Review: I Didn’t Invite You Here to Lecture Me – in defense of a collective experience

Erin Harrington reviews I Didn’t Invite You Here to Lecture Me, presented by Artsense Productions, at Little Andromeda, Friday 10 February 2023.

The writer and producer of I Didn’t Invite You Here to Lecture Me, Amy Mansfield, clearly took some pretty good notes during her time as a university student – better than most. This one-woman show, directed by Nick Dunbar and performed with command and focus by Mika Austin, is composed of lines transcribed verbatim from seven years’ worth of lectures at the University of Auckland. There’s facts and figures, but also a colourful array of offhand comments, anecdotes, verbal tics and meandering digressions, all woven here into an hour-long account of how we construct and understand our place in the world. But it’s also about education, communication and collective experience, and as someone who is an academic, the show makes me – and my aca-companions – feel seen (and picked on) in a manner that is equally enjoyable and absorbing.

Austin enters hastily with a sense of exasperation, wearing a slightly shabby suit, her hair slicked back. She shuffles and taps lecture notes, eyeballing the room, and waving her arms at the malfunctioning projector. She has a terrific sense of physical specificity; the sold-out audience cracks up. Throughout the show she cycles quickly between personae, marking shifts with different glasses, accents and physicalities. It’s impressive, astutely observed, and often very funny. There’s a captivating elderly, wheezing Shakespeare lecturer who speaks at a glacial pace with a sepulchral voice. A peppy Aussie linguistics lecturer tries to show with some borderline inappropriate examples how words create meaning, how speech brings things into being. A swaggering, charismatic Irish lit lecturer treats their lecture like a pub yarn, and a sardonic law lecturer who’s likely seen 30 cohorts of students before this one eyeballs the crowd like a lazy old tiger looking at a plate of meat. A bolshy music lecturer who has no time for the slack vowels of pop singers takes us through vocal exercises, and a stern German lecturer who has no time for the frivolity of the Romance languages tells us to get with it or get out. I particularly like the sharp, direct nature of the public policy lecturer and their not-so-subtle digs at students to think about what it is they take for granted as natural (not least, student debt), and why. “Any resemblance to real people is coincidental”? Hmmm, okay, wink wink.

I admit the structure and trajectory of the show evades me for much of the performance, outside its focus on particular overlapping themes – birth, death, identity, knowledge, being – although I see the skill with which the show has been collated. The fact that these lines have been transcribed at all by Mansfield, let alone their selection for the show, also shows some interesting editorial choices; after all, we are what we pay attention to. The hour has a stop-start quality because of the different energy levels of the lecturers, but there’s something very engrossing in the ebb and flow. It becomes charming, as we wait to see how each speaker will interject, enrich, undermine the previous one, or veer us into another area of inquiry. Perhaps these shifts between sections could have been better signaled? I don’t know, but I’m similarly not sure if it matters too much.

The producers have been very canny; I, and my colleagues at the University of Canterbury, have received emails at work slyly promoting the gig as a way of reflecting on academic professional practice. Honestly, great move! Like shooting fish in a barrel. I attend with (let’s call them) the art historian, the architectural historian, the political scientist, the singer, and the long-standing arts administrator. I know of others who have attended earlier in the week. We spot people from Lincoln and Ara, and hear (and to be honest produce) lots of whispers in recognition / horror, including some about pinching these lecturers’ approaches and material. The audience is also notably older and far less diverse that Little A’s usual catchment, reflecting one of academia’s big problems.

Overall, I really like that I Didn’t Invite You Here to Lecture Me is interested in the lecture as a genre, with all its tics and relationships and tropes and dynamics, throwing it back at people who live it from the lectern. Austin’s performance, and command of the room, is razor sharp. Talking afterwards, we all have favourites and start slotting our colleagues into these archetypes. But I am most taken by the final moments, when Austin steps right forward and quickly cycles through each of the lecturers as they ask us what we are going to remember and take from these sessions. I see two things.

The first is the way these lectures and perspectives start to accumulate, informing one another, highlighting each other’s blind spots and strengths. Literary accounts of death and desire offer a complementary view to those in music or the law. Shakespeare’s slippery, doubled language takes advantage of the simultaneous specificity and malleability of the English language, which is similarly manipulated in the intricacies of the policies that shape our everyday life. The flippant tone of one lecturer achieves as much, in its own way, as the precise oratory of another. More than essays and facts and ticky boxes it is this, this prismatic complexity of thought, often lumped under the banner ‘critical thinking’, that ideally sits at the heart of education – but only if you are paying attention.

This is because the second thing is about how education, the class or lecture, like theatre, is a collective, embodied experience that takes place in time (duration, time to think and reflect) and space. There’s currently a profoundly individualistic turn in education, hastened by the rapid shift to emergency online learning during the pandemic. It is bolstered by a user pays model that frames education as a commodity to be consumed as and where needed, and students as clients to be satisfied. [insert 2000 word digression into pedagogy under neoliberalism] At its worst, it treats higher education as yet another subscription service (an expensive and bad one imo). Everything, everywhere, all at once, but only if that ‘everywhere’ is the screen of your device. The notion of boredom – which is a paradoxically productive state – has been voted off the island.

I am not advocating for a wholesale return to the ‘sage on the stage’ model of one-way delivery (no matter how much I enjoy listening to this show for an hour), even though good lecturing of this genre is a genuine type conversation or interaction between the speaker and the listener. I’m also not trying to undermine the way these shifts challenge the many biases of higher education, for instance by expanding accessibility for those with complex lives and health, whānau, and employment needs.

But in these final moments, after an hour of engagement and shared experience in a packed room, I think of the way the heat maps on recordings of my lectures show how many physically absent students watch the first ten minutes for some definitions then switch off before the discussion begins, or the widely-acknowledged student practice of not attending then binge watching these lectures at double speed come exam time rather than turning up. I think about the dozen or so emails I have received in the last week from students informing me, for a variety of reasons from good to terrible, that they will be doing my in-person courses by distance (huh? is my response) or asking for dispensation to do group work alone or to make up in-class participation grades in other non-participatory ways. I think of how lecture theatres that five years ago used to be 60-80% full are now 10-20% full, and how much that messes up the way the classroom functions, how counter that is to principles of ako and reciprocity. I was talking to someone who works for a media organisation the other day about work, and they remarked that they regret not taking advantage of their film and media studies lectures and tutorials, of the library and its film collections. I mean, I was a pretty shit student too; it’s the educational version of youth being wasted on the young. For many students it’s clearly a fear and denial of being present, of being uncomfortable or vulnerable. And today it’s easier than ever to opt out.

When you pay for education, you are also paying for a relationship with others, for time to sit and think in real time, to hopefully feel something. You’re paying to share that space and experience (that joy, that confusion, perhaps that boredom or frustration), and then talk about it after. When you go see theatre you do the same. Otherwise, why bother? It’s hard to quantify and advocate for these intangibles, but listening, being present, paying attention, having a relationship with those around you, not scratching around on your phone multitasking, is good. It’s so good. You might not remember the specific details of the facts, or have written down lines verbatim, but as with a beautifully performed show like this you’ll come away knowing more than you realise.

I Didn’t Invite You Here to Lecture Me ran at Little Andromeda from Wednesday 8 – Friday 10 February, 2023.

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