In favour of openness

The UK's article on the live streaming of lectures brought together many threads from recent discussions on our website, according to lecturer John Flood. 'It is heartening to read that the University Board and the Rector Magnificus are in favour of openness.'

‘Although it was a short article, your piece on the live streaming of lectures brought together many threads from recent discussions in your magazine. It is heartening to read that the University Board and the Rector Magnificus are in favour of openness and I detect in these remarks a subtle and welcome indication that the selection of rectors, deans, et cetera may be live streamed in the near future. Naturally, I’m not saying that they have to be, but I wouldn’t object to this happening.

The advent of new technology is always painful for some people and I freely admit that not all colleagues will be as happy as I am about the possibility of the live broadcast of their performances. Not everyone is as good looking as I am (see my Facebook page) and their lectures are not always as interesting as mine, but I think that this problem is one that can be overcome.

The difficulty that Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Cambridge, and an academic of noted ability in communicating her ideas both within academe and to the public, suffered last year when, after a TV appearance, she was attacked for being too ugly (I recall that her genitals were described by one troll), was surely an unusual one.

I very much doubt that if lectures were put into the public domain (and once they are streamed, they are in the public domain), that any staff involved would be subject to personal ridicule of any sort. Were one to be very cautious about this, the lectures could be delivered by actors whom the university has hired for the purpose; perhaps retired news anchors with good voices, clear diction and uncontroversial haircuts.

Some of the anxiety about switching over to English in lectures could also be solved as it should be easy to hire actors who are fluent in several languages. With the right people, the lectures could be broadcast in the new campuses in Friesland and China.

Only a very small increase in campus security would be necessary to meet the consequences of broadcasting lectures on politics, bio-ethics, religion and other controversial subjects. Currently, even with a lecture hall of more than a hundred students, a lecturer knows how to pitch the treatment of issues about which there are deep feelings. This ridiculous self-censorship would be unnecessary in the brave new world of universal broadcast!

Fears that inboxes would be flooded with emails from strangers who object to what I say about the Protestant Reformation are surely exaggerated and, in any event, it wouldn’t take long to answer these messages or simply to ignore them. Anyone who considered an attack on a journalist or public figure would be possessed of enough respect for academic openness that, by and large, this isn’t a relevant consideration.

In other countries, the gutter press might pounce on a ten-second clip from a lecture that dealt with race, death, sexual abuse, solipsism or string theory and air it, demanding to know what taxpayers’ money is being spent on, but Groningen would be immune to that.

Those who are opposed to the broadcasting of lectures don’t have enough confidence in the university’s staff. It’s only a very small proportion of people who spend their lives in libraries and laboratories who are introverted (and the actors could take care of these – new employees at the RUG could be interviewed in part for their televisual abilities and gradually the introverts would die out).

The legal training in the copyright questions involved in reciting four lines of poetry for broadcast need only be given to those people who work in the twentieth century, and I’m confident that no one would fail to understand international copyright law, and that if they did, the rights holders would be forgiving.

For my own part, I regret that when, in a recent lecture, I extemporised that I was happy to have visited one of the local school – since I am interested in seventeen year olds – that no one recorded this and that I can’t get a continuous loop of it on YouTube.

I am willing to put in a little extra time to add formulae such as ‘as argued by Smith’, ‘as first suggested by Jones’ to every second line of my lectures so that I do not appear to be passing off others’ ideas as my own and students would soon get used to this as a sort of verbal tic.

Smith and Jones would, if they think at all, understand that I have used their works selectively or that I have simplified them for a first year introduction course and they would not conclude that I am either inept or malicious (it might be helpful for there to be a sign behind the lecturer indicating what level the lecture is aimed at): such sniping and delicate feelings are the province of politicians, not professors.

Some rambling fool who has been in my office tried to explain that openness is not a question of making everything public, but of facilitating people’s access to ideas; that one can flood people with information without helping them to engage with it, that, in fact, providing every scrap of information can bury something so deep that it is effectively lost. This inept psychologist spoke about affective dimensions to lecturing, but that seems quite irrational: information is information – who cares where it comes from?

That Dutch boy with his finger in the dike had the narrow-mindedness of a child: if he had let the water in, he would have found that a lot of us would have learnt how to float. There is no keeping back the tide of technology (everyone agrees on that) and there is an app for streaming lectures; therefore, lectures will be streamed and available for everyone and for infinity.’

John Flood is lecturer and coordinator of the Modern Literature section at the Department of English Language and Culture at the RUG.