Every day, I work with writers on thinking about their audience. Who do you want to talk to? What do you want them to take away from your writing? How do you want them to feel? Audience awareness is something I think about perhaps too much.
But there is one place where I haven’t consciously extended my own audience awareness as much as I should. My students. This is what I think we’re missing in the debate over whether to embrace or abandon the lecture. We know in writing that no tone or style or genre will be effective for every audience or every situation.
This pedagogical question: lecture or active learning, to be a “sage” or “guide” (as Mary Burgan eloquently put it) is primarily an audience question. Who are my students? What do I want them to take away from the lesson. How do I want them to feel? Not in a sentimental way, but in a way that engages their affect in union with their intellect.
One of my most memorable learning experiences was a lecture. It was my sophomore year of college. We were in a unit on the Gospel of John in a Bible as literature class and the professor brought in an icon. I don’t fully remember the lesson or even the translation we read, but I remember the classroom and the way he stood with the icon. I’m sure I had seen icons growing up, but this was the first time one engaged me. Until that moment, I did not know that they were meant to be read or that they were full of ordered and complex symbolism, like the mingling of humanity and divinity in the use of red and blue.
The important space it takes up in my memory isn’t merely due to the isolated incident itself, but to how he responded to me as a person. Years later, this same professor was the adviser for my thesis. Without his calm, yet persistent, prodding and generous support, I am certain that my work would not have proceeded so smoothly. So maybe it wasn’t the lectures or the more active freewriting exercises he blended together, not so much the things he did, but the way he listened. I never fully explained why, but after my defense, I gave him an icon to thank him for forming me.
In between lectures and activities, there is a more hidden pedagogy during office hours. It’s in those moments when your professor learned who you are as a scholar, a researcher, a person and reaffirmed your dignity. Think about those moments when a professor sets aside her work to listen to your next paper or to attend to something you’re struggling with. Real learning takes place here. Collegiality is modeled. You learn who she is as audience for your work, and she learns who you are as audience for hers.
It is in those in-between moments that we can greet our students as persons. Teaching is a giving of self. First I must love, or I will have nothing to give. All the knowledge I have about rhythm and meaning or the critical thinking skills I’ve developed won’t matter if I don’t first love the poets and theorists I am collaboratively studying with my students and the students themselves.