We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:


At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

4 Comments to “We Brake for Epiphanies”

  1. First of all, don’t anyone buy that line about him not being much of a lecturer. He’s better than most, which means this isn’t all just an ideology of incompetence and we can take seriously that real choices among real live alternatives have been made.

    Now, I did a little lecturing today myself, in exactly this mode of getting things set up: in this case, the concepts of condition, resource, and strategy that they’ll be using to analyze historical evidence and write papers next week. But I asked them what the concepts meant, and then polylogued out some rough usages from examples supplied by me but familiar to them, and in the process never said more than one or two sentences in a row. And since these concepts (as a matter of resource and strategy) were already a really good ‘fit’ for the investigations they’ve been doing for the last couple weeks, the epiphanies came hard and fast. The one I was happiest about, and it emerged spontaneously in both sections, is that the same things (religion, e.g.) may be serially or simultaneously conditions, resources, and strategies. And in the flow of this strategic exposition, that confusing little fact of dynamic relational categorization did not bother anyone at all. (Or at least my Platonists did not speak up….)

    In a larger sense, obviously lecture is a tool of exposition like any other and has its uses like any other tool. I’m tempted to say it’s just important not to be a tool about it. But is it like? Why is a lecture not just our in-the-flesh version of a book, or the utterance of another student? Because, I think, our authority as speakers almost inevitably dogmatizes what we say, and finalizes it in the classroom context. Whereas students are involved together in discovery, and have to go find out things for themselves from books and all the other resources of learning at their disposal. So a lecture has a way of saying discovery is over that none of our other tools do, and is uniquely dangerous accordingly.

  2. The sanctification of the professorial utterance really is the problem with lecturing — and my saying I’m not good at it is an oblique way of saying that I’m terribly uncomfortable with the sanctification. But think how ironic it is to say that. One spends a lot of time and effort all the way to the hooding and capping to get that sanctification. Think University of Paris, 1250: the formative moments of our trade. Our job qualifications are at stake in our sanctification, as are our disciplinary monopolies and autonomies; our tenure and promotion; and, to get to the fetid core, once again, our grades. So more often than not, lectures *are* in-the-flesh versions of books. In the case of a wonderful old academic veteran whom both I and Carl know and love, this is so literally true that I could probably heist the taped-in-class version of some of his books.

  3. Yeah. So at best the conditions of professional qualification are orthogonal to the conditions of learning; at worst, directly counterproductive to them.

  4. That’s why the full profs teach only graduate students, and grad students teach early undergrads; and distinctions are made between research faculty and teaching faculty. The exceptions are few. In the terms you put it, there are people who can manage the two dimensional space. It’s a treat to run into one.

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