]
  2. A skilled lecturer ought to be able to control his environment. This is partially achieved through the speaker’s ability to make his presence known through voice[2] and through eye contact.[3]
  3. Though the pace of the lecture may change slightly,[4] the overall mode of presentation should be grave.[5]
  4. The lecture must have a beginning, a body, and an end, fit into the confines of the time allotted. There must be a kairological unity not only to the semester, but also to the individual lecture units that make up a semester.

The authors conclude the above section with the following two maxims:

  1. “In the end, however, the success of a lecture depends on its content, and on your ability to deliver it convincingly.” (45)
  2. “The only things that all lecturers have in common are being clear and articulate, being organized, and being engaged.” (45)

This implies the following:

  1. A lecture is divisible into two components: content and presentation. The content will have its own draw: the lecturer is responsible for the presentation of that content.
  2. The job of the lecturer is to “convince” his students. More adequately, the lecturer serves as a medium whereby the content itself convinces the student.
  3. As a consequence of this intermediary role, the lecturer must retain an element of invisibility: he must be “clear”. The ability of a lecturer to fulfill his function depends on his ability to fit well within this hierarchy: he must be “organized,” not merely in the sense of being well prepared, but more than this, to be well prepared to fulfill one’s role within the systematic transfer of knowledge—i.e. to be “organized” in the sense of being oneself in one’s right hierarchical place.[6]

On the whole, these statements place the lecturer in a tendentious position: the lecturer, qua mediator, tends teleologically towards his anonymity: the role of the lecturer is self-effacing in the face of the knowledge it seeks to communicate. Thus, in an age of the immediate transferability of any kind of knowledge, even the best lecturer can be viewed not so much as a medium as a barrier to knowledge. The lecturer’s ability to serve adequately depends on the keeping in place of certain material conditions. But as technology demures from these conditions—e.g. microphones ensure that audiences can be larger, and media such as YouTube allows a lecturer a certain ubiquity vis-a-vis his audience—the lecturer’s job security and relative importance catches up with the self-effacing nature of the vocation itself. Thus, the peculiar importance of the lecturer as a mediator of knowledge is denied more and more as other avenues of information exchange open up. This can lead to anxiety and/or loneliness.

On the other hand, the lecturer is, in different sense, opaque: his personal life must remain largely hidden to his students,[7] and even his pedagogical ability is occasionally obscured in order to maintain a position of authority.[8] Thus, while the lecturer is anonymous from the standpoint of the knowledge conveyed, he is fully present in his ability to control the flow of the lecture through rhetorical force—i.e. through his ability to deliver information “convincingly.” Thus, the lecturer’s sense of self-importance is often not composite with the self-effacing telos of his office. This misconstrued relationship can lead to resentment of students, colleagues, and/or “the system.”

If one seeks an academic career, one must instead find a way to navigate this tension between knowledge and force, rhetoric and invisibility. How this is to be done depends on understanding the lecturer as both mediator and authority.

[1] One ought not to “seem tentative or unsure,” even if one, in fact, is.

[2] “Speak loudly and forcefully.”

[3] “Look directly at your audience as much as possible.”

[4] “Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one statement to another”

[5] “Be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way.” By “grave” I do not mean “deathly serious,” nor do I intend anything about one’s comportment while lecturing. Rather, the word is taken here as recommending a slow but sharp cadence in speech, more reminiscent of Roman gravitas than English gravity.

[6] The hierarchy of knowledge alluded to here is not identical to the institutional hierarchy of the university itself. What is alluded to here is that the teacher’s role as mediator between knowledge and the student.

[7] “Do not…allow a lecture to become the occasion for elaborate explorations of your personal history” (44)

[8] “You can obscure a great deal of your own anxiety simply by speaking emphatically and clearly” (43).

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