You may remember that I began these twice-monthly essays in March of last year when the pandemic brought an immediate end to my lecture travels. Quite simply, I didn’t want you to forget me. Even though I could no longer speak to you in person, I realized that I could still write to you regularly and keep my strange and, I hope, unique voice in your eyes if not in your ears.
I so appreciate those of you who often write Darian your responses to these mini-compositions. Those of you who do email her know that I personally answer all of those replies which offer specific plaudits or criticisms. I love to read your praise and even your fault-findings, as long as you give me specifics which I can acknowledge.
However, I must admit that I really do miss the immediate, personal reaction which I used to receive the moment after my speeches concluded. There is nothing more gratifying to a public speaker than sustained applause followed by that excited buzz of grateful voices from a newly-inspired audience after an exceptional talk. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of such an audience many times, but I’m even luckier if I can create one.
Actually, it is the personal comments of those who come forward to speak to me following a lecture that impress me the most. I certainly have enjoyed my share of supportive comments, though a few compliments have definitely been of the left-handed variety. Once in Atlanta I spoke on “Why I Love The Victorians,” a topic I felt deserved an enthusiastic yet dignified tone. After I’d finished, I remember silently congratulating myself on delivering a highly spirited presentation worthy of my sophisticated professorial profession. Moments later, a bouncy little woman hurried up to the podium and blurted out: “I just have to ask you one question: have you ever worked for a circus?”
There is one comment that I get far more than any other. Please believe me when I tell you that I am repeating it here not because it is flattering (though it certainly is), but because it leaves me uneasy. I have lost count of the number of times someone has come up to me after a talk and said “I would just love to enroll in one of your classes.” Since I heard this remark from audiences in locations as distant from my university as Arizona, Maine , and even once in Petra, Jordan, I tried to deflect the praise by saying “Well, I appreciate that, but I’m afraid that the commute would kill you."
I really am flattered that people hear my lectures and believe that I would be a favorite teacher of theirs. But I’m uneasy with their response for good reason. What they have just heard me deliver is a meticulously prepared fifty-minute talk on a favorite topic of mine, delivered to an adult audience usually as eager to hear it as I am to deliver it. This utopian situation should never be confused with the actual environment of a classroom. In high schools and colleges, English instructors often find themselves having to prepare lectures on authors whom they either do not particularly like nor, occasionally, even fully understand. Also, during a busy semester these teachers may have less than a week to research and prepare the lesson. And let us not forget that they are then going to be addressing a teenaged student audience whose most profound interest in the lecture material is usually: “Will any of this claptrap (think that “B” word I won’t use here) be on the final exam?”
Because my adult audiences will not be tested on anything I say, they can (in the phrase of every airline pilot who ever addressed his passengers) “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight” of my own imagination and rhetoric. Students in class, on the other hand, must take as many notes as possible and then pray that the eventual scary test will fairly reflect my lecture. And so the ego rewards are greater when I lecture to adults, but the stimulating challenge was much greater when I taught students.
The difference between lecturing and teaching is as stark as that between thunder and lightning. As a well-paid national speaker, I could usually provide my audiences with some resonant thunderings and even verbal pyrotechnics, full of sound and hurry (I usually had less than fifty minutes), and signifying—I hope—far more than Shakespeare’s “nothing.” But when I taught my own students, on good days I could bask in the lightning glow of seeing them become, under my direction, more sensitive to great literature, or even better, more sensitive to their own essential selves. As any teacher knows, that experience is charged with a very special electricity. As to whether lecturing or teaching is more important to society, I do recall a favorite quotation from Mark Twain: “Thunder is good; thunder is impressive. But it’s lightning that does the real work.”
Darian and I thank all of you who faithfully open our emails, read my essays, and even attend our conferences during this period of extraordinary turbulence and tempest. You have proven to us that you are anything but fair-weather friends.
And so the forecast for your email inbox two weeks from this morning--Continued Warm & Sunny Elliot!