Gingerly easing the lure from the lower jaw, I knelt in the shallows to perform the ritual of artificial resuscitation peculiar to sensitive fly-fishermen everywhere: “Hello there, sorry about that, back and forth, let’s get some fresh water through those gills—there we go, off with you ” And then I broke down my rod, shouldered my pack, and started the long hike back around the bay to our camp-style classroom, thinking, as I trudged the strand, about the seminar and the lecture, the field trip and those bleeding hands.
The seminar and the lecture. “Seminar” sounds a good deal like “seminary,” an etymological link that reaches back to the monkish roots of modern liberal learning. Not that there were any seminars in the seminaries. Or in the universities either, at least not until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The pedagogical mise en scène of premodern education was the lecture hall: no inviting table around which minds might meet; rather, a pulpit of sorts, elevated before hard benches. That word “lecture,” too, enunciates its conditions of origin—from the Latin lego, legere, legi, lectus, meaning “to read.” A lecture was a “reading,” specifically a reading from a book. In a world before printing, this sort of recitation drew crowds, since only a few folks had books, and their willingness to share them was an occasion to bring a sheaf of paper and a fresh-cut quill.
From a sandy spit in Bahía de los Ángeles, it all felt, for a moment, quite insane: How could it be that the basic life form of university instruction (the lecture) remained more or less unchanged from its archaic condition, in which textual scarcity convened classrooms that were a little like ill-lit steno pools of unbathed medieval adolescents destined for the priesthood? A glance from the back of a modern lecture hall, where some 60 percent of the students will be surfing the Web at any given moment, suggests that the method is well on its way to extinction. After all, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Purdue, and plenty of other schools have videotaped their great lecturers, making them available online. Anecdotal reports suggest, unsurprisingly, that those classrooms are now empty (“I’ll watch it on my iPod, thanks!”). With a selection of theatrical, high-production-value lectures in an array of fields all available on YouTube, the university will very likely cease to be a relevant venue for such instruction. We professors fret about this from time to time, watching the enrollments of our big lecture classes dwindle to friendly handfuls of freshmen, but it is not clear anyone really cares. We mostly don’t like lecturing anyway.
What we like are seminars—the intimate gathering, the texts in everyone’s hand, the round table, the promise of a certain kind of conversation. So natural to us is this style of learning that it’s a surprise to consider how recent such scenes are in the history of education. After all, the Peripatetics of Greek antiquity believed, as their name implies, that intellectual investigation happened while walking—so no chairs around tables for them. And their critics, the Stoics, had the convenient idea that one only really began to make sense of things lying down—so they, too, would have found little use for our seminar rooms, absent a lot more couches. Finally, the medieval magister would have wondered at the idea that any form of education could proceed by open-ended exchange—if his students spoke, it was to ventriloquize a carefully rehearsed position in a formal disputation, not to muse about what came to mind while reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
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