Educational furniture often has the whiff of pomposity and the ‘lectern’ stinks of the stuff. That most visible symbol of that disastrous carry-over from church to university, the lectern, speaks volumes about the pedagogic poverty of the lecture. It’s a phoney pulpit from which teachers play at being priests. What it encourages is the view that knowledge is fixed. The books that lay on the lectern were meant to be read aloud, the fixed scripture of the Bible, Koran or Torah. The lectern says “the book which is laid on this altar is holy and must be believed, or thou shall go to hell, or worse, fail thy exams”.
What lecterns do is encourage dry lectures. That padded out, one hour (Babylonians had a 60-based number system) of relentless speech that has far more to do with lazy preparation than pedagogy. Give people who are inexperienced at teaching a prop and they'll use it and use it to literally prop up themselves and poor teaching, whether it be lecture notes or text-ridden Powerpoint.
Stand and deliver
The lectern fixes knowledge but it also fixes the speaker. It roots them to the spot and encourages that insidious practice of reading a lecture from notes or worse, verbatim from sheets of paper, or even more ghastly reading out a published paper. This destroys teaching in Higher Education, and kills conferences stone dead. Generation after generation of students get spoon-fed, or worse bored rigid, by this repetitive reading. When the lecturer lectures from a lectern, profession, practice and pomposity all meet on this one spot.
Speak don’t read
My heart sinks when a speaker stands stock still behind this wooden palisade, scared to come out and show themselves, fearful of the reaction. My heart sinks even deeper when I see the glasses go on and the sheaf of notes appear. I know I’m soon to experience psychological distress as the nodding movement from paper to audience casts the spell of indifference across the entire lecture or conference hall.
I’ve seen people step behind a lectern and say, “Good morning, my names is (glance down) Nigel Jobsworth, from the Department of Regurgitation or University of Dullsville, and I want to speak to you today about (glance down) this very exciting subject… (reading from paper). I’ve seen speakers reduced to sweaty, quivering wrecks because their notes have ended up in the wrong order. Without the written word they’re confused mutes. I’ve seen a Russian Professor at a UN conference talk for a full hour (to the minute) in a monotone voice, ignoring even punctuation, from her notes, announcing at the end that she was a Professor of Communication (I kid you not) from the University of Moscow. So hypnotised was I by this act of absurdist theatre that I neither understood nor remembered a single word.
Death of oratory
Academic and political oratory have been dealt a death blow by the steady retreat away from speaking honestly from your own mind, towards speaking literally from notes. In the case of politicians, it is notes written by flunkies, who strip life away leaving nothing but the banal bones of written prose or what they think are soundbites, but sound like the clichés they are. Just as bad are the academics who seem to think that lectern delivery exudes academic seriousness. It doesn’t. Reading is not teaching.
The lectern is only any good for holding a laptop. It’s something to walk away from, to avoid. Think TED and you can’t go far wrong.