Academiology I: Ritual

Published on 2024-02-08

I have this one professor for two of my classes this semester. Both on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The first class is pretty straightforward. Most of the stuff we're learning at this point is very conceptual. there's some math that's a bit confusing, but otherwise, it's just a matter of taking the notes and studying them later. It's okay, as far as lectures I've had go.

The second is a lot more interesting.

It's a lot more math heavy. I mean, it should be a course built entirely around mathematical proofs, as far as I'm concerned. The subject is very mathematical and it invites a very rigorous sort of approach. That's not really the way we approach it, though. The things we're learning are presented as tools to use to tackle problems. My professor tries to give us some intuition for them, but importantly, nobody in the class seems to understand.

This, I think, is why this professor is kind of unpopular among students in the department. This, in spite of the fact that they're really not a bad educator at all. They're one of the many professors whom you can really feel are a lot more invested in their research than teaching their classes. Teaching the more conceptual first class seems easy for them--it's a fairly straightforward transmission of information, but that lack of investment shows itself in the second.

The students don't want to attend lecture, and the professor doesn't want to teach it. So, why do lecture at all?

Because if there was no lecture, there would be no university. Lecture is one of the many rituals we perform to actively create the university experience.

Ironically enough, that second lecture is one of my favourites this semester. People still show up, but when they do, they usually don't pay much attention to what the lecturer is saying. They just log into discord and shitpost about things tangentially related. The value of the lecture is much less the information being actively transmitted--realistically, you'll need to learn it from scratch on the assignments either way. It's the relationship between students that exists while the lecture is occurring.

Most of these people I wouldn't talk to outside of class. Usually I don't even know their names, just whatever it is they chose when they signed up for Discord. Those relationships exist almost exclusively between the time class starts and it ends.

In ecology we speak of two kinds of niches:

  • The fundamental niche: the theoretical set of all ways a particular organism would interact with its environment if the circumstances allowed it
  • The realized niche: the subset of the fundamental niche, representing what the organism actually does in practice.

I think that lectures similarly have a fundamental and realized niche. One of the many values lectures are meant to provide as a part of their fundamental niche is knowledge transmission. That may or may not be true in practice. Nonetheless, lectures do often still have a realized niche. They always have some value.

Even if you have no friends in a particular class, even if learning through a particular lecture isn't helpful to you, I still think there's a lot of value in attending them.

I know people who've had a particularly hard time in a given semester, who ended up checking out of a lot of their classes. They often say that after a while they start to feel like an intruder on campus--like they're not meant to be here. It feels very isolating, and I think there's a lot of truth in the idea that university starts to feel less real the less you attend lecture.

Without lectures, university may be an engaging intentional community, or a place where you work within walking distance of your home, or a town square, but it's not really "university." Lectures are the ritual that tie all those disparate components together into the experience we know.

In the somewhat rare case where I truly don't feel like I get any value from being in lecture, I show up, sit in the back, and read whatever textbook chapter the professor is lecturing from. The mere act of getting out of the house goes a long way towards putting me in the frame of mind to concentrate on learning something new, and while attending university, there's no place more natural to do that learning than the classroom.

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