When I was an undergraduate student around the turn of the century, lectures were very different compared to what they look like today. For starters, students actually showed up religiously and took extensive hand-written notes. I still have notebooks full of lecture material and I confess to looking at them to this day when I need a refresher. Another key difference is that lectures back then were often flashpoints of controversy and genuine debate. Today, students are all too often spoon-fed a sanitized version of the material.
I had some wild lecturers when I was an undergraduate. One (when I was studying abroad at the University of Buenos Aires) was a far-left revolutionary Marxist who suffered torture at the hands of the Argentine military junta and advocated a deep-seated hatred of the United States (my country of birth and citizenship). Another would encourage, and perhaps even incite, tense debates between progressive and conservative students over the merits and drawbacks of affirmative action policies in higher education. I have had atheist professors mock Christians and Goffmanian professors intentionally offend students in order to illustrate the dramaturgical principles of rule-breaking. I’ve even had professors tell off-colored jokes that, in today’s climate, would probably result in student complaints and disciplinary action.
What I’m saying is that, when I was a student, I was often uncomfortable, and at rare times even deeply uncomfortable. The lectures I attended were confronting. Sometimes I left feeling offended or even hurt. Back then, there were no safe spaces on campus.
“Back then, there were no safe spaces on campus.”
Today, very few professors venture into controversy. The risk of cancellation is too great. A key difference between then and now is that everything we say in this day and age is recorded for eternity. Where we give face-to-face lectures, they are “captured” in audio format so that students can listen to them later. Increasingly, our lectures are now pre-recorded. Every word we say, every thought we dare to utter, every off-colored joke we make are etched in stone until the end of time. For a professor of mathematics or physics, this might not mean much, but for those of us in the social sciences, lecture capture necessarily means some degree of self-censorship.
Respect and dignity policies are essential, of course. No individual should ever be targeted, bullied, or harassed. But, as a recent review of academic freedom in Australia found, students do not have an automatic right to not be offended by what they learn. In fact, by shielding students from controversy at university, we are failing to prepare them for the fact that life beyond the Ivory Tower is chalk full of ideas and behaviors that will offend and hurt. We owe it to our students to introduce them to controversial ideas so as to build their resilience and prepare them for the fact that the real world will not cater to their feelings.
I think, perhaps, this is a wider critique of the digitization of higher education. An online environment discourages professors and students alike from being controversial. Perhaps even more damagingly, it memorializes mistakes, resulting in a sense of hyper self-censorship. Whom among us can ever say that we’ve never uttered something that we later regret? The err is human, but to err in an online lecture is unforgivable simply because it is unforgettable.
Higher education is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. It is meant to push you out of your comfort zone and challenge your worldview. We are here to prepare students for the world, and the world is at times brutal. For this reason, I increasingly lament the tyranny of recorded lectures because they prevent a free exchange of ideas.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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