It’s hard to remember it now, but just last week it was sunny and seventy. One day it was so fine that it felt unethical to conduct Communication Ethics class inside. So, we positioned ourselves in the little amphitheatre outside the library, beneath the yellowing locust trees and gave ourselves to the task of understanding Plato’s and Kant’s notions of telling the truth. The students were unusually focused. I felt in the zone. It was good to be teaching and learning.
After a few moments, Justin James raised his hand and said, “I hope you know, we’ve just made it into a year’s worth of Trinity’s promotional materials.” We all craned our necks, and, sure enough, there was the good Peter Clevering taking photos of our outdoor classroom.
The truth was—and it’s important to tell the truth when you’re teaching the categorical imperative—I had seen the camera all along. So, while I was teaching about truthtelling, I was practicing a bit of falsity myself by pretending I was oblivious to the zoom lens. Or maybe it was an experiment in the grammar of marketing and communication.
If I gesture this way and crane my head that way, does the zoom lens come into action?
If I bend towards this student, while gesturing towards that student, will the photographer be more likely to take a picture?
If I step back and point at the library, will I be found in a photo?
Call me narcissistic. Call me self-conscious. Call me cynical. You would be speaking the truth, even by the strictest of Kant’s dicta. I am, at one time or another, all of those things. But I had a similar experience last year in the editing suites of the ARCC, when a photographer came to snap some pictures of an audio production course. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a course in radio, but let us tell the truth: audio production is not visually stimulating. It’s a small space, and you’re talking about faders and potentiometers. You might discuss an edit decision list. You might swap out an XLR cable. But most days it’s not teaching made for television.
Audio production class is the pedagogical equivalent of having a good face for radio.
So, the photographer just sat there, waiting for something. And we all felt ourselves waiting along with her. It felt mildly apocalyptic. Something was about to be unveiled. Surely, revelation was upon us. Soon and very soon, we would be found worthy of the photographic image.
I honestly can’t remember my motives in doing what came next, but I remember that something like this happened: I bent towards the computer screen next to a student, putting my hand on the desk, and pointing at the screen. A simple action, right? A genuine action, motivated by an impulse to foster deep learning, no? But there was something suspiciously right about the moment. It felt too much as if we were moving in the flow of the universe. Actually, it now feels in retrospect like I was moving in obedience to a director’s blocking, as if our class had been scripted, choreographed, dramatically delineated.
Up went the camera. A quick twist of the lens. A heavy millisecond, holding the pose. And then, the consummation, the image captured.
Now, thinking back on it, I recognize that the pose was almost identical to the image on the College website of Professor Ellen Browning pointing at the screen of a graphic design student. Somehow, that action is part of the visual grammar for marketing and communication. It’s an approved action for teachers and students to take. I’m not mocking that grammar. It’s pretty hard not to work within some kind of visual grammar, some sense of how images should be. But I am a little uncomfortable about how I found myself tacitly fumbling, trying to get things right for the lens, swapping out my own grammar of teaching and learning for the camera’s.
I know I’ve been thinking from the perspective of a teacher here. But don’t you find something like this in your own experience as students? In a world lined by speakers and screens–when everyone has a camera on her phone–we are always (as sociologists Abercrombie and Longhurst point out) audiences and performers at the same time. We have a perpetual theatre-going sensibility. The lights are coming up, the music is already rising, the camera lens is just coming into view.
I’m struck this morning in reading a rather self-conscious passage in the book of Philippians 3 that St. Paul too thought quite a lot about how his life would be remembered, captured, named, imaged. As you find yourself navigating the performance demands of this day, you might check out that passage on your smart phone and give some thought to how he wished to be found.