How to Listen to a Lecture

Many books have been written about how to read, but relatively few lectures are given about how to listen to a lecture. Whether the reader recognizes it or not, reading a book about how to read has an unsettlingly recursive quality to it, particularly if the writer is pointing out the ambiguities in a given text. Does the same critique apply to the book addressing the problem of reading? One never knows.

Giving a lecture about listening to a lecture has a similarly unsettling quality to it. Does what I say about listening apply to this lecture now? It is for you to decide.


Lectures vs. Texts

Someone might just say that the writer about reading has implicitly addressed listening as well. However, I think that is mistaken. We need to distinguish between lectures and texts. Obviously, I could write down everything I say, and you could simply read it. But there are some differences between reading a text, even if you write exactly the same words that you say in the lecture itself:

A. In a text, you can go back and forth. You can look at the ending. You can skim forward over sections that are less inter­esting, and find the parts that are relevant to you. You can read over something that you don't understand. On the face of it, the text seems superior. In a lecture, you must listen in a linear fashion. You can't find out the ending before you get there. You can ask the person to repeat what they just said, but the lecture would break down if everyone dealt with the speaker in just the same way as they did with a text. People do not backtrack with a speaker as much as they do in reading.

But is the text really superior in this regard? The text presents something to you all at once, while the lecture gives it to you a bit at a time. The text, therefore, is related to space (which is there for us "all at once"), while the lecture is related to time (which is there for us "a bit at a time"). Space is symmetrical; time is not. The lecture forces us into a differ­ent mental attitude than does a text. Verbal things happen temporally, while written things happen spatially.


B. In a lecture, you can rely on all sorts of non-verbal signals to interpret the material. You can decide whether the speaker is interested in the material or not, by the way he or she stands, holds his or her arms, etc. You can decide what is important by the lecturer's vocal inflection and emphasis. Of course, you could also underline things in a text, but the occurrence of verbal "under­lining", at least for a good speaker, is much more common than for a text. Underlining too much in a text is dis­tracting, while in a lecture it is not so distracting.


C. Lectures are (at best) more interactive than texts. You can ask questions, ask for clarification, ask for examples, interject objections. Even in the most formal of lectures, you usually have at the end a question period, in which everyone tries to impress everyone else with their erudition and depth. Texts resist being questioned in the same way (although at best, texts demand response from us even as we demand information from them).

So, lectures are social events in ways that texts are not. And that leads to another point --


D. In a lecture, you are open to being influenced by others listening to the lecture. Lectures really are social events. If everyone else is bored, you are more likely to be bored. If there is a combative spirit between various people in the room, it affects your ability to hear and understand the lecture. If everyone is favourably disposed toward the lecturer, that makes a difference.

Good lecturers know this, of course. They will try to create the social conditions suitable for learning. That may mean convincing the listeners of the lecturer's own authority or ability. It may mean creating an atmosphere of co-operation instead of confrontation in the room, making people feel like their contribution is important and valuable.

So, a lecture is not just the delivering of intellectual material or information, but the creating of a social situation in which under­standing can occur.


Listening vs. Delivering Lectures

If you go to a public speaking class, you are trained in speaking -- delivering material in an interesting, provocative manner. Teachers (except, notoriously, for university teachers) go to teacher's college to learn to teach. But there really are few courses you go to that teach you to listen to a lecture. Courses for new university students may help in taking notes, but little is said about the process of understanding the lecture.

You might think that the two processes (making lectures and listening to them) are essentially the same. If you know how to give a lecture, that should make you a good listener. But that is not necessarily the case. As anyone that lectures for a living knows, listening to a lecture can easily get confused with critiquing the struc­ture or procedure. The homiletics student is often the most critical listener to a preacher, because that student has been trained in technique.

So, the trained lecturer listening to someone else must bracket off or ignore his or her training in order to get the full benefit of the lecture. The more the listener notices about the struc­ture, the less he or she is prepared to understand what the lecturer is trying to convey.

And, of course, the one preparing the lecture proceeds in an entirely different manner than the listener. The preparer may start with the conclusion, and work backward. He or she may have a unifying concept in mind, and go looking for interesting ways of conveying that concept.

The point is this: delivering a lecture and listening to a lecture are two different processes. Understanding how to listen is different than the lecturer simply filling you in on the process used to construct the lecture. If the lecturer told you, "My point is to talk about interpretation, and the means I used was to talk about listening to lectures", that does not necessar­ily enable you to understand the lecture itself.


Taking Notes

So, a lecture is not like a text, and listening to a lecture is not like giving one. What does that mean for understanding? Let's consider one hallmark of understanding a lecture -- taking notes.

Some of the most famous notes of all time are the texts we have of Aristotle's. They are almost all "esoteric" texts, which means that they were meant for students within the Lyceum. Aristotle also had "exoteric" texts, meant for the general public, but they are all lost.

The esoteric texts are student notes. They are a distilla­tion of Aristotle's own lectures. You can tell -- they attempt to retain the formal structure of arguments, without much ornamenta­tion.

These notes are fairly representitive of students notes through the centuries. Students attempt to distill the meaning of the lecture. But of course, most people cannot write down every word the lecturer says, especially if the speaker talks fast. So, the student must make choices. This makes lectures different from reading texts as well. You can photocopy a text, and skim it; if you record a lecture, it is difficult to get the information quickly. Most people, even if they record a lecture, still take notes (or take notes from the recording later), whereas if you photocopy a text, you can just underline a few salient points.

Now, the question is this: how does the student decide what to write down? Students often like when the lecturer gives lists. Lists have obvious structure. But many topics (like philosophy) do not lend themselves to lists, particularly if there is a lot of discussion in class. People come out of class having enjoyed the exchange of views, but if you ask them what they learned, they may not know. In fact, sometimes the amount of notes taken is inversely propor­tional to the value of the class. I remember classes in which I took very few notes, but learned an enormous amount.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. People might also not take notes if they didn't understand a word that was said. Or, people might not take notes if they think the material will not be on the exam. Or, they might not take notes if the material is irrelevant to their lives. Or, they may not take notes if the material is so basic that it is obvious. Have you taken any notes this class? If not, which category do you fit into?

It might be a helpful, some people might think, if the lecturer simply distilled the points down to one or two central con­cepts, and dispensed with all the tangents, illustrations, ruminations, and the rest of the baggage of lecturing. It would be nice to just get a sense of the intention of the lecturer, in unvarnished form.

However, this is easier said than done. In fact, it may be impossible to do at all. Is understanding a lecture the same thing as figuring out what the lecturer wants you to know? How can we determine that intention? What is it to understand a lecture?


Understanding the lecture

Understanding the lecture is itself problemma­tic. For instance:

A. Point of View

You have to decide about the integrity of the lecturer. Of course, one might be tempted to say that it doesn't matter who delivers the material, you should judge the material on its own merit. An actor could deliver the material, and it wouldn't matter. One place I used to live had a government official who thought that we should have actors lecture, and get rid of those "foreigners" who couldn't speak English well.

But a little reflection will show that that simply isn't true. You make some prior decision about the reliability of the speaker. Under normal circumstances, we suppose that the speaker is reliable until proven otherwise. We write down what he or she says faithfully, unless the person manages to discredit him- or herself. How could this discreditation happen?

a. The speaker may turn out to not know the material very well. It may be that you can ask him or her questions, and he or she cannot answer them. In that case, people usually decide to view skepti­cally whatever is said. After all, if the person makes mistakes on basic material, how likely is it that he or she will get the more advanced stuff right?

b. The speaker may turn out to have a character flaw which negates the material. If, for instance, you know that the speaker is a member of the Aryan Nations or the Ku Klux Klan, you prob­ably will be very wary of what they present. Classic case: Phillipe Rushton. He did work that many considered to be racist, and he found that lecturing on almost anything was impossible. He finally resorted to lecturing on closed-circuit TV because of the palpable negativity toward him in class.

c. Maybe its not a character flaw. Maybe its just a difference of opinion. Maybe the speaker is of a different religious persua­sion. People may be interested in what the person says, but they are less likely to be open to being convinced.


The point is that there is a basic trust that most of us have in listening to a lecture, which leads us to believe the speaker unless there is good evidence not to. We tend to believe that the speaker is not out to willfully mislead the listener, and will tell the listener the pure, unvarnished truth.


But, deciding on the integrity of the lecturer may take another turn. Instead of supposing that the speaker is there to impart information to you, and it is your job to understand that information, you could suppose that the speaker is there to hide something from you. The lecture itself could be a front, a veneer over more sinister or dubious motives. How could this be?

a. Perhaps there is a gender issue at stake. Maybe everything that the lecturer says he believes is true, but maybe what he is saying is biassed by the fact he is a man. Maybe the lecturer himself is not conscious of this bias. This may be a bias toward who is called on to speak in class, who is affirmed and who is not. Or, it may have something to do with what counts as knowl­edge. Maybe the lecturer only allows for traditional "male" knowledge -- scientifi­cally verifiable, logical, objective knowledge. Maybe he dismisses the possibility of intuition. Maybe, on the other hand, a female lecturer has a basic assump­tion about men that excludes them from some discussion, or discounts their opinion.


b. Maybe there is a power issue. It could be that the explicit material is about hermeneutics, but the implicit reason for the lecture is for the lecturer to convince you how much he knows about philosophy. Maybe the point is to reinforce the idea that the professor is the fount of all knowledge, and the student must sit passively and take it in. The hierarchical relationship between the professor and the student is re-inforced with every brilliant distinction and observation made. The student feels more and more inferior, unable to think for themselves, in the light of such breathtaking knowledge.

The issue of power does not only run between lecturer and listener. It could be that the power that the lecturer wants to reinforce is the status quo. Maybe both the lecturer and the listeners are members of a privileged class. The lecturer may want to defend that privilege, and does so by avoiding certain issues.

Or, maybe the power issue is not that of reinforcing the status quo, but reinforcing some commonly held belief. You see this at some religious meetings. If you are a believer, you may find the statements of the preacher quite unproblemmatic. However, if you come in from the outside, you may find it amazing that certain issues are just brushed over or avoided altogether. It may seem to you that those are exactly the issues that need to be discussed. There are several big issues in churches these days (women's role in the church, homosexuality and the church, the heirarchy of the Catholic church, etc.), the answer to which may seem uncontroversial for members of the church, but for people outside, the answer is harder to accept.

And this is not limited to churches alone. Any group that has a strong belief in certain doctrines or interpretations of the world will exhibit the same "over­sights" in their exposition of doctrine. Marxists do it, femin­ists do it, capitalists do it. The question must be: what issues are being avoided, in favour of the "truth"?


c. Maybe the issue is one of desire. It could be that the lecturer's motive is to be liked, so he lectures in such a way that is entertaining. Perhaps he avoids tough issues. Maybe he is adept at sensing the popular (politically correct) position on some­thing, and is quick to adopt the "right" position.


d. Maybe the desire is more basic than that. Maybe it is sexual. Professors, after all, do not give up their sexual nature upon receiving their PhD's. It is not uncommon for students to be attracted to pro­fessors, not because the professor is intrinsically attractive, but because he or she is up front all the time, self-confident and in control. Ministers and priests get the same thing from their parishioners. It is no surprise that so many ministers (and for that matter professors) end up in scandal.

Freud long ago identified what he called "transference" -- the phenomenon that the patient would transfer his or her feel­ings toward someone else onto the therapist. That included feelings of sexual desire. Obviously, this is a powerful tool in the hands of an unscrupulous therapist, but it is not limited to a client-therapist relationship. If a person feels like they lack knowledge, that person may feel attracted toward someone he or she perceives as having a great deal of knowledge. And, the lecturer may know that, and play upon that attraction.


The question in all these cases should be this: What or who is being left out? What is the lecturer not saying? This is a key question in understanding. We think that we understand someone by what they say, but often we understand them more by what they are not saying.


Now, we have two basic attitudes we could take toward a lecturer. You can view the lecturer with trust, believing that he or she has something explicit to say and is trying to communicate it. You can, on the other hand, view the lecturer with suspicion, trying to determine what the unspoken root message is. And, to complicate things, you cannot finally decide between them. You can never show, finally and necessarily, that the lecturer does not have a hidden agenda. Nor can you finally decide that there is a hidden agenda after all. Why is this?


This is true because of the fact that the listener also comes to the lecturer with a set of presupposi­tions, expecta­tions, and possibly also a hidden agenda. Understanding the lecturer is in part deciding what kind of message that lecturer is sending, but it is also a matter of deciding what kind of position you, the listener, bring to the lecture. If, for instance, your world revolves around a particular religious position, you will under­stand the lecturer in those terms. The lecturer may be talking about science -- your question may be, "How does God fit into this discussion of biology?", or, more to the point, "Does this instructor believe in God?"

So, understanding a lecture is really a very difficult process. It is not just a matter of working out the lecturer's bias. The listener must also account for his or her own bias. And the significant question is this: Where does the instructor's agenda stop, and the listener's agenda start? Is there such a place at all? There are several possibilities: 

a) Does the listener's agenda take over entirely, so that under­standing the lecture is really just understanding the listener? Maybe the listener actually learns nothing he or she did not already know. Socrates and Augustine would love this. 

b) Do these two agendas meet somewhere, making communica­tion poss­ible? Is there some way of making these two positions coher­ent to each other? 

c) Or, does the lecturer's agenda hold force, and the listener is really just like an empty vessel, into which knowl­edge is poured?


The inability to decide between suspicion and trust does not necessarily undermine the lecture. There is what we might call "overdetermination". Perhaps trust is precluded by the possibil­ity of a hidden agenda, but suspicion is precluded by the antici­pation of new understanding that may come from the lecture.


B. Understanding the Lecture Process Itself.

The integrity, agenda, or point of view of the lecturer is not the only thing at issue in understanding the lecture. We must also deal with the question of the associations being made in the lecture. One of the things about lectures is that they are to a certain extent extempor­aneous. The lecturer pulls in ideas which didn't occur to him or her in preparation, but because of some other class he is teach­ing, or because of some recent experience, there will be a connection. Understanding means catching on to these connections. The reason most beginners do not understand philosophy very well is that they do not have the store of connections that make sense out of what is being dealt with.

So, understanding a lecture cannot simply be a matter of distilling an hour's discussion down to a few salient points. It may be that those points themselves are unintelligible without the discussion in which they are encased. The lecturer may well realize that the students do not have background in a particular area, and therefore to understand anything at all, there must be this presentation of context, association, and background.


But the associations are more complex than simply recogniz­ing the fact that some knowledge must already be present, in order for other knowledge to be communicated. The very concept of a "lecture" is part of the associations we make. A listener comes to a lecture with certain expectation, not just of the material, but of what exactly will happen, and how to respond in that situation. Lectures are unique. They are not like political speeches. The are not like sermons. They are not like the presen­tation of a scholarly paper. They are not like a bull session in the dorm about some issue. People have different expectations in these various places, and act differently based on what the context is. Exactly the same issue may be discussed in all these places, yet the presentation of the issue differs, and therefore the type of knowledge communicated differs.

For instance, when we talk about God in a church, the expectation is that we are there for spiritual benefit. The preacher may present an argument for the existence of God, and we may silently critique it on rational grounds, but we also realize that the preacher is pointing toward a spiritual reality that is more than just the God of the philosophers. The lecture may or may not have the same spiritual component, but we do not usually come to class with the expectation of spiritual renewal (this of course is not always the case, but the exceptions prove the rule).

Someone may present a scholarly paper on the concept of God. Again, there is no real expectation of spiritual renewal, but in the paper you have the sense that what is presented is "on the outer edges" of philosophical thought. Scholarly papers are not the place where someone outlines the traditional proofs for the existence of God. If the person addresses one of these proofs, we expect that they will do it in a novel, interesting manner. Lectures are notoriously non-novel. They are conservative, in the sense that the preference is given to the presentation of the way things are. Of course, this is sometimes questioned, but at least at the undergraduate level, this is not usually rigorously or extensively done. The lecturer may want the person to think in new ways, but "new" for the person just beginning philosophy may be very old hat to the trained philosopher.

Another contrast: the lecture is not like the bull session. While lectures may have time for discussion and dispute, in a bull session we expect that that is all that will happen. A bull session is a time for trying out one's dialectical wings. It is a discus­sion among equals. A lecture is not. Even if there is discussion, our tradition of lecturing (rightly or wrongly) has put the lecturer in the place of the authority. The topic in either place may be the same, on the face of it (the existence of God, for instance); however, the type of "knowledge" expected and obtained from the different structures is different.

We could go on with contrasts. There are some important points to draw from this, though:


1. Lecturing is a technology. It is a way of doing something, with the intent of producing a result. As with any technology, we have to ask about the way that reality is shaped by that technol­ogy. The naive view is just that we use certain devices and techniques to gain certain ends. We need better roads to get around; we come up with the technique to do this.

I say this is the naive view, because it ignores the fact that technology always shapes us at least as much as we shape it. Roads and cars are not just things to make our lives more con­venient. They also shape our cities, and even our very conscious­ness. Cars were once luxuries; now many consider them necess­ities. The world is a place of destinations since cars and highways. We tend less to think in terms of the steps along the way, and more in terms of the place to which we are going.

How is this relevant to lectures? Lectures shape our knowl­edge in certain ways. Knowledge is always communicated in some way, and that method of communication shapes what counts as knowledge. Television, for instance, purports to be neutral, to communicate anything equally. But it is quite clear that it is better at communicating some things over others. Bright colours work better on TV than complex, muted colours. TV is perfect for selling products, but terrible at portraying nature.


Lectures, too, present knowledge in a certain way: 

a. For one, lectures present knowledge as linear. It is in time. It does not come all at once. If knowledge is linear, it also means that it is progressive. That which comes before is needed for that which comes later, whether or not it is in fact necess­ary.
The metaphor for knowledge in lecturing is, then, very speci­fic. A lecture is the construction of knowledge. Knowledge does not come all at once (like intuition), but through a pro­cess. It is not found within, but comes from the outside.

b. It is mostly audi­tory -- in lectures, you speak. You may use visual aids, but they are aids to the spoken word. Some might claim that this means that the lecture is a throwback to an earlier age. It is, after all, one of the oldest forms of knowl­edge dissemina­tion. And, Marshall McLuhan would claim that knowledge in the modern age has taken on visual, non-linear forms. With the advent of print (visual lectures in space, not time), and later televi­sion, we come to conceive knowledge as a Gestalt, rather than a process of construction.

c. The structure of the room determines how knowledge is communi­cated. People tend to be facing one direction or focal point -- the lecturer.  Assumption: knowledge emanates from that place. Furthermore, this focus also means that attention in other directions is minimized. Not only does knowledge emanate from that place, it does not emanate from anywhere else.

d. Not only is knowledge assumed to emanate from one place, but knowledge is tied to the identity and competence of the speaker in a close manner. The writer may be no more than a name, but the speaker is before the audience, for better or worse. Thus, the rhetorical nature of lecturing is important in ways that some other forms of knowledge dissemination are not.

This has its positive and negative sides. There is always the danger of illegitimate pro-homine and ad-hominem arguments. The messenger becomes the message. But, on the other hand, there is a sense of responsibility here. It is worlds removed from the computer network, where you can say anything you want in anonym­ity. You can be anything you want. The result is often interest­ing, but not exactly trustworthy.

e. Lectures tend to rein­force the idea that knowledge is discur­sive. It happens as a result of a series of connected statements. This is as opposed to sound bites (which TV is so fond of), and on the other hand intuition (which is usually knowledge of the whole). So, lectures tend to be analytic. On the face of it, a lecture presents parts, and it is up to the student to create the whole.


Now of course, we can consciously combat aspects of this that we find unsuitable. We can use other methods in conjunction with lectures. We can change the structure of the room. We can use multimedia. But the point is that we are combatting the natural tendency.

In casting the technology of lecturing in a certain way, I do not want to imply that lecturing is bad. I simply want to point out that it has a certain way of casting knowledge.


2. Absence: Not only is lecturing a technology, it also exists in contrast to other methods of knowledge. Some of these have been listed. But in a sense, listening to a lecture is the absence of other forms of knowledge, as much as it is the presence of one particu­lar form.

i. To use an analogy that some of you have heard before: When we took our first drink of coffee ever, there is a sense in which we can say that before, we did not know what coffee was like, while after, we knew. This is true even if we had heard people talking about coffee, read things about coffee, even attended seminars on coffee. In a sense, the presence of the experience was needed to really know coffee. But in another sense, that presence of experience was possible only because of the absence of lots of other experiences. Upon the first taste of coffee, we realize that it is not like milk, not like Coke, more like tea but not quite. Other experiences, which are absent, are part of the coffee experience, and give us the knowledge.

The same is true about any form of knowledge dissemination. A lecture is not like all the other forms. The absence of those forms, as much as the presence of the lecture itself, contributes to our experience of the lecture.

ii. And there is another absence necessary -- the absence of knowl­edge itself. This is true in two ways. a) First, the lis­tener is assuming that there is knowledge missing that the lecturer can provide. The listener would not be there unless there was some sense of absence of knowledge. b) Second, there is the absence of assumed knowledge which makes the present knowl­edge understand­able.

iii. There is a third kind of absence, besides the absence of other knowledge-dissemination forms, and the absence of knowledge itself. There is also the absence of the "whole" story on any particular topic. A lecture is a creative and extended lie. The lecturer will systematically suppress opposing points of view, his or her own hesitations about the material, and other salient points. In a class on the introduction to philosophy, for instance, the lecturer may not tell the students everything there is to know about Descartes, or everything the lecturer knows about Descartes, or even all knowledge that is relevant to the student about Descartes. The point may be to introduce people to Descartes, and that may mean ignoring Descartes' views on mathe­matics, for instance, or his political views.

The result is that students go out of an introductory class thinking they have encountered Descartes, but they have really just encountered a version or a part of Descartes that fits with the lecturer's agenda.

But of course, this lie is an inevitable one. Even in a full course on Descartes, it is not possible to address all the issues that come up, that are connected with Descartes. It would involve, for one thing, studying an enormous amount of mediaeval and renaissance philosophy and history, to contextualize him. It would involve understanding how Cartesian thought has influenced later thought. Alfred North Whitehead said that Western philos­ophy is just a series of footnotes on Plato -- the same could have been said about anyone else.

And there is the problem -- to know anything, one must know everything. And, this is clearly impossible, if we suppose that that means adding up all the bits of knowledge, all the informa­tion about all possible angles on Descartes. If that is required, no one knows anything.


But maybe there is another way. Maybe knowing the whole (everything) is not a matter of adding up parts. Maybe it means having a method that tells us what counts as knowledge, and what is just information. Descartes himself would like that answer -- the correct method was integral to his search for the Archimedean point of knowledge, the cogito.

And yet -- why one method rather than another? To put it in terms of the lecture, why one system of understanding rather than another? Does the lecturer, instead of giving us information about Descartes, give us the method to understanding Descartes? Perhaps we have just substituted methods for information, and we still cannot know everything.

While the lecturer may be a liar, it is not clear that he or she has any choice in the matter. Consider the problem: The lecturer must communicate something of the whole to the student. Otherwise, the information delivered in the class has no context, and is chaotic. But how is that "whole" communicated? Through the partial form of language. So, knowledge of the whole comes through knowledge of the parts, and knowledge of the parts comes through knowledge of the whole. Where does one start?

So, the listener to the lecture has a problem. The lecture is, in some sense, purposefully partial, and because of that is a lie. But it is a necessary lie, both in the sense that it is unavoid­able, and in the sense that it is the only way to communi­cate knowledge. Choices have to be made because of our limita­tions.

If we know that something is a lie, we tend to not believe it. We are very sceptical. Maybe the lie is partially true, or is based on the truth, but it misleads somehow. Again we have gone from trust to suspicion, from supposing that the lecturer is imparting information to asking what the lecturer is leaving out. Except this time, maybe it has more of a sinister character to it. Being misled connotes intention. Knowing this, the listener must ask about the nature and extent of the deception.

But again there is ambiguity. Yes, the listener is being misled, and that should be cause for suspicion. But the mislead­ing is a necessary and inevitable part of knowledge dissemina­tion. There should at the same time be trust. Is this possible? We will consider if it is possible later.


3. Like all technology lecturing is social, and demands social responses. When a person comes to a lecture, he or she has some sense of how to behave and what to expect. That expectation or behaviour pattern may be changed in the course of the lecture, but that comes as a surprise. For instance, people come to a lecture assuming they are there to be quiet. Whispering in class is usually seen as a minor breach of etiquette. In other situ­ations, whisper­ing may be perfectly acceptable. The structure of the room usually reinforces this. People look forward, toward the focal point. Movement is not encouraged -- we usually have fairly confining desks or tables. There are only so many positions you can be in while listening to a lecture. Lying down, for instance, is not one of the prescribed positions.

But there is more than etiquette at stake here. Even as the car changed our way of understanding reality, and shaped a new reality for us, lectures do the same. The problem is that with cars, we have a recent past in which there were no cars, and we can compare the social differences. With lectures, there is no analogous recent past. Nonetheless, lectures do shape our real­ity, our conception of knowledge, and our social orientation toward it. For instance, lectures encourage us to think that knowledge is something to be passively absorbed. We think of ourselves as empty vessels, into which the lecturer pours infor­mation. We may get the sense that anything profound is acquired under the auspices of an intellectual. The social result can be passivity and laziness. People may, for instance, be tempted to just wait for the lecturer to tell them about the reading of the week, rather than trying to read it themselves.


But of course, all is not negative. Lectures also give us the sense that knowledge cannot be distilled to sound bites. Lectures can give us argument, history, context, dispute -- all things which some other forms of knowledge dissemination cannot do as well. The purpose here is not to say that lectures are a waste of time. The purpose is to recognize the particular form they give to knowledge itself.


C. The Speaker's Intentions

Tied to the question of the point of view, and to the question of how the lecture is structured, is the question of the speaker's intentions. It may seem that the point of listening to a lecture is to understand what the lecturer wants you to under­stand. This is reinforced by tests that ask you to regurgitate the lecture notes. But, as everyone knows, it is possible to go through that process without having actually understood much. So, what is it that the lecturer really wants?

Paradoxically, the lecturer may not want you to figure out his or her intentions at all. Maybe the point is not to figure out what the lecturer wants, but to make something new out of the knowledge presented. An example or two might make this clear.

It is useful to a certain extent when listening to music, to understand the life situation of the composer, the reasons for writing the piece, and so forth. But most composers would not be happy at all if the listener equated the aesthetic experience of the music with knowledge about the historical context of the music. While the writer might be trying to say something with the music, there is an important sense that the writer's intention is completely irrelevant to the experience of the music. The music itself should connect with the listener, speak to the listener. It is not the composer that is speaking, but the music itself. And perhaps the music will speak to the listener in ways that the composer never anticipated, or even explicitly tried to rule out. Perhaps in expressing something about freedom in music, the composer has communicated his or her own limitations of talent or bondage to convention. Perhaps in striving toward truth, the composer has distorted or covered truth.

Another example: that of the play. It could be that in seeing a play of Shakespeare's, we understand more about the human condition than perhaps even Shakespeare himself intended that we see. Perhaps we view the play as the English expression of humanity, and can be contrasted with, say Moliere's French vision. Maybe in our world that differs in so many ways from Shakespeare's, we see minor points that would have been inciden­tal to Shakespeare as major insights. In other words, the play has a life of its own. To simply ask what Shakespeare intended us to understand is to ignore the complex character of his work. Good art tends to be more holistic than didactic.

Now, someone might argue that all this is fine for music or the stage, but listening to a lecture is hardly an aesthetic experience. But is that necessarily true? A lecture can be a performance, with a script and an audience, as much as any play might be. In fact, we could stage a play which consisted of a lecture situ­ation. How would the lecture itself differ from the play? And, if Woody Allen can act in his movies, write them, and direct them, why couldn't the lecturer do the same?

When you witness a play, how do you evaluate it? By whether the knowledge contained in the play and communicated by the characters is true? To a certain extent, maybe, but there is much more. Plays are much more than communications of propositions, and to enjoy a play is much more than to agree with the things said. It is possible to enjoy the aesthetic experience of the play without agreeing with the intellectual message at all, or even understand­ing it.


The assumption in a lecture is that it is the imparting of knowledge. There has been an underlying metaphor, that of the active lecturer pouring knowledge into the passive listeners. But there are other possible metaphors:

1. Lecture as aesthetic experience. As pointed out, we could evaluate the whole lecture experience in the same way we would evaluate a play or a symphony. What are the implications?

a. We don't ask about truth and falsity in the same way. Plays are not propositionally true, they enable us to understand the world.

b. There is an important sense in which an aesthetic experi­ence (at least of a time-dependent art form like drama or music) can only be evaluated at the end of the production, once we have a sense of the whole. We may not understand or appreciate a charac­ter during a play, but afterwards we may admit that the character had to be the way he or she was. So, there is a strong sense of the whole in evaluating a play.
For lectures, that would mean that the linear, point-by-point evaluation would have to give way to an overall evaluation.

2. Lecture as technology. This has already been mentioned in another context. However, it is another metaphor that we could use. Lectures could be seen as a means to an end. What is that end? Most of us would say, "knowledge". Is that true? Maybe it is "under­standing". Maybe it is "getting a degree to get a job."

If we conceive of a lecture as a means to an end, we have to decide what that end is. Technology, after all, only makes sense if it fulfils its stated purpose. So, what ends could we imagine that would use the technology of lecturing, and does lecturing success­fully fulfil that purpose?

3. Lecture as play. I do not mean that the lecture could be taken as a theatrical production -- we have already addressed that possibility. But, a lecture could be taken as entertainment. Perhaps there is no purpose. If I play a game of chess, or go to a movie, I do it for the enjoyment. I might also evaluate the game or the movie; I could play for a higher motive. But these are ancillary reasons -- the first reason is for enjoyment.

But why do I enjoy something? If it is chess, the enjoyment comes in the challenge. If it is a movie, the enjoyment might come in the presentation of new ways of seeing the world, or the absurdity of someone acting the way I never would, or the antici­pation of sus­pense. Can a lecture be playful?


We could go on, compounding metaphor upon metaphor. The point, of course, is that lectures may take on new meanings if new meta­phors are used. How does the speaker intend you to take this lecture? Is it theatre? Is it technology? Is it entertainment? Perhaps the metaphors, far from augmenting each other, actually undermine each other. Maybe the more the lecture is entertain­ment, the less it is technology.

So, how do I intend for you to take this lecture? Well, of course, any way you want. But the real question is -- will it be on the exam?