A MEDIA-THEORETICAL LOOK AT TEACHING


     
  1. Introduction
  2.      The purpose of this memorandum is twofold: first, to clearly set forth a thesis concerning the nature of creative teaching on the collegiate level; and, second, to propose a specific plan whereby this thesis might be explored and perhaps eventually exploited by Clark, both to its own advantage and to the advantage of its students and teaching staff.

  3. The Nature of Successful Teaching: a Dogmatic Account
  4.      Teaching, when it is very good, amounts to nothing more than the imparting to students of an irresistible temptation to learn. It does not involve essentially, although it may, accidentally, the transfer from one party to another of factual content; i.e., facts, titles, locations, formula-phrases, and the like. Teaching is a calling of students to themselves, who on their own part and under their own steam provide their own "instruction." Good teaching is successful motivation, not information processing. Moreover, this is the case not only on the primary and secondary school levels, but on the collegiate and post-graduate levels as well. It is true not just for the Fine and Liberal Arts, but for the Social and Natural Sciences, too. In a word, we are speaking here of the 'universal teacher,' and are saying of him that his success derives not just from his devotion to his discipline, but also from his ability to paint that discipline as intriguing, alluring, and seductive. A good teacher is thus something of an artist, an actor, psychologist, and salesman. He regards his task as a 'no-holds-barred' enterprise.
         It is notorious, and evident from their own classroom procedure, that many teachers do not share this view of the teaching profession. For them, it is the story that counts, and not the telling of the story. This is particularly true of college teachers, who usually regard themselves as professional scholars within their chosen field in the first place, and as educators only in the second. For them, form or style is separable from, and ought to be separated from, content. It is the content which counts, and that to which a teacher ought to direct himself with a minimum of fuss, stage antics, and other distracting histrionics. Moreover, it is implied that a teachers' success at communicating content will be measurable in quantitative terms as a direct function of his students' evidenced ability to regurgitate that same content at a later (although not much later) date.
         It must not be thought that teachers of this kind take themselves to be proceeding with anything but the best interest of their students in mind. They are certainly not of mischievous intent. To the contrary, they often pursue their content-orientated calling in an attitude of genuine intellectual piety. They are sincere in their talk of scholarship, open in their grave affirmation of the sanctity of the academic tower, and honest in their quest after the intellectual ideal. What's more, they are often the most happy of individuals, and invariably of great value to the university, particularly in respect of its visibility within the many worlds of professional scholarship. However, these patrons of content are often bad teachers. With the exception of he who startles and beguiles by the very ferocity of his devotion to his discipline, teachers such as these usually make no 'call' to their students. They leave nothing open-ended for them. Instead, these persons "shout" at their students in the various keys of lackluster jargon, foisting onto unwilling shoulders one 'trip' after another. After all, it's the content, or story, that counts. To a student, however, pure unadulterated content presents itself as a rock — hart, inert, and complete. It comes all put together. There is simply nothing left to do; there remains no task, or project, in terms of which an intention or motivation might define itself. There is no room for the student to participate. He has been read out of the act: brutalized by the idea.
         The result is one with which we are all familiar, and which threatens not only the very existence of the university community, but even the continuing viability of the teaching profession, en large. Pure content, when sold at every hand by a perfect chorus of competing vendors, has become as never before an assault, and an indignity. A student mindful of indignities, and unwilling to subject himself to them as a matter of educational principle, will invariably withdraw into a frightened apathy, mumbling the several curses of disaffection, disenchantment, and intellectual nihilism. There are reasons why good teachers are good, and bad ones bad. The thesis sketched out here has isolated these reasons in the media-theoretical terms of Marshall McLuhan. Good teachers are the authors of media cool; bad teachers of media hot.

  5. Good Teaching as Cool Media

         The most important element of the thesis just presented is the following: the ability to do good teaching is not an ineffable gift, of which one is either possessed or not, but is perfectly analyzable in theoretical terms — two different theories — which are useful in analyzing the ability to do good teaching. The first sort of terms are those of the motivational psychologist, who maintains that the learning process has its beginnings, even if not its end, in the felt inclination on the part of the student to participate personally in the material at hand. The acquisition of factual content is thus seen as a project of the student, and not as a game of one-way shuttlecock initiated by the professor. The second sort of theoretical terms and expressions are those of the philosophical aesthetician, who insists that the nature of that inclination-to-participate mentioned above involves primarily the affective moment of the learning experience, and not its conceptual moment. The aesthetician distinguishes between the form and content of the learning experience, and exhorts us to recognize the indispensability of the role played by the first of these.
         These two theoretical postures toward the nature of the learning process are brought together, our thesis holds, when one approaches teaching as a medium, where by the term medium we mean any "extension of ourselves." Television, radio, tape, and short-wave radio are examples of media. So are electric light bulbs, barbiturates, sports cars, and political demonstrations. Media — extensions of ourselves — are both indices and conditioners of age-consciousness. Moreover, and as concerns us here, media turn out to be understandable through theoretic concepts which include those mentioned above; that is, those of the motivational psychologist on the one hand, and those of his colleague, the philosophical aesthetician, on the other. Teaching, when viewed as such a medium, becomes understandable itself For example, we are able to comprehend in terms of 'media theory' why certain teaching techniques are successful, and others not. Media theory is thus possessed of "explanatory power" when brought to bear within the teaching context.
         Teaching, then, is to be viewed as a medium. The "form" of this medium is the way it gets done; e.g., lectures, discussions, reading assignments, movies, slides, cassette tape-players, psychoanalysis, shock-treatment, or the ingestion of certain drugs. The "content" of this medium is what gets taught, and will usually involve the student's eventual command of a certain set of abstract relations, and presumably the ability to work his way around that web of relations in concrete applications. Examples of these relational nets are the following disciplines: arithmetic, geography, nuclear physics, sociology, existentialism, clinical psychology, and perhaps even peace of mind. The form of a teaching medium is thus an adverbial property of it; the content of a teaching medium is its alleged substance.
         In the traditional view of things, one might want to claim that the form of the teaching medium stands to its content as the means stands to its end, or as the channels of transmission stand to that which is transmitted through them. The traditionalist in regard to teaching is thus a certain sort of media-theoretician sans le savoir: one who affirms the primacy of media content over form.
         However, pure content, just like the substance of the 17th century metaphysician, needs only itself in order to exist. It doesn't require the participation of anything or anyone else, whether these be knowers, Gods, or students. There is simply no room to participate in it, and thus never any inclination to do so. It is for this reason that the traditionalist in regard to teaching is not likely to be a good teacher. The web he weaves is closed and tight, and looks only for the blind affirmation of its beholders, and never for any help from them. He never makes a 'call' to his students, and thus never elicits in them that feeling on which a motivation and its consequences — a 'reply' — might be based.
         Teaching is a medium. When it is done with an eye to content — facts, things, and allegedly real relations — it is a hot medium. For the reasons sketched out above, hot media are poor teaching instruments.
         Cool media, on the other hand, are those of our extensions, or projects, which encourage the personal involvement of their beholders through a subjugation of content to form. It is never perfectly clear what cool media are about. There is always a sense of ambiguity or incompleteness about their object, which, from the standpoint of the student, amounts to an invitation to join in and participate in its definition. Cool media entice their victims by webbings which are open, relatively ill-defined, and hospitable. Cool media are thus good teaching devices, since they allow the basic participatory experiences with which, according to our motivational psychologist, the learning process begins.
         Ironically enough, cool media techniques (such as audio tape, or the genuinely Socratic dialogue) have been traditionally excluded from the teaching scene as being somehow subversive or 'gimmicky'. Instead, hot media techniques (such as the classroom lecture and the objective exam) have been taken for granted as being the only ones suitable to the task at hand. If in doubt, educators have been inclined to fill blackboards first, and hearts only later. This is perhaps to be explained, even if not excused, by the fact that it is in the name of conceptual content and its eventual proliferation that the educational profession is wont to justify its existence to the remainder of the community. Hot media emphasize content not only as an end but as means, and thus allow such justification to be made with ease and aplomb. Cool media, on the other hand, bear no obvious relation to the acquisition of factual content, and have been for this reason abandoned to the parasites and hangers-on of society: to the frivolous, the decadent, and the practitioners of art. Their proper role in teaching has thus been abnegated in the name of teaching itself. They have been ignored by those whose attentions would have been most appropriate.
         It is in the face of this sad litany of paradox that the cool media theoretician asks for attention and redress. He asks that content be allowed to begin as it must, with feeling. He asks that trumpets be heard first, in order that their message might later be thought. He is a man of balance, compromise, and compass. He is not, to be sure, one who calls for a wholesale replacement of the idea with the incoherent, cacophonic 'vibes' of a truly guerilla classroom. Nor should he. Pure content, in splendid isolation, does fail to motivate, and thus a concentration on it alone constitutes poor teaching. This does not mean that content ought to be done away with. It does suggest, however, that the acquisition of content might best be turned over to the student as his own project — a project to which he will more eagerly turn when 'called' by the creators of media cool.