against lectures

At the very heart of the academy we find a series of genres — discursive genres, which are also genres of social interaction — the mastery of which constitutes, more or less, mastery of the academic profession itself. Some of these are universal: that is, they may be found in all academic work. Others are specific to certain disciplines or disciplinary families. Some of them are performed in relation to colleagues, others in relation to students. Here are a few that I, as a professor of humanities, have had to practice:

  • the classroom lecture
  • the “job talk” lecture
  • the invited public lecture
  • the short lecture that you give when you’re on a panel at a conference
  • the conference-panel discussion
  • the “Socratic” seminar discussion
  • the symposium based on a paper everyone is supposed to have read
  • the peer-reviewed article
  • the book review
  • the peer-reviewed monograph

Some of these wear, over several decades, better than others. Some I will probably never do again (the peer-reviewed article, the job talk); others I will be doing to the end of my career (the classroom discussion, the monograph). Some I enjoy, some … not so much.

But I have one definitive and unshakeable opinion: I never want to hear, or deliver, another lecture as long as I live.

For one thing, lectures are very, very hard to do well. I’ve surely heard more than a hundred public or semi-public lectures in my life, and only one of them has been excellent: when I was a grad student at UVA I heard Stephen Greenblatt deliver a lecture that later became his famous essay “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” and it was electrifying. (I was sitting next to one of my professors, and at the end of the talk he leaned over and said to me, sotto voce, “Do you still have your wallet?”) Otherwise they have been not-crushingly-boring at best. And while I work hard to make my lectures vivid and interesting, I am always aware that there are better ways to accomplish what the lecture is supposed to accomplish.

The lecture is an unfortunate holdover from the pre-Gutenberg age. It makes no sense to have me come and talk to you on a subject in circumstances in which I could write something, send it to you, and have you read it and think about it, after which you could bring me to your institution for a conversation. That would be more intellectually productive for everyone concerned. Of course, one might reply that a lecture is not as polished as a finished, publishable essay or article. Indeed: that’s a major reason why lectures aren’t much fun to listen to. Better to embrace the tentative and unfinished character of your thoughts by having a conversation about them instead. 

It is true that fewer people can participate in such a conversation than can attend a lecture. But note the difference between “participate” and “attend.” Certain kinds of intellectual exchange simply do not scale. I truly believe that if, instead of asking me to deliver a lecture at your institution, you asked me to come prepared to talk with four different groups about my published work, or even my work-in-progress, the experience would be better for all of us. (And I would be much more likely to say yes, since I wouldn’t be committing myself to all those hours of lecture-writing — a problem for me, because my conscience won’t allow me to deliver the same lecture repeatedly at different places.) 

Well, one can hope. Or lose hope. But this I am sure of: When I am lying on my deathbed, I shall heave a breath and whisper to whoever is near, “Thank you, Lord. I shall never have to attend, or deliver, another lecture.”