Science’s shamans

René Magritte, “La Traversée Difficile”

Lecturing is not about knowing everything, it’s about being good at learning. And science’s shamans are the best at it.

The spectacle of a teaching lecture is so mundane that it’s easy to forget what a magical process is occurring. The seats, the screen, the dimmed lights…there is more than a hint of theatre, and if you squint a bit, you can perhaps even find that umbilical connection all the way back to the amphitheatres of classical civilisation when audiences gathered to be tutored in the truths of human nature by Euripedes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. Reach further back, and you might find a campfire and a simpler ring of seats, and a ring of faces turned up to a single figure in their midst.

It’s something fundamental to the human species and a key driver of our cognitive and technological development. The speaker absorbs knowledge, filters and concentrates it, and then releases it to their listeners. 

Jim Morrison of The Doors conceived of the rock star as being the modern-day counterpart of the shaman in those wilder settings – an emotional lens for the band’s audience, and a focus for their psychic and sexual energy. But if rock stars are an emotional lens for their audiences then lecturers, perhaps, are an intellectual one.  

Like shamans, their role is to bring new knowledge and insights from a different world to share with their listeners. To pass into a spirit world of acquired information, peopled with both the dead and the living, filled with the knowledge acquired over generations of professional and biological lives. To plunge into that ocean of data, to listen to the babel and maelstrom of published work, to immerse oneself in it, float in it, and then spongelike to absorb it. Then, bloated and barely able to contain it all, to channel and release it in one focused jet. To strip away the ephemera and magnify the essentials. To highlight the technical advances. To note the trends and convergences and commonalities. To convey where this story started and where it’s going right now.

It’s easiest if what you’re teaching is within your core knowledge base (it certainly makes lectures quicker and easier to prepare!), but ultimately it can be about anything within your branch of learning. That’s what a university pays you for, and that’s your special skill. It’s not trivial. It’s often unrelated to research performance or reputation, but it is a critical and irreplaceable part of the academic and intellectual enterprise – especially so nowadays where specialisation and complexity have meant that research fields have grown farther and farther apart. What else is the endless agonising over the value of research if not a howl of confusion and bewilderment? 

Nowadays there’s so much information that choosing what to show, explaining it, communicating it clearly and pitching it at the right level for the audience is a rare skill. A contemporary journey into cyberspace to retrieve information requires a psychic immersion through the portal of our computer screens to match anything in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. We praise interdisciplinary research, but take for granted the interdisciplinary thought and interdisciplinary comprehension that goes into lecturing. To be good at learning is 

The half-life of information in the human brain is short, but the half-life of inspiration is long. We never forget a good lecturer, even if we’re left only with the ghostlike impression of what they communicated rather than the substance. But it’s that Geist that remains with us – something that the lecturer brought over from the other side, which attached itself to us and which provides a lifelong fascination and a connection to a portion of that realm of ideas from which it came. And which, in some small way, we can contribute to.

In the era of Big Data it’s those who can filter, purify, and refine information who are needed more than ever. But those specialists already exist, hiding in plain sight, and have been for years. We can develop AIs and algorithms but no amount of technical ingenuity will supplant that primal and irreplaceable experience – gathering together to be tutored by the wise.

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