"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lecturing and teaching

I first saw Professor Michael Sendel of Harvard talking about his book Justice: What's The Right Thing to Do? on The Colbert Report and immediately sought it out. It's a very readable, straightforward, unfootnoted primer on Political Philosophy built on an inquiry into ideas of justice, morality and ethics.

Then I discovered that the course from which this book arose had been recorded for broadcast on PBS and was available on disc and online. In fact, here's the first episode (warning - it's 54 minutes long and there is a good chance you will be fascinated and unable to stop watching):

Now you can paint me blue and call me a Buick, but I don't think any of that is beyond a reasonably accomplished high school senior. (I believe Professor Sendel's course is for freshmen -- they sure talk like freshmen.) And if I had the chance, I would love to build a course on the use of these lectures (they are divvied up into discrete 24 or 25 minute segments), using my own classroom as the seminar-discussion portion of the class between lectures, just like in college. It would be a nice foretaste of college procedure, and these are issues and ideas that automatically engage any young person. In fact, these are the issues that any thoughtful young person MUST reflect on as they are becoming who they will be.

But that's beside my point in making this post. What's really interesting, beside Dr. Sendel's clear and simple explication of the ideas and analysis of the writers and questions considered, is a good illustration of the difference between writing a book and teaching a course. As I said, the book Justice is ultra-clear and ultra-simple to read. I think I even almost understand Kant's categorical imperative, at least if I stand very, very still and don't look at any flashing lights or kitties or anything.

But oddly, it is almost too clear, too smooth. It goes very fast and ideas rush at the reader very quickly. It's probably not a good idea to sit down and read the book straight through, but to stop and reflect for a while between each chapter. But when you watch Professor Sendel teach virtually the same material it doesn't rush at you the same way. We can see him "feel the room," engage in dialogue with the students, incorporate what he needs, deflect what he doesn't, and yet make every student there feel included in the conversation. Because oddly enough, while he is teaching in the most regressive and (research tells us) ineffectual mode available, yet he is effective and his ideas land and stick and leave a residue in your mind after the video is over.

Of course, when you're actually at Harvard you have a week or so between lectures to absorb what Sendel has said, to read the material for the next class, to find the holes in his arguments and to prepare questions about how it all fits together. But even without that, the videos are more effective than the very fine book. I would summarize the difference as teaching.

It all put me in mind of another series of lectures recorded at Harvard back in 1973, when Leonard Bernstein occupied the Norton Chair for Poetry and conducted six very lengthy lectures -- the longest was just shy of three hours -- on the direction of concert music. In fact, the whole thing was a defense of diatonic harmony which had been on the wane for the previous 60 years or so, but which turned around and defeated non-tonal music within a decade of his lectures, especially in the work of Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. And oddly enough, Bernstein built his argument on linguistic theory, justifying the whole series as a matter of poetics, which was what the endowment was supposed to be for. (But really, who would have hassled Bernstein if he had wanted to show home movies of his dog for 102 minutes?)

Again, the lectures were published as a book, but the book is really missing something. What they're missing is both Bernstein's pedagogical skills and the force of his personality. Which are inseparable, as they are with the charming, though less histrionic Professor Sendel.

Here's a short excerpt explicating Bernstein's central conceit:

Fun, huh? And you don't even have to know anything about music to engage with his ideas. You don't have to agree, but you almost HAVE to respond.

What makes this work, what makes old-fashioned lecturing appropriate for both Bernstein and Sendel is that they are not simply delivering information you could get from a book or a website. They are conducting an inquiry and constructing an argument; engaging in the fine art of persuasion. And to do that effectively, you must bring the power of human personality to bear, provided you have one.

Aw, the heck with it. Here's the entire first lecture by Bernstein, if you've got an hour and three-quarters to burn. It's really worth it.

All of the Sendel course is available on YouTube, and here, where there are supplemental materials. And all of Bernstein's Unanswered Question lectures are on YouTube, absolutely free. (The DVDs cost hundreds.) Isn't this a great age we live in?

And if your school IT guy still is blocking YouTube, show your principal this and start knocking some heads together. Don't take any guff.

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