The Surprising Value of a Wandering Mind

In a time of Zoom lectures and distracted students, a new book champions an underappreciated state of being.

(Yael Malka)

In college, I took a three-semester class sequence on European intellectual history taught by a long-tenured professor, Mary Gluck, who lectured straight through each session, usually reserving the last five minutes for questions. To some, this model was a nightmare; I loved it. Her lectures on topics including Haussmann’s urban design and Hegel’s theory of history were so finely honed, so expertly delivered, that I felt as though she had hinged my head open and deposited knowledge inside. Though the courses were challenging, learning from Dr. Gluck felt, in a certain sense, effortless. She delivered her scholarship to me, and I, lucky student, got to take it home.

However, the polymorphic nonfiction writer and English professor Mary Cappello suggests, in her excellent new book-length essay, Lecture, that I was misinterpreting my intellectual role. Midway through the text, which at once defends the lecture and calls for holistic and creative improvements to the form, Cappello writes, “Fastened to our seats in the lecture hall, we aren’t funnel-heads into which a lecturer’s knowledge is poured.” On first reading that assertion, I bristled: Wasn’t I? But I now see how tenuous the conditions were that helped me learn so easily in that style. I was a full-time student living on campus; I was an insecure perfectionist afraid to speak in class, but obsessed with the mandate to learn. I arrived to lectures in a purely receptive state: present, undistracted, and eager to be taught.

Ten years later, I am a doctoral candidate taking and teaching courses online amid a pandemic, and I know better than to presume that either I or my college-age students will come to class in such a state. Remote learning renders presence theoretical, distraction all but inevitable, and eagerness an uphill climb. On Zoom, absolute receptivity is very difficult to achieve. Remote learning asks us, as Cappello does, to reimagine the humanities lecture as a teaching tool that works even, or especially, for the distractible listener. To Cappello, in fact, distraction is the heart of the form. She argues that lectures are a tool for sparking thought, not for imparting information. (Presumably, she excludes certain highly concrete fields: I doubt that Lecture applies, say, to medical-school professors.) She believes that the lecturer’s role is to activate listeners’ minds—and if that sucks some into daydreams or rumination, that means the lecture is a success.

Cappello is pro-inattention only to a degree. She wrote Lecture pre-pandemic, but I doubt that she would have suggested that students mute their teachers on Zoom or play Animal Crossing during class. Indeed, she believes that the very sound of a lecturer’s voice helps keep us submerged in thought. She recalls attending a talk by the influential evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and becoming fixated, halfway through, on “the detail of how a tiny bone that had served as the gill-support in fishes came in time to take up residence in the mammalian inner ear.” She missed the rest of Gould’s points, but “[needed] his voice” to keep thinking about the tiny bone, rather than more personal or prosaic concerns. To Cappello, this semi-distracted state of “not not listening” is both relaxing and psychologically healthy. Like meditation, it “enables one part of the mind to wake while the other simultaneously sleeps.”

Cappello’s preference for deep but diffuse attention makes her close intellectual kin to the writer and artist Jenny Odell, whose 2019 book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, rejects the laser focus that life in “a world where our value is determined by our productivity” demands. Odell seeks “hidden springs of ambiguity and inefficiency” in contemporary life; Cappello suggests that lectures could provide exactly that, though only if speakers release themselves from the obligation to impart maximum knowledge in minimum time. In fact, she asks them to take less seriously the obligation to impart knowledge at all.

Odell emphasizes inefficiency by way of emphasizing what Cappello calls “wandering ways.” Both writers argue that intellectual meandering is key to real learning and, further, that the ability to take such detours is a skill that many of us must consciously nurture. “In 21st-century America,” Cappello explains, “there is so much that holds or demands our attention without requiring our attention or altering our attention.” What if a lecture tried to do the latter? What if a college professor’s primary purpose was to help each student focus not on checking curricular boxes, but on using course material as a window into their own experiences, curiosities, and needs?

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.

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.