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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On the loss of unity in contemporary life

One of the dominant characteristics of contemporary life is the dissolution of every form and grade of unity, from the banal to the sublime: with the move of music culture from large record labels and mass radio to self-produced artists and iPods, visual media from basic cable to YouTube, news from print to the blog, retail resources from overblown chains to smaller niche markets and online shopping, the passive homogeny of top-down commercial culture is giving way to a wide array of choices given to each individual singularly; the rapidity of international travel, the increasing ease of immigrating between developed countries, and the peculiar phenomenon of a trans-national culture of multi-culturalism wither away at the sense of national identity once accorded to a people by being citizens of a given state; the hierarchical arrangement of the sciences and the subordination of those sciences to broadly humanistic ideals in the University is ever giving way to a stratified system of autonomous and distinct disciplines thinly tied together by the goal of constantly proliferating new information; the coherence once given to a people by a common religion is no longer normative, and the void left thereby is largely filled by means entirely subservient to the individual—e.g. art as a form of self-expression, self-help psychology, and religion-free “spirituality.”

This loss of unity is present in philosophy specifically in manifold ways: the dissolution of continental philosophy in practice into a multiplicity of Weltanschauung philosophies, each dictated by the needs/whims of a niche audience; the dissolution of analytic philosophy into various sub-disciplines, often with different methodologies, unrelated goals, and radically different assumptions in the mainstream work done in those disciplines; the absence of works written in the last 50 years fitting into a philosophical canon not for specialists of some philosophical sub-discipline, but for all philosophers; the proliferation of “philosophy of” and “meta” disciplines as a means of buttressing the independence of the disciplines that they purport to treat; the replacement of the substantial unity of the book by the journal article qua contribution to the chaotic whirlwind called “the literature”; the rapid proliferation of different systems of logic leading to a de facto pluralism about what constitutes correct thinking.

The Common factor in each of the above

In each of the above cases, advances in technology have served as a material condition for the changes mentioned: the invention of the internet, advances in commerce, the growth of the university, etc. have removed impediments and thus made these changes possible. But technology is not the cause of these changes (except materially, and therefore equivocally).

Rather, considered finally, each of the above changes can be viewed as subservient to the augmentation of the freedom of each individual qua thinker, where freedom is defined as non-compulsion, and thought as self-expression—that is, a pure activity.

This is why soliloquy is becoming a more normative form of speech: witness the blog, the status post, the comment in online media.

This is why the metaphor of thinking as a game, with all the indifference implied thereby, is now an apt one.

This is why the breakdown of the paradigms of modern thought will likely not give way to a new unified philosophical tradition, as, for instance, the breakdown of Aristotelianism gave way to Cartesianism at the dawn of modernity.

This is why contemporary philosophy takes place in an environment in which very little is, in fact, compelling: not because the arguments are malformed or based on faulty or vague intuitions (though they often are); but because compulsion presupposes a passivity that is altogether foreign to the braggadocio of contemporary thinking.

This is why publishing practices in philosophy today prefer novelty to depth.

And this is why, while the waning of the theoretical ends of classical philosophy are reflected in the closing of many—especially liberal arts-oriented—philosophy programs, philosophers survive more and more in a transformed state by subordinating themselves to the practical goals of other disciplines: in so-called experimental philosophy; in business ethics institutes and medical programs; in the development of formal systems of logic as tools both for everyday thinking and for computational systems, and in the task of culture and creed construction for political think tanks.

In short, the loss of unity both within and outside of philosophy is consequent upon the absolute subordination of thinking qua self-assertion to the cause of the freedom of the individual. In a sense writ (very) large, I shall like to call this complex liberalism; if one seeks a further qualification, I shall call it monadological liberalism, in order to distinguish it from its incomplete[1] Lockean counterpart.  Liberalism is the cause of the fragmentation of the modern world.

Some problems reflexively posed for philosophical writing by this fact.

            The most serious problem posed for writing about this phenomenon is the self-reinforcing character of liberalism itself.

Self-reinforcement is not unique to liberalism: witness the skeptic who takes the refutation of his position as further support for it; or the religious pluralist/syncretist, who can only encounter the object of his interest as supporting his own superficial spirit of tolerance, in spite of the repugnance of that spirit to nearly every creed he may encounter.

This self-reinforcement occurs in multiple ways, of which the following are the most immediate. First, the provincialism of different philosophical sub-disciplines serves as a preventative measure against the emergence of a thinking that can alter this status quo; the fragmentation of philosophy into sub-disciplines makes it unfit to receive truth that transcends those disciplines and their characteristic concerns. Second, on the off chance that a thinker of substance does arise, any set of formulae advanced by that individual can be glibly absorbed as the doctrine of a thinker, from which a shallow discourse can be constructed about “n‘s theory of x,” or a school of adherents to this teacher’s doctrine, “n-ists” can be assembled: this a posteriori attribution diverts attention away from the real matter in that thinker’s thinking, and devalues every possible philosophical insight by giving it the prima facie label of an opinion. Third, when an insight is absorbed, it is only so absorbed as a possibility—that is, in accordance with a teleology that makes every philosophical stance purely optional.

This state of affairs has the consequence that any philosophical thinking done under its auspices is effectively sterile until it is itself understood and addressed.


[1] While Locke’s liberalism, along with those liberalisms descending directly from him (e.g. that of the US founding fathers), contains the above mentioned negative definition of freedom, it does not augment it with a clarification of thinking. This was first achieved via Leibniz’s clarification of the Cartesian cogito as a kind of force (see his New System of Nature).  Leibniz’s philosophy served to synthesize two different traditions of Cartesianism: 1) it augmented the philosophy of Newton and Locke by showing the impossibility of explaining the existence of separate, individuated unities by recourse to material atomism; 2) Against Spinoza, it regained the possibility of a formalist answer to the problem of unity while rejecting Spinoza’s monism/pantheism. This is important to the current state of philosophical research because major shifts in the organization of society over the past 100 years have proceeded along exactly parallel lines: Liberalism of a purely negative character lacked the ability to give unity and direction to human activity; hence, various forms of totalitarianism arose; since the widespread revolt against these movements, liberalism has co-opted what made them attractive by being transformed into a creed positively aimed at the maximization of the freedom of the individual, and not merely directed at curbing violations of freedom. Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz: affirmation, negation, synthesis.