Thursday, September 29, 2011


Chris Beneke

My understanding of art history is tenuous. At best. But one thing I’ve learned from the popular science writer Jonah Lehrer is that a revolution in 19th-century painting coincided with the advent of a disruptive new technology.* That technology was the camera, and the artistic innovation that it encouraged was Impressionism. With the emergence of the camera, Lehrer writes, “painting lost its monopoly on representation.” Once the static could be captured by a mechanical device, the painter’s comparative advantage resided in his or her ability to convey the fleeting, sensory-laden character of everyday experience. Representation gave way to impression, symbol, and expression.

There may be a lesson here for academia, and historians in particular. Educationally related technological breakthroughs of recent decades—yellow lined paper, VHS players, Laserdiscs, PowerPoint, the insulated thermos mug—could be harnessed by the lecturing professor in the traditional classroom. DVDs and YouTube allowed the professor to illustrate her points with a vivid film clip, or to catch a rejuvenating 45-minute nap. However, the larger cyber universe won’t be so easily tamed. The internet, as we have been told, is a genuinely disruptive technology. There will be no napping.

None of this is news. Dan Allosso has been writing about the radical and generally positive impact online learning is likely to have. I wrote something myself a couple of years ago. And nearly every day, someone pronounces the end of the university as we know it. Usually, that person is Kevin Carey, but not always. Online learning clearly presents a challenge to the way things have been done. (If you doubt it, ask yourself whether you are capable of giving a better lecture on a particular topic than anyone in the world—or check out Jonathan Rees’ blog.) It’s concurrence with an increasingly untenable college cost structure should be worrisome to all of us.

Setting aside the daunting tuition and student debt issues, the parallel rise of the camera and Impressionist painting offers us an example of how a disruptive technological change can result in the sort of transformative change that Allosso, Carey, Rees and others been talking about. Like the Impressionists, we need to capitalize on the ephemerality and distinctiveness of each classroom situation, every day. We also need to presume that the seats bolted to the floors in our lecture halls and classrooms will not be occupied because a professor happens to be standing in front of them delivering the same lecture—one now easily recorded and distributed—he has been giving for the past 15 years. Because of the web’s capacity for delivering knowledge to us in the comfort of our homes or our carefully guarded Starbucks tables, the live lecture’s marginal utility as a means of conveying static truths to a passive audience has diminished, maybe forever.

History teachers need not wholly despair. For years, pedagogical experts (don’t smirk, there is some truth to the designation) have been telling us that students need to be actively engaged in order to learn better anyway. Until now, many of us have been able to evade the implications of that insight because our anecdote-riddled sixty-minute accounts of past events have been so, well, engaging. But like the 19th-century artists who found that their value as purveyors of verisimilitude had faded, we too need to develop creative ways to use history to expand our audience’s understanding of the world. That’s a cliché I know—like telling a baseball team that it needs to win one game at a time. And this process will prove challenging for people like me who have always seen ourselves as doing our job best when we represent the past most faithfully. But it may already be past time for us to think seriously about painting water lilies.


* It’s conceivable that my art history problem is related to the fact that I derive my conclusions about the subject from popular science writing, but I digress.


Gabriel said...

Great analogy, Chris! I like the idea that we can follow the example of the impressionists. I would add, though, that there is something about being in an appointed place together, at an appointed time, that enables learning in a way that making my lecture available on the intranet or internet would not. In the same sense that I think many contemporary church-folk use it, I think there is something powerful in being a community, gathered together, even if it is just in a lecture hall.

Jonathan Dresner said...

It's worth noting that the photography/impressionism relationship is a bit more than just "oh, lets all go paint water lilies now": it was a substantial disruption of the job market for painters. The ones who'd been exploring new techniques and aesthetics continued; the ones who'd been working as portrait and scene painters.... well, not so much work anymore.

Photographic and multicolor printing technology, as well, made the reach of innovative painting much greater: the audiences for successful artists were bigger, due to other technologies, making it even harder for less successful artists.

Change hurts.

Chris Beneke said...

That's a good point, Gabe. There are actual people attending those popular TED lectures. And many of them probably paid to do so. The church analogy is also a powerful one.

Thanks Jonathan. That is worth noting. As was probably evident, I wasn't suggesting that this would be a painless transition, just that it would be better to make some virtue of the necessity, and perhaps diminish the pain a little in the process.

Dan Allosso said...

Great post, Chris! I really like the metaphor, including the implications Gabriel & Jonathan note.

I think another lesson we historians can take from our own work is contingency. There isn't just one route through the past, even in subjects as well-worn as the surveys. I sat in a few times on Leonard Richards' survey lectures at UMass, just to hear him talk. It was really magical in a sense. He could have taken the lecture in so many directions, that part of the fun was wondering "where are we going today." I don't know if all the students got it, but every once in a while, someone would ask a question that seemed to be aimed at deflecting Richards onto an interesting tangent.

I've tried a number of times, to put talks that went very well in front of students onto the web as videos. Mostly, they fail, I think. Partly because I'm just not that good at it yet -- but also partly because they lack that spontaneity and contingency.

hcr said...

Great points, Chris, but after a long day of writing, what really struck me is your sense of humor. Your timing is perfect in this piece, and I needed it! Thanks!