Peter Wexler

An extract from Universities in a rut: the tertiary-pedagogy syndrome

The founding paradoxes
I start from the ineluctable paradoxes of teaching -- "Take my word for it when I say 'Do not believe me just because I say so.'"

Or, "How to begin to speak in such a way that the student begins to speak ?"


Already we're in trouble. My eminent colleague Dr Soap is baffled by Rapaport; for if (as he believes) teaching equals telling, it might at worst be wastefully premature, but how could it be destructively so?

It seems at first that we are two sub-species of homo academicus, using the same words in mutually alien senses (see Auden's poem 'Under Which Lyre'). I can't help seeing Education as a matter with too few certainties for comfort. For Dr Soap, there is so little friction between his foundation-beliefs and their familiar practical implementations -- lecture, essay, exam, and so on -- that he feels no call to reflect about them.

We don't seem to have enough in common to dent each other's thinking. But there are surely others, past and present stake-holders in tertiary education, less set in their ways than either of us, who can perhaps bridge the gap and help us all towards some new consensus, or a new pluralism.

Some of the following pages try quite hard to be constructive, some not so hard. If this is inconsistency, I much prefer it to either of the consistent alternatives.

The Box Lecturing (like Preaching & Politics) is a job in the cultural-transmission line, in which one who is trying to give a lead plants a banner with the label Curriculum (Creed/Manifesto) and labours to bring a reluctant Class (Congregation/Constituency) to a kind of conformity -- in each case the first step being to climb on a Box.

The rot starts with that Box. Never were so many comforting metaphors, so rich a stock of mutually defensive pre-suppositions, made compact in such a simple device. Before a syllable is uttered, the Box places some limit on what each party to the transaction expects of the other, and at the same time exculpates them both for doing so: "I can hardly be expected to climb all the way up/down from my pre-ordained position !"

Sometimes it looks as if the furniture is dictating what takes place. What can lecturees do in their wooden trenches, except take cover, or snipe ?

Or perhaps it's not the furniture dictating the behaviour, but the behaviour-needs dictating the furniture ? Not an imposition of one party on the other, more a collusion between all concerned, for fear of worse.

Oratory & its antidote The consequences of the choice of furniture are obvious enough. It divides us into one who gets to walk about, and the many who don't; one hogging all the adrenalin, the rest with ischial bursitis; one consumed with anxiety to persuade, the rest more aware of the anxiety than of the persuasiveness. There's a sort of arms race: one party racks up the loquacity, the other retreats further behind its only defence, the glazed eye.

On this last, the witnesses are numerous:

Monopoly of rationality... The box gives Authority, and Authority gives the box. To stand on top is to Have Understood; to sit beneath (raked auditoria notwithstanding) is to be in the designated place to receive Understanding. What could be simpler, more fitting, more standardized, more reassuring ? The tone is set, establishing -- and how effortlessly ! -- that we can now all proceed as if the enterprise were entirely a matter of cool rationality -- not only cool, but uni-directional, monopolized rationality. Where and when things happen, what counts as a doubt, what counts as an argument, what counts as something worth arguing about -- everything has been decided unilaterally. Decided, or drifted into.
In some such ways can an apparently insignificant choice of furniture imply consequences far from minor -- especially when they converge with the mutually reinforcing consequences of other choices apparently no less insignificant. But with each reinforcement the price to pay increases, unnoticed.
For example: if we get away with insinuating that monopoly and rationality are practically synonymous, the way is open to ever-wider monopolies. If you're on to a good thing, you can't have too much of it. So we are offered, as cutting-edge, a technology which would enable every student in the English-speaking world to listen to the single best monologue on any given subject. The ideal student-staff ratio shoots up like a dot.com.
The price to pay here, as elsewhere, starts with the devaluation of the vocabulary: in this case, of the word 'best', which leaks meaning just as fast as the heterogeneity of the audience rises; and perhaps also of the word 'oral', emptied of all the sociable, interpersonal, informal associations which made it useful.
Of course the lecture isn't 100% oral. Chalk and OHPs have a toe-hold; and this token input is also strangely devalued. Here 'cutting-edge' means being able to interchange the colours of chalk and board. Or we can have a mini-screen which gives consumer-choice: if it's to be legible from the back, fewer than a Colt's-worth of bullets, or a longer though still anorexic text legible no further than row 10. The software for not having to turn your back is bundled.

Monologue-syndrome The box gives Authority, i. e. the presumption of mastery, and a quasi-monopoly of the floor. One has to ask: Isn't the monologue a sin against the gift of speech ? Yet eminent pedagogues, not all of them Teutonic, have gone to extreme lengths to resist that suggestion:

The propensity to lecture can be seen as symptomatic of a sad psychic disorder: the feedback-deprivation cycle. The only response the patient knows is one that makes matters worse: he talks ever more uninterruptibly, the token five minutes for discussion is overtaken by the bell, the timetable is gridlock-full, curricula accrete faster than they excrete: something has to give.

The maximum attention-span in lecturees is often said to be twenty minutes. This may be the same as saying that after twenty minutes any monologue without feedback has accumulated more potential misunderstandings than the average hearer can stand. Certainly in any other form of oral interaction the maximum innings for one speaker would be much less.

The skilful writer manages without feedback, relying instead on multiple re-readability -- which makes possible more structure, more resonances and cross-references than the ear can retain in one pass -- and by investing more time than can be expected to go into Notes-for-lectures (which are strictly For-my-eyes-only). The Lecture contrives to deprive itself of the advantages of both the properly written and the properly oral.

Leadership In this respect the pedagogue's/preacher's/politician's efforts to persuade are alike. All three are, in theory, smarter than their flock; all are constrained by what their audience can live with. In all three the situation arises in which the persuader seeks to maintain in the persuadees a degree of certainty untroubled by any subtleties which may qualify his own credo; and moreover is convinced that this is for their own good.
You can see the danger. Understanding these complexities is hard enough for the poor persuader; convincing those he cannot trust to weigh all the pros and cons, harder still. Why waste the time, if they can't follow anyway ? For a while at least they'll take some mantra like 'Value for Money' or 'Parity of Esteem' to mean something; and as long as they do, there's the added bonus that the persuader no longer has much incentive to remember the complexities himself. It becomes quite hard to tell the difference between losing one's standards under the stress of practical persuadership, and not having any to lose.

And it gets worse: Given that the founding fathers had a higher than average proportion of saints among the ordinary Joes and psychotics, what brings the last lot to the top, and so quickly too ?
G. P. Meredith and Bachelard offer an explanation which is not reassuring:

Stepping-stones One of the list of rhetorical devices which protect the assumption of unilateral unidirectional rationality is the metaphor of stepping-stones. The model is Euclid, where no one step is supposed to be specially difficult, and the teacher earns his keep by seeing to it that every stone is in place by the time you need to trust your weight to it. Of course not every curriculum can be completely Euclidized (not even Euclidean geometry); but it's one thing to know this and another to resist all temptations to overdo Euclidization.

There is also an antithetical approach which is wary of anything too clear-cut, assumes that a large part of real-life understanding, even when simplified 'for pedagogical purposes', is not Euclidizable, and welcomes the instructive misunderstanding which wrecks the lesson-plan. There is still, for all but followers of Carl Rogers, a place for exposition, but what really interests the good teacher is the multiplicity of devices he gets to provide - a pluralism which in itself is one in the eye for Euclid.

The advantage of this approach is that it has a theory of error, where misunderstandings may be not evidence of inattention or thickness, but the converse - inevitable, legitimate, essential. It relies less on rigorous, articulable, repeatable methods and more on improvisation reacting to the unforeseen, the chance-arisen, the unprecedented. But now the teacher appears not as one who has a Thorough Understanding and able to impart the Basic Concepts, but in the rather different role of someone who isn't at all sure that 'basic concept' is a useful let alone a basic concept; one who isn't shackled to a lesson-plan or a Ministry circular. This teacher too might have trouble extracting money from tax-payers ('A teacher who doesn't Know! or only knows how to wait!').

Stepping-stones-2 These stepping-stones (like the box) embody a whole epistemology. They stretch away, one sophomore-stride apart, always in a straight line, across a stretch of bog which is always exactly three terms from side to side; as inexorable as the seasons. If doubt threatens, it may be soothed by calling the whole thing a Course. ('Courses' deserve the name because they are carefully designed, from units and components. These terms themselves are also components, in this case designed to produce a sort of onomatop¦ic hum, as of activity at once purposeful and mantric.)

And since no step is specially difficult, ultimate failure to arrive must be the fault not of the 'course' but of the pupils, or the teachers, or the parents, or the Gummint. This can end up as a machine for converting system-criticism into pass-the-blame; which, for some, may be one of its advantages. It also makes the notion of what constitutes a unit in the curriculum seem unarguable, as also the reasons for not dropping any of them. Once the details are worked out, there really isn't much need for change, except to add on the latest fashion and accelerate the steps proportionately.

Nor is there much doubt about what counts as having been trained. It is pleasant to have one's merit clearly and permanently defined in this way; and after all something must be done to keep out the cowboys. But the price is that someone is sure to say 'Is that it?' The more clear-cut the job-description, the more all-and-only is the range of duties. This state of affairs isn't easily reconciled with higher esteem. 'Couldn't the job be computerized ?' 'Why should we pay you when Euclid did it all?'

The earliest of these stepping-stones form a privileged group, called Foundations. 'But how can we build unless on true foundations ?' Say rather, how can you build on so inert a metaphor as foundations and building? While masquerading as a way of saying no more than the uncontroversial 'We must start somewhere', the foundational metaphor smuggles in boatloads of contraband implications - as, that a human endeavour can only start in one place and in one way, and must start with the most indestructible bits we can find, which must all be squared off before anything else can happen, and are then buried out of sight and mind.

Simplification To some, the irreducible messiness of theories, doctrines, belief-complexes is the essence of their interest; others find it somehow distressing. It depends whether you prefer the cost of over-simplification or that of under-simplification.
It seems self-evident: learning must start with the perfectly straightforward, but has somehow to manage a transition, sooner or later, to the complex, the untidy, the no-longer-simplified. But the management of the transition is sure to be tricky, and might be traumatic:

There are two ways out of the dilemma. We can play down the second half, replacing 'complex and untidy' by the chutzpa-phrase 'not fully understood' - as if the residue needed for its solution were only a little more, and of the same. This would make the transition barely perceptible, wouldn't it?
Or we can assert that the perfectly-straightforward learning-target is an illusion, and that learning-targets should begin as they mean to continue - smaller in scale but realistically complex from the outset. This too makes the dilemma go away - to be replaced by the problem of finding something which combines the realistic with the simple.
Perhaps it is not the acquisition but the correction of learning which is fundamental? As with political constitutions, starting in the right place matters less than having a lively correction-process. If so, to follow the verb 'learn' with an incorrigible predicate would be almost ungrammatical; and the only things which we could properly be said to learn are epistemologically self-conscious. This would entail changing the standard metaphor for learning: we see further through standing not on the shoulders of our predecessors but on the deep-piled husks of what we once counted as our own most meritorious achievements.
Or perhaps there is only one thing which we can properly be said to learn: the open-ended meaning of the verb To Learn.

Oral satisfaction Not least weird is the presumption in favour of the oral. Who could imagine that after 600 years of moveable type we would still be Reading a Paper ? Or that it was taken for granted that Lecturer and Lecturee could only communicate by each reading aloud to the other ?

Here too we are two species, according as we find greater satisfaction in squeak of pen (as with Colette) or in the sound of our own voice.

This suggests a sort of evolutionary explanation for the latter: Animals must get rid of CO2 or die. To Homo sapiens God has given muscles more powerful than are needed for that task; the creature can therefore afford to divert some of the gas along a route more complex than strictly necessary. This fortuitous by-product of excretion - a luxury acquired at the expense of maximum metabolic efficiency - is called Speech. Whether this diversion of energy endangers the species is as yet undetermined. What is certain is that the constant exercise of these organs of ejaculation is addictive beyond the dreams of drug-barons.

Conversation There was once a French theologian (Isoard) who proposed replacing the word 'sermon' by 'conversation', "plus évocateur de vie" (with about the same success as the two monks who proposed that J. S. Bach be canonized).

Similarly, I am trying to rescue something of what was lost when 'oral' moved from the conversation sense to the monologue or pseudo-sense.

The first step was a division of labour (and its inevitable concomitant, the demarcation dispute). How can Speakers and Hearers have any common interests ? They're in different unions, after all (all apprentices in the latter case, all master-craftsmen in the former). Isn't there an official target somewhere which requires officially-designated Speakers to speak and officially-designated Listeners to listen at least 98% of the time ?

All this is evidently diagnostic. What Colin Morris confesses of preachers has wider application:

Even the word 'Listening' is in retreat, in favour of 'Feed-back'. Something seems to be lost in the process.

Academic Freedom It's your turn to take Postmodern Sycophantics, Tuesdays at 10 in room 101. Before you there should be the shining indistinguishable faces of 50 Teaching Credit Units. In numbers like these there is safety, or a sort of legitimacy.
There's no limit on what might happen, other than the presumption (in both senses) that all the irrigation must of course go through one stop-cock. This is enough to ensure a satisfactory conformity in all else.
It's odd that there's not more reluctance to accept this impossible role, of One who accepts responsibility for everything -- deciding on the foundations, providing all the bricks and mortar, raising a storey a week. But at topping-out in May or June the whole airy fabric vanishes, and Groundhog Year starts again.
There's no particular incentive to behave as if the other shadows in the room were really there. Instead of eye-contact, last year's little jokes; instead of conversation, a questionnaire ('Was audibility Good, Satisfactory, Poor ?'). It's a miracle of solipsism, of parthenogenesis: some intoxicating combination, suppler than the Kama-Sutra, of the oral and the auto-gratifying.

Matters have been arranged so that access by the learner to the good books cannot bypass the discreet palm of the Lecturer as Grand Vizier, By Appointment Official Simplifier and Authenticator, and Sole Authorized Larynx.

Lecturers lecture. Obviously. That's what they signed up for. They deserve danger-money:

Célestin Freinet, on the other hand, had been gassed in World War I:

Is that what it takes to make a revolution in pedagogy?

Dereliction Defenders of lecturing (even reluctant ones) seem to assume either that listening hard is easier than reading hard, or that writing lucidly is harder than talking lucidly; or both.

Between reading with half an eye and listening with half an ear there may not be much to chose, merit-wise; but a certain cast of mind prefers sessions of the latter, which come standardized & pre-sliced, & can be packed tight, added up & ticked off; and at their worst retain something of their ritualistic origin in the Sermon.

Reading hard is (surely ?) the more valuable acquisition; hence colluding in its postponement amounts to dereliction. And lucidity in any medium being much harder than we care to admit, there is a strong but scarcely respectable temptation to choose the more evanescent medium of the two, as less exposed to scrutiny.

We want them to focus harder, to hunt out implications, to be alert to signs of self-kidology from any quarter, to be stimulated by the scent of an issue shirked; by being lectured at?

Library We don't expect students to go all the way with Gaston Bachelard, who thought Paradise was a vast library in the sky; but some of the way, surely?
Nor can many be as lucky in their undergraduate options as Richard Dawkins, who apparently never dreamed of going to lectures, and instead reported on each week's library-trawls to a supervisor called Niko Tijnbergen. This was of course long before the Web, which offers an entirely phony substitute.

The Library is the centre and perhaps more than just the centre of a university: the memory-cum-blueprint of our species. How could we call anyone a student who lacked all sense of Bachelard's excitement, all sense of the privilege it is to have free run of the place; able to call on the monastic labours of generations of cataloguers, indexers, dictionary-makers, bibliographers, helping us to winnow our own small selection from the mass -- eventually to learn equanimity in the face of the inevitable disproportion between that mass and our own small winnowings.

It may well be that there is no way of admitting those who deserve the name of students without letting in some who do not. What to do about the latter may be a problem, but it's a separate one. Any half-voiced suggestion that the institution be designed around them I take to be one more symptom of deep malaise.
Or perhaps we should have begun much further back:

Being concerned for the education of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, the first Earl (a man of great forethought) picked the best available tutor - his name was John Locke - to advise on the choice of a suitable wife for the young man who was to become the second Earl.

What a pity I was out when your grandfather called.

See also A Teacher's PerpLexicon.

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