Alexandria Online

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Do We Listen to Lectures? Authors and the Web of Authority

The Shipley School, Penn Charter and The Episcopal Academy, three k-12 co-ed independent schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, held a joint professional day last week. By pooling our funds, we were able to hire an eminent and expensive scholar in the field of educational innovation and reform, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap.

Tony have a well-polished presentation to about 400 teachers and administrators, including a half-hour documentary that he had produced. My colleagues and I had differences with various points, but there was general agreement on the high caliber of the presentation. We accepted him as an authority on his topic.

His first slide, appearing in giant dimensions on a theater screen, prominently displayed just his name, department and academic institution. The picture (this is a link to says it all:

Harvard: if you graduated from there, and someone asks you what college you attended, you know that you have to react to or somehow deflect the response you are going to get. Shy people just say "Boston" and change the subject; even the arrogant twitch a little when they answer. Harvard has almost become a parody of Harvard in the current college admissions environment; likewise, it's authority has almost become a parody of academic authority.

When we three schools got Tony Wagner on board we got a lot of message power regardless of the actual message: a living, breathing authority in front of us, an excellent presentation, his authoritative book, his authoritative documentary, the Harvard effect, and 400 other people all listening at the same time. We saw his body language, listened to the timbre of his voice, asked questions, watched him move. Harvard approved him, three schools approved him, and all the people in the audience approve of his importance if not his message.

You can read Tony's blog,, and you can read his most recent book, but nothing pushes ideas around as much as getting 400 people in a room and making them listen to him in person. It's like spinning a web: every time related ideas emerge from other sources, they get tied into the experience of hearing it from the author himself.

Almost being there is almost as good as being there for tying an idea into the minds of the listeners. At The Episcopal Academy, one of our graduates, Bernard Yaros, spoke at an assembly from Yemen via google video chat about the political upheaval there. I was skeptical of the impact this would have and worried about getting it to work, which was my responsibility, but my doubts were assuaged by the quality of the experience.

First, and most importantly, Bernard's presentation was excellent: perfect length, perfect message, great transitions, articulate speaker, a  seamlessly coordinated PowerPoint, and beautiful photos that he himself had taken. The quality of his presentation was equivalent to Tony Wagner's, which made us all proud.

While we could hear Bernard perfectly, the video was of pretty low quality. The entire presentation could have been digitized and played back with higher fidelity and much less hand wringing about whether or not it would work, whether Bernard's electricity would cut out, whether Yemen would shut down the Internet as Egypt had just a few weeks before.

Not only did Bernard present; he also answered questions from the students. This feature made the the experience much more authentic. Then there was the danger factor. Bernard had been at the university a few days earlier and had been walking home when he heard the shots that produced a massacre there. We were witnessing Bernard in real-time, just as he had experienced the danger at the university in real-time. Not the same as watching something prerecorded. I think our students feel they got the real story from a highly authoritative source.

Authority is a web: we know Bernard, we know where he went to college (Williams -- as good as Harvard for all intents and purposes) and we know what a young man like him would be doing in Yemen and consider his motives legitimate. He does not have a book or a tenured position, but he is one of us. We hear his voice and see his face. The school has authorized him to speak to 400 students and teachers who listen intently to him. We recognize the quality and character of his presentation as something we associate with authority.

This sort of venue -- a speaker presenting to an audience in person or virtually in person -- will become more important as people use online resources more. We can only trust what we read online if we have a trustworthy web of authority to bind it to. The strands of that web build gradually over a lifetime of experience.

Authority originates from individuals. By sitting in the audience at these two presentations my web expanded a little. I got to know Bernard Yaros, and through him, the political situation in Yemen, and Tony Wagner, and through him the global changes in education.

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