My friend Andy Crouch is a writer and editor who does a lot of public speaking, and he commented on Twitter the other day that he doesn’t enjoy the actual speaking nearly as much as the conversations he has before and after the formal sessions. This has been true for me too. I don’t like being the “sage on the stage”; and even though I am a fairly pronounced introvert and am never altogether comfortable meeting new people, the various activities that tend to surround a public lecture are almost always more rewarding and interesting for me — and I think that may be true for the audiences as well.
I can think of many times over the years when I’ve wished I could ask a question or two of a speaker — sometimes a question that seemed not directly relevant to the particular topic at hand, which tends to hold me back — and I have gotten countless emails from people who didn’t get a chance to ask a question at my talk but were wondering about something…. Though such lecture-based events might promise interactivity, they’re basically performative, and, I should add — this is not incidental — they happen in a society which overemphasizes the performative and offers few opportunities for the truly convivial.
So why not ditch the lecture and make those “surrounding activities” the main event? I’m not thinking of eliminating poetry readings or fiction readings, where some element of performance is intrinsic to the genre, but I think academics like me and idea people like Andy could be used in ways that would be more beneficial to the audiences and more fun to us.
Here’s my proposal. Instead of asking me to give a lecture, a university or school or church might make this pitch: We would like for you to visit us on date X and spend two days in our community talking with our people. You don’t need to do any preparation in advance — you don’t need to write up a lecture or prepare slides — you just need to come ready to converse. We will set up a series of encounters interspersed with rest times for you. This will be helpful for us and, we hope, not painful for you.
Ideally, people would be asked to prepare for the visit by reading or viewing or listening to something the visitor has already produced — something that brings his or her interests together with theirs — which could serve to generate questions and conversation topics.
We hear a lot these days about the flipped classroom; what I’m asking for is the flipped lecture. Such an environment might — might — reach fewer people than a standard lecture, but the experience would be significantly richer and deeper for everyone concerned.