THR Web Features   /   August 31, 2021

Why Lecture?

A quest for a particular kind of knowing that you won’t get with TED talks.

Amy Wright

( wk1003mike/Shutterstock, Inc./THR illustration.)

When Mary Cappello published Lecture in September 2020, teachers everywhere were busy inventing alternative pedagogies for students in Zoom rooms. I was among those reimagining online discussions for creative writers—and not by conjuring what Cappello calls “knowledge’s dramatic form.” For me, lectures connote monotones and echo chambers, or they did until I read this inaugural title in Transit Books’ Undelivered Lecture Series.

Despite the application of lecture to everything from parental scolding to droning presentations, Cappello reserves the term for writers such as James Baldwin, Tracie Morris, Mary Ruefle, and Anna Deavere Smith who challenge us to embody their ideas. Their art is a fine one, she argues, and rare. I spent more than twenty years pursuing formal education and encountered only two lecturers with “a voice intent on singing, no longer cowed before the bully pulpit of the mind,” as Capello describes. Before reading this book, I considered such breakthroughs demonstrative of phenomenal teaching more than a practicable art. After reading it, I have begun to seek out these endangered orators and dare myself to practice what she calls “nonfiction’s lost performative.”

Cappello, a Guggenheim Fellow, former Fulbright Lecturer, and recipient of the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, opens her book by reconsidering Virginia Woolf’s still relevant question “Why lecture?” In the years since 1934, when Woolf asked if we need oral presentations when texts are more accessible, we have replaced the lecture with numerous spoken and digital forms. Other genres have undergone similar interrogations, but the lecture has had few advocates until now.

Cappello’s first act of advocacy is to redefine the word. Given that the second listing for lecture in a standard dictionary is “a long, tedious reprimand,” she has her work cut out for her. She encourages us to imagine instead the enactment of “thinking as a form of breathing.” A lecture, according to her, “errs on the side of rapture rather than vehemence.” It “clears a path to the sort of quietude where thought occurs.” She would not even constrain the lecture by the expectations of genre at all, suggesting it instead be regarded as a “non-genre…that is one part conundrum, one part accident.” 

Cappello advocates a shift in the academic paradigm by canceling any audience-bogarting narcissists who would sublimate the lecture to their individual agendas. Instead, she proposes an art that generates a forum in which we may grow “present to a new form of listening.” This new form of listening—a “new form of colloquy,” to use her descriptive phrase—is timely in its communality. If lectures create “a rite of passage into a readership or a community,” as she suggests, we need these communities as we reconvene in classrooms and around tables after the isolation of the pandemic.

It’s easy to see how lectures got a bad rap. We have all been subjected to someone who abused the privilege of an audience. Plus, there is cause for fear from both sides of the podium. Our relationships to authority are complicated. 

Lecture is divided into four sections. In the third, Cappello includes images taken from her grandfather’s notebooks to illustrate the exchange that lectures require. Although a lecturer’s responding parties are often silent, reciprocity with inquirers and notetakers is crucial. A lecturer who undermines that dynamic creates a soapbox. Those who honor it venture the intimacy of a collective desire to understand. Great lectures, Cappello says, want “nothing so much as to touch us.” When they move us to embrace an idea, we are receptive to being changed by the “share of knowledge.”

Cappello does not advocate time limits to make contemporary lectures more packageable. She dismisses altogether the capped eighteen-minute medium of TED Talks, saying “please do not confuse them with lectures.” They alarm her with their “feel of the sermon on the infomercial mount.” Lectures, as she sees them, have no agenda but to create “an opportunity for freedom.” 

How much greater, Cappello asks, is the potential for a lecture to serve as “a conduit to a deeper place, a brighter consciousness rather than the medium for regulating what counts as knowledge?” She pits the lecture against propaganda, monologues, and litanies by their suspicion of the given. Her undelivered lecture reminds us of that quest for a particular kind of knowing, which James Baldwin articulates as how we “learn in order to Be.”

Cappello relays a quintessential lecture given by her mentor, Marty Pops, on Henry James. When she listens to a recording years later, it reminds her of a musical composition. Pops’s intonations and pauses sound assertive, but through them she recognizes that the form “is all about submission.” Just as her professor submits to reading James, he invites his audience to submit to the mind’s wayward and mysterious processes. Pops demonstrates the creative act of working out something in the instant, which is the opposite of espousing. Great lectures listen, Cappello says, and as we enter a new academic year full of demands to recreate classroom rapport and stimulate passions for learning, we are primed to hear some originals.