reflection on class #2: "all over the place"

For this reflection on class I want to riff on a comment that Jen made in her reflective blog entry: "we really went all over the place during class, didn't we?"

Yes, we did. And that's precisely what we ought to be doing.

One of my pet peeves is what I sometimes call the "stealth lecture." A stealth lecture is a lecture masquerading as some other form of conversational interaction, pretending to be something other than what it is: a dissemination of information from an authoritative center to the subordinate, receptive periphery. A lecture, at least, is an honest form of this kind of thing, with someone standing up and saying, in effect, Here I am, the authoritative source, so shut up and listen to what I have to say about this. But in my years in academia I have found -- more often than I like to admit -- various instructors who appear to run discussions and seminars in their classrooms, but who secretly or not-so-secretly have a main point that they want their students to get out of the text(s) under consideration. Then these instructors shape and guide the discussion so that it goes more or less where they wanted it to go all along, and the point that they wanted to make gets made -- perhaps by one of the students, perhaps by the instructor directly.

This strikes me as disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. If I'm running a discussion, it's a discussion -- which means that I do not have a pre-planned goal or direction in mind. if I had such a point in mind, I would just say it, preferably at the outset of the session and then spare us all the agony of meandering around until we got where I wanted us to get. If I'm going to lecture, I'll lecture -- and I'm not going to, not in this class (heck, not in most of my classes, since I find lectures a pretty inefficient way to transmit information, and a waste of valuable face time besides). Instead, I'll come into class having read and thought about the text, and then preside over a free-ranging discussion. Going "all over the place" is precisely what I hope we'll keep doing.

Now, this doesn't mean that I don't have certain points I want to contribute to the discussion. I do, obviously. One of them was the importance that World War One played in producing disillusionment among European intellectuals; it had struck me before, but did so especially strongly this time I read the novel. Wells lived in a world we can't inhabit, since we don't think science is going to save us (at least, not the way that late nineteenth-century intellectuals often did). The idea of a disastrous unintended consequence to "progress" strikes us as commonplace and even commonsensical, and nowhere near the deeply shocking scandal that it would have been at that time. Wells, like Nietszche, identified a downside of scientific progress long before it was fashionable to do so. The book plays differently now that his realization has become more commonplace than critical.

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