This piece appeared in the Atlantic this week. I’ve been thinking about the economic value of an undergraduate college degree here in the US. This article seems to hit at not the earning potential gap, which seems to be intact, but instead the wealth gap which in many ways reflects consumer spending habits, and with it consumer debt. What do you think?
The College Wealth Premium Has Collapsed
Is college worth it? As the cost of American higher education soars, inequality widens, and wages stagnate, millions of Millennials and Gen Zers have asked themselves that question. The answer, at least from economists, has remained a resounding yes. One study found that college graduates earn nearly twice as much as their peers without a college degree.
But what if those earnings are no longer translating into financial security and long-term prosperity? A new study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests that might be the case. College still boosts graduates’ earnings, but it does little for their wealth.
The paper, by William R. Emmons, Ana H. Kent, and Lowell R. Ricketts, is an exercise in pulling apart averages. As a general point, college graduates earn more and are worth more than people without college degrees. And, as a general point, the college earnings and wealth premiums—meaning how much more a person with a college diploma makes and owns than an otherwise similar person—are large. But upon close examination, terrifying generational and demographic trends emerge.
The college earnings premium has proved durable and considerable overall. White people born in the middle of the century got more of an earnings boost for attending college than white people born in the 1980s—but the boost for both groups was big. (“People” is close-enough shorthand here; the authors use a more technical household comparison.) And black people born in the ’80s got a similar income bump to black people born in the ’40s and ’50s.
But the wealth premium has collapsed precipitously over the past 50 years. White graduates born in the ’30s were worth 247 percent more than their non-college-educated peers; white people born in the ’80s were worth just 42 percent more. Among black families, the wealth premium sat at more than 500 percent for those born in the ’30s and fell to zero—yes, zero—for those born in the ’70s and ’80s.
Notably, the study corrects for the fact that households tend to accumulate wealth as they age; the issue is not that members of the Greatest Generation and Boomers have had more time to let their homes appreciate and their money sit in the stock market. They were always on a different wealth trajectory than their kids and grandkids.
The authors cite a few reasons this might be the case. The first has to do with asset prices. Older generations were able to buy houses and stocks when prices were low, then saw the value of those assets rise. Recent generations have faced high housing prices and have found themselves unable to buy their way into the stock market. Therefore, they have not been able to take advantage of the recent run-up in asset values. “The three oldest cohorts we studied generally have experienced fortuitous asset price fluctuations,” the authors write.
The second potential factor involves Wall Street’s financial engineering. Younger folks have come of age during an era of consumer debt, with banks more than happy to load customers up with credit cards, car loans, and so on. Those debts then get subtracted from the value of families’ assets when determining their net worth, helping to explain the Millennials’ crummy wealth accumulation. “The leveraging of college-graduate balance sheets over time is entirely consistent with the progressive weakening of their overall financial positions that we identified—even while the college and postgraduate income premiums remained intact,” the authors write.
Finally—most obvious, and perhaps most important—is the cost of college and graduate school itself. The price of consumer goods has increased by a factor of four since the late 1970s. College costs have increased by a factor of 14, the study notes. More and more students have taken out heavy debt burdens to be able to go to school, burdens that then eat away at their earnings, month after month, for years on end. That has forced millions of Millennials to delay life milestones, including getting married, having children, and owning a home, for years, if not for decades, if not forever.
Even if going to college is still important for young people’s earnings and employment, it is less of a clear economic boon than it was 30 years ago. In it way, the paper makes a powerful argument for making college a public good, low-cost or even free for everyone. The spiraling cost of higher education is choking Millennial families, and more young people would be able to go to college—and get the full financial benefit of getting a degree—if they were able to do it for the same price as their parents paid.
“You have an awesome job — you know that, right? I’m jealous.” Those words were uttered by a tenured professor over coffee one day, as I told him about my then-job working in theater as a literary manager and dramaturge.
Had I heard him correctly? He was the one with the swanky permanent teaching job while I couldn’t find a tenure-track gig in literature to save my life.
But despite all the romantic notions attached to “the life of the mind,” that wasn’t the first time (or the last) that I heard a tenured scholar admit to feeling envious of a career outside of academe. They always say they feel beaten down by the academic system — more specifically, by heavy teaching loads, politicized faculty meetings, and ever-expanding campus bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, drawing on my knowledge of theater, I had become the literary manager of a major U.S. regional theater — developing new works, providing research for plays, scouting new playwrights, and writing articles for the theater’s magazine that were read by hundreds of people every performance. While it wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing with a Ph.D., the theater had become my classroom, where I ran public interviews with award-winning writers and actors. I grappled with complex thematic issues and found myself in the library collecting dramaturgical research for directors.
I was, in many ways, doing what I had been trained to do. I just wasn’t doing it at a university.
I share this experience now because the contingent-faculty crisis has rightly been taking up more and more column space in an effort to get academe to sit up, take notice, and do something about the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs. Debates about the problem often lead to a lot of finger-pointing and wishful thinking that it could be resolved if only “someone” — institutions, departments, learned societies, foundations — could wave a magic wand and make more tenure-track jobs appear. It is a frustratingly complex issue.
While I, too, hope that institutions will find ways to support, retain, and even increase the number of tenure-track positions on their faculties, I’d like to pose a different question here: Why is getting a tenure-track job still seen as the only way to lead a fulfilling life of inquiry in the humanities? More to the point: What do those of us who pursue a doctorate want to do to lead fulfilling lives as scholars?
The answer, I would suggest, is not purely a thing — e.g., a tenure-track job — but rather a set of activities: the ability to teach, write, lecture, and think critically about the world around us. Those actions, while they are primarily located in the realm of higher education, are not by any means restricted to that sector.
I found that out myself more than 10 years ago when — after five years on the faculty job market, and despite having done all the “right” things such as getting a postdoc, publishing a book and articles, and teaching — I was still without a tenure-track position. Not looking to live just anywhere and also not interested in patching together a subsistence living of underpaying adjunct jobs, I decided to pivot and look for work outside of academe. The results have been exciting, rewarding, and eye-opening.
My first job, described above, led me to work in theater, applying much that I had learned to an art form I love. Instead of reading and writing about contemporary American drama in the abstract, I was actually in the room helping to create it. It was often a heady experience, to be sure. From there I served as director of arts and culture for a Jewish community center, applying my background in Jewish cultural texts to public programming for hundreds of people each year. Then a stint in community grantmaking. And now, coming full circle, I am executive director of an academic learned society that serves its members not just by advocating for their scholarship, but by helping them along their career paths in whatever varied forms that might take.
As I look back at my own unexpected career path, though, I never abandoned the activities of teaching, research, writing, and thinking critically. While academe is a place where ostensibly all of those actions coalesce, it’s not the only place where they exist. With some creativity and flexibility, each element can be interwoven with a life outside of a college campus.
At multiple jobs, I was able to negotiate, as part of my hiring package, regular time off to teach a course on a college campus. I don’t want to glorify the adjunct system, as it is definitely broken and pays far too little for the amount of work involved. However, in certain circumstances, adjuncting can be a way for Ph.D.s working outside of the ivory tower to maintain an active role as scholars and teachers. Adjunct teaching is not glamorous, but when it’s not your main source of income, it can be gratifying work. Freed from departmental politics, I was able to swoop in, teach, and leave — and I liked that. I not only got to continue honing my teaching skills and be with students in a classroom, but I also had the opportunity to develop new courses that often turned into public lecture topics.
Research and writing attract many people to academic life, but it’s possible to do that kind of work in other sectors, too.
In fact, my own writing and publishing has flourished since leaving academe. I’ve published two books, both with academic presses. The second, which was a trade crossover book about musical theater, sold out its first print run and will be republished this year in a revised second edition. This book was a joy to work on because I was able to write it for myself — not to please a tenure committee or a small group of academics. In writing it, I was able to combine a scholarly approach with a desire to share my work with a wider reading public.
It’s true that carving out time to write and do research when you have a full-time job is difficult, but it is doable. And in fairness, many faculty members with heavy teaching loads these days are equally struggling to find time to write.
The one area of research that remains problematic once you leave the academic world is using campus libraries, complete with checkout privileges and access to online databases. If institutions could find ways of supporting research access for independent scholars, this would be a tremendous boon both for them and for institutions, which, ostensibly, are invested in the production of new bodies of knowledge and scholarly output.
My work as a graduate student trained me to think critically, and while I may spend more time nowadays thinking about spreadsheets than similes, it doesn’t mean the work I do now is less gratifying. As a Ph.D. outside of academe, I still spend a great deal of time lecturing and giving public talks. Through this work, I’ve not only found attentive, engaged audiences (often more so than in an intro class), but I’m excited to share my academic knowledge with the wider public in ways that are deep and meaningful.
I know that a tenure-track job will remain the holy grail for many Ph.D.s, but with creative recalibration, you can find multiple, rewarding ways to be “an academic.” When people ask me if I still would have gone to graduate school knowing that I wouldn’t find an academic job, my answer remains a solid yes. While I might not need a doctorate for some of the jobs I’ve had, the training I received helped shape the way I view and interact with the world, and that’s something I value deeply.
Today, as the executive director of an academic learned society, I see a twofold challenge before us:
We must advocate for tenure-track jobs and the shore up of academic employment.
At the same time, we must validate and celebrate the vast variety of career options available outside of academe that draw on the important skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that many of us have spent years cultivating.
Warren Hoffman is executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies.
Great piece from the Detroit News, tons of solid links and material here. Get stoked! The Gypsy Professor will be heading down Tuesday for more press coverage!
How Ford plans to resurrect the train station
IAN THIBODEAU AND DANIEL HOWES | THE DETROIT NEWS
Ford Motor Co.’s restoration of the Michigan Central Depot by 2022 would bring 5,000 employees to Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, where the Blue Oval aims to create what it calls “the next generation” of automotive mobility.
Plans for the Corktown campus, to be announced Tuesday, would deliver 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use development spread over multiple parcels and at least three recently acquired buildings. Ford expects to move 2,500 of its employees — roughly 5 percent of its southeast Michigan workforce — to the campus, with space for an additional 2,500 entrepreneurs, technology companies and partners related to Ford’s expansion into Autos 2.0.
“It’s not just a building,” Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. told The Detroit News in an interview at Ford World Headquarters. “It’s an amazing building, but it’s about all the connections to Detroit, to the suburbs, and the vision around developing the next generation of transportation.”
The company’s goal is to establish its Corktown site at the east end of an evolving mobility corridor evoking Michigan Avenue’s earlier road to the Arsenal of Democracy. The campus would be a critical node in a circuit running from Detroit through Ford’s Dearborn headquarters, to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, ending at University of Michigan research sites.
“This will be the biggest thing to happen in Detroit since Dan Gilbert brought Quicken down,” Mayor Mike Duggan told The News. Ford’s Corktown plan promises to bring thousands of new tax-paying jobs to the city, as well as complementary investment to satisfy growing demand in a part of town best known for bars, restaurants and coffee shops — not big business.
Michigan Central Depot would be a “magnet” on that corridor, CEO Jim Hackett said, attracting a new kind of automotive talent Ford expects to deliver fatter profits and higher margins in the future. And that’s precisely what shareholders and industry analysts say they want to see from Ford, whose share price comparatively lags those of its peers.
The building would be restored and reimagined to attract new employees to help develop the mobility, autonomy and electrification technologies considered the biggest disruptors to the auto industry since Henry Ford began making Model Ts for the masses.
That magnet isn’t intended to pull Ford from Dearborn. All but Ford’s electrification and autonomous driving teams would remain in Dearborn and occupy its sprawling sites. An estimated $1 billion campus redesign there is slated to be completed by the mid-2020s.
“This is our home,” Bill Ford Jr. said. “We’re not leaving by any means. By the end of this we’ll have a large multiple of employees in Dearborn versus Detroit. This is in no way abandoning Dearborn.”
The Corktown site is meant to supplement Ford’s work on its Dearborn campus. The automaker intends to redirect cash set aside two years ago for its Dearborn facilities renovation to the station purchase and renovation of its Corktown site.
Ford’s plan for the depot is evolving. Bill Ford Jr. envisions the soaring lobby of the train station, its Guastavino-tile ceiling hovering almost 55 feet above the floor, to be a bustling public space akin to San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace.
The ground floor lobby of the 18-story, 500,000-square-foot building would be open to the public. That space could house markets, coffee shops, restaurants, retail and gathering spaces. A hotel and residential space are not being ruled out.
“One thing I don’t want to do is take a beautiful building and put something that’s garish on there,” Bill Ford Jr. said. “Not that the Blue Oval is garish, but I wouldn’t want to put some giant modern emblem up that just didn’t fit. We don’t want to be isolated, and we don’t want to be seen as taking over the community by any means.”
Part of that community involvement means asking Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit, Peter Cummings’ The Platform and Redico Management Inc., among other developers, to scout and undertake other Corktown projects that would further the revitalization of the historic neighborhood.
The automaker also is considering erecting a public parking garage on parcels of land acquired along the I-75 service drive and north of Michigan Avenue. That could answer parking concerns for the Detroit Police Athletic League, which recently opened its youth sports stadium on the old Tiger Stadium site, and provide general parking problems in the hip Corktown neighborhood.
“This wouldn’t necessarily be Ford-ville,” Ford Land Co. CEO Dave Dubensky said in an interview. “This could be something bigger than that. We don’t necessarily have to own (everything). I’m in it to fulfill the vision of Bill and the Ford Motor Company. If I can invite others in, and they can actually bring their thinking to the space as well, it’s all better.”
How they plan to do it
Reviving the depot and establishing Corktown in a potential mobility corridor would require tax incentives to renovate the building at its heart, Bill Ford Jr. said.
The company, pointing to previous projects in the city, expects roughly a third of the up-front renovation costs would be covered by tax breaks for restoring the historic depot. Ford, the city and the former owners of the building have declined comment on how much Ford paid for the station, or how much Ford will spend on the renovation.
The News acquired a now-deleted public document filed online that indicated an entity linked to Ford paid Matthew Moroun’s Crown Land Development Co. LLC $8 million on May 22, the day Dubensky said Ford officially closed on the purchase of the depot and adjacent book depository building.
Hackett said the Corktown project won’t cost Ford any more than what it budgeted for the Dearborn transformation plan, estimated to be roughly $1 billion. Money for the Corktown project is being redirected from that original budget.
Bill Ford Jr., Dubensky and other ranking officials declined to discuss those figures. But the executive chairman did concede that the expected cost of restoring the depot “dwarfs the purchase price.”
Part of Dubensky’s job during the months-long negotiation was to be Bill Ford’s “sanity check.” Over a roughly seven-month period, Dubensky met with Moroun and the president of the Moroun family’s Crown Enterprises Inc., Michael Samhat, at area restaurants to discuss a possible sale. Bill Ford Jr. met with Moroun in Ford’s Dearborn office, from which Ford can see the western flank of the depot.
Between early 2018 and the May 22 closing, Dubensky’s team tested everything from the soil to the facade of the station to determine an estimated cost of a renovation. The Ford Land team did financial modeling to determine if the investment was feasible with future market conditions.
“I didn’t want this to be an emotional purchase,” Bill Ford Jr. said. “This had to be the right business decision. I couldn’t be happier. But was I prepared to walk away if it was the wrong deal? Yes, I was.”
On a hot June afternoon, the guy whose name is on Dearborn’s Glass House pulled up to the train station in his navy blue Mustang GT convertible. He got out and walked into the station that would be the biggest project of his career, if only for what it represents:
A potentially sustainable revival of Detroit, the restoration of an authentic witness to the 20th-century history of Detroit. It would be bigger than the deal to build Ford Field downtown, he said, bigger than the renovation of the Rouge complex.
“Isn’t this just incredible?” Bill Ford Jr. said, standing on the concourse of Michigan Central Depot as crews set lights and erected scaffolding in a space that witnessed the Great Depression, soldiers heading off to war and welcoming home the fortunate who returned.
The company plans to announce officially its plans for Corktown and the station at 11 a.m. Tuesday followed by a party in Roosevelt Park north of the long-vacant building. Ford will also host an “open house” Friday, June 22 through Sunday, June 24 to take the public inside the station before renovations begin.
When renovations are complete, the public would have access to 300,000 square feet on the ground floor of the station and other Corktown properties. Roughly 2,500 Ford employees and another 2,500 partner employees would occupy the remaining 900,000 square feet come 2022.
Those partner employees could include Ford suppliers and partners of autonomous vehicle, mobility and electrification businesses. Partners currently include Postmates delivery service, several Silicon Valley companies, Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, and ride-hailing service Lyft.
The Corktown site would give Ford’s teams access to a true urban landscape to test autonomous technology, and how those vehicles would need to communicate with traffic systems, delivery destinations and other infrastructure.
“This is kind of the test track of the future,” said Hackett, Ford’s CEO. Ford employees will have to solve mobility problems for themselves to more efficiently travel to Dearborn and back, for example, and how vehicles could interact with infrastructure along that route.
“This is an exclamation point” for Detroit’s resurgence, Bill Ford Jr. said. “Ford and Detroit have seen good times, we’ve seen bad times, and this is a tough region. We’ve been through it together. This is an authentic move for the city and for us. Frankly, it’s where it all began.”
While the public would 300,000-square-feet on the ground floor of the station and other Corktown properties, 2,500 Ford employees and 2,5000 partner employees would occupy the remaining 900,000 square feet come 2022. This is the top floor.
Hell yes. As Robin Runyan has mentioned below, it is indeed a good day for Detroit. Ford has snagged two long derelict Cork Town properties, and the possibilities have many looking forward to their plans. As many of you know, I love Detroit. I am excited to see whats in store for these iconic spots!
We’re getting closer to a likely announcement from Ford in mid-June, as the auto company looks to be creating a campus in Detroit. Crain’s first reported that long-time train depot owners the Morouns have transferred ownership of the long-vacant train station to a New York law firm.
The article states, “A warranty deed dated May 22 was recorded May 23 by the Wayne County Register of Deeds, transferring ownership from the Moroun-owned MCS Crown Land Development Co. LLC to New Investment Properties I LLC.”
The nearby Detroit Public Schools book depository building also transferred ownership to a (slightly) different entity—New Investment Properties II LLC.
The entities aren’t clearly identified as Ford, and the company isn’t specifically addressing it at this point. Dawn Booker from Ford’s real estate division told Crain’s, “We are very excited about our return to Detroit this year beginning with our electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle teams relocating to the historic former factory in Corktown. We expect to grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future.”
So, now 5 days into this charmed city on the Caribbean and what have we learned? We arrived famished and eager, taking it all in and pushing forward despite all odds. What an absolute blast. This is a kick ass city. Effortlessly grand, historic, bustling and hot. Stupendously hot. This city practically pulses with a beat, salsa in nature, well into the early hours. The ceviche is fresh, bursting, addicting.
I switched it up for this run, slowed it down and dug deeper into the places I’m in. 3 weeks in Colombia should give an ample snapshot of this incredible place. A few of the benefits of this approach will be discussed here. First and foremost, I’ve been treated to an absolute dream in wandering the walled city after an epic storm.
I slept late to the rain and thunder, then ventured out to explore the famed “walled city”. This is the first Spanish settlement on the South American continent. Built to protect against Sir Francis Drake and other British pirates as the quest for new world riches began in earnest. this place bleeds history, and walking these streets is an experience in itself. No all inclusive triple sec high fructose soaked pool bar here, surrounded by people who look, talk, and act like you…leave that shit for the cruise ships. Get lost. Find something amazing.
one amazing thing I encountered is when traveling alone…do me a favor, and throw your phone in airplane mode. At this point all the wireless carriers offer day passes or data allotments…but try this for a day. Only check your phone a few times a day when WiFi is avail. Be ACTUALLY present in the moment. By face fucking your phone, and taking more pictures of your beer than drinking it, you are missing out on everything around you. Strike up conversation, engage someone, ask for directions and struggle with the language, that is the very essence of traveling. You will be pleasantly surprised by this miniature “digital detox”. Through the process above I’ve met some amazing people. Even in the few days here. By staying a bit longer, it’s allowed me to dig in deeper to the culture with the help of some local awesomeness. Case in point, a few nights ago, my buddy Alejandro and I, who I met randomly asking for directions came across an amazing couple in a local market. They decided since it was my first time in Cartagena, that I must have their favorite arepas. A matter of pride and graciousness. I didn’t need to consult trip advisor, or Facebook, or read a damn review. We walked and chatted with them for a few hours and indulged local history, cultural insight and amazing street food. when we arrived at this stand, I was the only non local there. This is exactly what it’s all about. Meet some locals, fall in love with a location. Struggle a bit, find your groove, put your phone away and enjoy.
Cartagena, it’s people, it’s architecture, history and flavor all prove intoxicating. Warm and easy, this place has it all. I leave tonight for the mountains, as they are always calling. Medellin coming up next!
Super stoked to announce that I was able to sit down for a chat with NPR local station affiliate WMUK 102.1! I made the short trek over to Kalamazoo, to sit with Zinta Aistars, for the Between the Lines program. This program focuses on writing and the creative. The hour I was in the studio seem to blast by. The link is live and up now.
This was so much fun! Zinta’s interview style is easy and engaging. She picked a great picture for the cover of the piece. Me, eyeballs deep in the mighty chicken fish, the local legend of the hawker stalls of Kuala Lumpur.
We chatted motivation, culture, history, writing, the blog, and a few things in between. I’ve been waiting to announce this, and find this timing perfect, as I leave for Iceland on a twisted weekend adventure this week! If you dont remember that story is here: A Note on Spontaneity
Listen to the interview if you need a smile on your way to wherever, and leave me some Monday motivation! Hopefully not the last time I find myself on the airwaves. I would love feedback.
This piece appeared in Jacobin roughly this time last year. Being a student of pedagogy and learning strategies…as well as a lecturer, I found that I spent quite a bit of time going over this.
What do you think?
Few have savaged lecturers as brutally as the the Enlightenment-era printmaker William Hogarth. In Scholars at a Lecture, the presenter reads from his prepared text, his eyes down, indifferent to his audience. The budding academics are no more impressive; those in thrall to the lecturer’s nonsense have slack faces with lolling eyes and open mouths. The others don’t offer any critique but yawn, doze, or chat idly among themselves.
In The Reward of Cruelty, the lecturer, who cannot be bothered to rise from his chair, pokes lackadaisically at Tom Nero, a criminal whose body has been turned over for dissection. The audience shows little interest. Hogarth’s most damning image of a lecturer, however, depicts one who does inspire his audience, but to dubious ends. In Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, a minister thunders on about witches and devils as parishioners swoon with terror. The minister’s text quotes II Corinthians: “I speak as a fool.”
Hogarth’s satirical prints repeat a common belief about lectures: Those who claim the lectern are dullards or charlatans who do so only to gratify and enrich themselves. The louder they speak, the more we should suspect them. True knowledge, he implies, does not come from speechifying blowhards and self-satisfied experts, but from practical observation of the world.
This distrust has now spread to the lecturer’s natural habitat, the university. Administrators and instructors alike have declared lecturing a stale teaching method and begun advocating new so-called content delivery techniques, from lab- and project-based learning to flipped classrooms and online instruction, that “disrupt” the sage-on-the-stage model. While these new methods work well, we should not completely abandon the lecture. It remains a powerful tool for teaching, communicating, and community building.
Detractors claim that lectures’ hierarchical, inflexible, and unidirectional structure doesn’t suit our dynamic, crowd-sourced world. To be sure, lectures are top-down affairs that occur at fixed times. But these aspects are assets, not weaknesses: they benefit both students and instructors.
Lectures are not designed to transmit knowledge directly from the lecturers’ lips to students’ brains — this idea is a false one, exacerbated by the problematic phrase “content delivery.” Although lecturers (hopefully) possess information that, at the beginning of a lecture, their students do not, they are not merely delivering content. Rather, giving a lecture forces instructors to communicate their knowledge through argument in real time.
The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.
The regular timing of lectures contributes to their sociality, establishing a course’s rhythm. The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.
One common lament among university students is a sense of social isolationduring the school year. While lectures won’t necessarily introduce students to their best friends or future partners, they do require attendees to get dressed, leave the house, and participate in a shared experience. This simple routine can head off lonelieness and despondency, two triggers and intensifiers of depression.
Further, dismissing the value of attending lectures only encourages students to skip weeks of classes and then frantically try to catch up later, a destructive cycle that compounds loneliness with anxiety. Students not only fall behind but also miss opportunities to speak with their peers and instructors.
Like a metronome, lectures regularly punctuate the week, grounding other elements of students’ lives by, for instance, encouraging regular sleep schedules and study periods, which can also reduce anxiety and stress.
Audiences outside academia clearly understand the benefits of collective listening. If public lectures did not draw sizable crowds, then museums, universities, bookstores, and community centers would have abandoned them long ago. The public knows that, far from being outdated, lectures can be rousing, profound, and even fun.
The attack on lectures ultimately participates in neoliberalism’s desire to restructure our lives in the image of just-in-time logistics. We must be able to cancel anything at the last minute in our desperate hustle to be employable to anyone who might ask. An economic model that chops up and parcels out every moment of our lives inevitably resists the requirement to convene regularly.
Critics frequently complain that lectures’ fixity makes it difficult for students to work. We should throw this argument back at those who make it: the need for students to work makes it hard for them to attend lectures. Work, not learning, is the burden that should be eradicated. Education is not an errand to be wedged between Uber shifts; it represents a long-term commitment that requires support from society at large. This support is thinning; eroding the legitimacy of lecturing makes it thinner still.
Neoliberalism has also made it hard to recognize the work students perform in lectures. Many critics dismiss lecture attendance as “passive learning,” arguing that students in lectures are aren’t doing anything. Today, declaring something passive completely delegitimizes it. Eve Chiapello and Norman Fairclough argue that activity for its own sake has become essential to personal success: “What is relevant is to be always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project.” Indeed, in our constant scramble to project adaptable employability, we must always seem harried, even if our flailing about isn’t directed toward anything concrete. Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look busy, and so their activity gets maligned as passive, unproductive, and, consequently, irrelevant.
But lecture attendees do lots of things: they take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen.Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.
No matter how fast-paced the world becomes, listening will remain essential to public dialogue and debate. As Professor Monessa Cummins, department chair of classics at Grinnell College states:
Can [students] listen to a political candidate with a critical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.
Discussion sections after lectures always reveal the expert listeners. They ask the best questions, the ones that cut straight to the speaker’s main themes with an urgency that electrifies the whole audience, producing a flurry of excited responses and follow-up questions. Good listening grounds all dialogue, expands our body of knowledge, and builds community.
Although they probably haven’t thought about in these terms, many of the lecture’s critics would probably favor one side of Aristotle’s scheme of knowledge, which separates theory from practice. Historian Pamela H. Smith succinctly describes the difference: theory (episteme, scientia) describes knowledge based on logical syllogism and geometrical demonstration. Practice (praxis, experientia) encompasses things done — like politics, ethics, and economics — or things made — technē, which require bodily labor.
Before the modern era, technē was widely denigrated. Smith writes, “Technē . . . was the lowly knowledge of how to make things or produce effects, practiced by animals, slaves, and craftspeople. It was the only area of knowledge that was productive.” Today of course, the tables are turned; technē’s productive quality elevates it above supposedly impractical theory. Indeed, under capitalism, anything that doesn’t immediately appear as productive, even if only in the most superficial way, is dismissed as a waste of time.
Good lectures build knowledge and community; they also model critical civic participation. But students have suffered a wide variety of bad lecturers: the preening windbag, the verbatim Powerpoint reader, the poor timekeeper who never manages to cover all the session’s material. Lecturing does not come naturally and can take years to master, yet very few instructors have the opportunity to learn how to deliver a good lecture. Given the outsize emphasis many universities place on publication and grants — not to mention the excessive workloads, low pay, and job insecurity the majority of instructors face — lecturers have little incentive to invest the time and effort it takes to gain these skills.
Meanwhile, active learning partisans sometimes overlook the skill it takes to conduct their preferred methods effectively. Becoming a good lab instructor, project facilitator, or discussion leader also takes time and practice. In addition to bad lectures, I’ve sat through plenty of bewildering labs and meandering seminars. Because these teaching methods have the guise of activity, however, their occasional failures are not dismissed as easily as those of the supposedly passive lecture.
Lecturing is increasingly impugned as an inactive and hierarchical pedagogical method. The type of labor demanded in the lecture hall — and the type of community it builds — still matters. Under an economic system that works to accelerate and divide us, institutions that carve out time and space to facilitate collectivity and reflection are needed more than ever.