Take, for instance, a lecture I recently gave my freshman composition students on the stealthy manifestations of ingrained misogyny on readers’ and critics’ responses to books by women. The lecture was relevant to all 23 of my students, but relevant, I imagine, in 23 different ways. Not every student needed to absorb the whole lesson. For some, it might have been more productive to think about their past responses to certain novels, or wonder how this might apply to their musical taste, or begin imagining how they might approach criticism differently themselves.
Read: The literature of the pandemic is already here
Cappello argues that lectures should play to the fact that real learning comes primarily from within: not from a teacher’s neatly presented ideas, but from the connections your own brain forms between them. For a lecture not to leave room for mental wandering and idiosyncratic interpretation, she argues, is to reject that truth. To some extent, this is common sense: I know that my 23 students, with their varying interests and backgrounds, will not all make the same intellectual use of my literary-misogyny lecture. Cappello suggests that I embrace this fact by reenvisioning the form itself as a series of embarkation points for thought. Rather than attempt to present one unified argument that my students must absorb, I, the lecturer, should strive to awaken their various curiosities, then guide them into “the sort of quietude where thought occurs.”
This goal might be a bit abstruse for everyday teaching, and Cappello provides no practical guidance. In my literary-misogyny lecture, I endeavored to create quietude with anecdotes and digressions, modeling wandering in the hopes that my students might wander a bit too. How well that tactic worked is hard to say, but my students did seem energized in the discussion that followed. In the remote classroom, conversational vigor is in and of itself a success, and one that might point to the strange utility of Cappello’s argument. Teaching during a pandemic requires flexibility on all fronts: attendance, curriculum design, subject matter, and expected student response. It requires understanding that students are hard to reach right now, for more reasons than just the screens between us. This fall, my students are juggling school with work, family responsibilities, election anxieties, and coronavirus fears. Some are quarantining; some have been sick.
Intellectual life is hard under such circumstances. Far easier is slipping into an existence that Cappello describes as “a dim assemblage of rote transactions and the automated reaching toward a cellphone.” If my lectures can energize students by offering an “occasional shake” from that existence, then I have achieved a small victory. If I can meaningfully orient students’ minds toward new possibilities, then, by Cappello’s standards, I have provided a valuable service, even if, by the end of my writing class, half my students are ruminating on possibilities that have little to do with writing. What matters—in a lecture, and an education—is, after all, thinking itself.