Learning technology in the medieval lecture theatre


I’ve had a couple of conversations this week about the medieval university, largely along the lines of “things haven’t changed that much”. Indeed there is some foundation for that claim. But in reality the early universities were more diverse than we might imagine. Present day debates about what universities should be like would benefit from revisiting this diverse past so as to inject a broader understanding of what they could be like and why they have been so constrained (mostly to stop us fighting with the locals and the priests).

For my PhD I touched on this a little. I especially enjoyed Hunt Janin’s book The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499 (2008). That gives a sense of the origins of our often strange ways of doing things. Most interesting are the differences between southern and northern European traditions, with different responses to the need to deal with the emerging and often disruptive new classes of people – masters and students with a dangerous relationship to the clergy and the craftspeople in who’s towns they practised. The University emerged as a compromise, a way of safely accommodating these forces, a way of stratifying their nomadic intensities in the medieval world. And yes, much of what we recognise within the organise of universities today does hark back to those times.

I really do recommend Janin’s book. For the philosophically minded, it would be especially be productive to read it from the perspective of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, which gives a rich conceptual framework for modelling dynamic interactions of nomadic and sedentary forces. It fits well with their anti-functionalist view of history (which itself follows Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses/The Order of Things) – institutions, practices, assumptions that seem natural now were in fact formed by complex dynamics during often short periods of time, the expression of conditions and desires that have long since dissipated, and which are buried deeply in the past, often disconnected from the resulting phenomenon (Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge is intended to recover the memory of the non-functional conditions through which our ideas were formed). In this way, history reveals its own absurdity, the realisation of which may free up our relation to the future. That’s Nietzsche coming through, but let’s not dwell on it (philosophy joke).

Here’s a few tasters relating to the evolution of the lecture format, along with some 21st Century comments…

“Masters taught in two ways: the lectio (reading), when they read aloud and painstakingly explained an authoritative text while the students listened passively, and the disputatio (oral disputation), in which students themselves played an active role in debate.” (ibid. KL 566) The lecture/seminar diad – things haven’t changed that much then.

“…the basic aim of teaching in the medieval university was to transmit to students, uncritically, selected parts of the medieval world’s received (inherited) body of learning” (ibid. KL 425) What, no Wikipedia?

“…a master would carefully read an approved legal textbook to his students – word by word, line by line – and would painstakingly explain the meaning and application of every sentence. Medieval law students had to memorize the opening words of enormous numbers of laws and to be able to recall them immediately and in proper order to keep up with the lecturers, who would refer to them quickly and without pausing.” (ibid. KL 861) I don’t suppose they bothered with student satisfaction surveys.

“At first students took notes on wax tablets and did their best to keep up with the lecturer’s flow of speech. When they fell behind, they might respond by hissing, groaning, or throwing stones to try to make him speak more slowly.” (ibid. KL 672) if only they had ResponseWare, much violence would have been avoided.

“At the canon law school of the University of Paris (and presumably at the Faculty of Arts as well), lectures by the professors were delivered without notes and, in the predawn darkness, without any light either…Since it was impossible for students to take their own notes without any light, they tried to memorize the gist of what the master said.” (ibid. KL 698-699) Lecture capture tech required!!!!

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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