do lectures exist?

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I went to a fantastic event for Guardian Extra members last night. Alan Rusbridger (re-) presented the Hugh Cudlipp lecture he originally gave in January, with the title 'Does Journalism Exist?' It was a fascinating discussion of current issues facing journalists/ newsmakers/news proprietors, beautifully presented and in a nice, informal and collaborative atmosphere. It also got me thinking about lectures in general and what a lecture is.

When we were setting up The Lecture List, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the semantics and pragmatics of the word 'lecture'. Everyone agreed it had a range of negative connotations (dusty dons, puzzled students, ...) On the other hand, public lectures are more and more popular, so there's clearly something attractive about the events behind the word. In the end, we decided the site would survive the connotations and that the notion of what a lecture is might also begin to change as the public appetite for lectures increased.

Last night's lecture was an excellent illustration of why lectures are so popular. A chance to be in the same room as someone with expertise in a particular area (one speaker in the front row began his question by saying how 'privileged' and 'honoured' he felt to be so close to the editor of the Guardian and to be able to ask him a question face to face). And it was a very engaging presentation with supporting audio-visuals, humour and insight, followed by a very relaxed and open discussion.

My heart kind of sunk at the beginning, though, when he began by half-apologising for giving the presentation in the 'archaic' lecture format (he said 'arcane' and then corrected himself, which I guess was also revealing). It sank again when he said 'I'm going to read it, because that's what a lecture is'. Two thoughts occurred to me: the happy one that we're lucky most lecturers don't stick to etymology when deciding what a lecture is, and the dread anticipation of a lecture read from a script. In linguistics, reading lectures from a script is very unusual. In some other subjects, they're more common. While some speakers can read out a text in an engaging way, others do it in a way which means no-one can maintain attention.

Luckily, this was far from a boring, old-fashioned 'reading'. The topic was fascinating, the structure was clear and the delivery was very relaxed and empathetic .

The lecture convinced me that journalism does exist but that it has moved on from an old-fashioned form where 'experts' with privileged access select what readers will be exposed to. Also that it's not completely clear what range of things count as journalism. I think it also demonstrated that something similar has been happening to lectures.


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