Published on May 14th, 2012 | by Charles Gonzo6
The Anatomy of a Gonzo Lecture
In order to embed and operationalize new knowledge in useful contexts for learners, it always helps for educators to provide live cases to see how the knowledge can be transferred for use in the environments for which it was developed. At the cutting-edge of pedagogical practice, the gonzo lecture is definitely no exception.
Developed as an antithesis to government-prescribed systems of teacher training, the gonzo lecture encompasses many of the characteristics found throughout the other facets of the wider gonzo community discussed in the pages of this very journal.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson has left us, but his works live on, with their distinctive characteristics. There will only ever be one Dr. Thompson and, I believe, only one writer who will ever write like him.
However, I came across a half-witted notion expressed recently by some associated with my vast social network that some believe that gonzo passed away the same day as Hunter himself. Blogs such as this alone dispel such a notion. However, it’s useful to consider that the elements of gonzo existed in many ways and facets before Hunter himself. I’m assured by other respected students of the field, such as Rory from Totally Gonzo, that even Mark Twain embodied in his writings the notion of the transformative road trip.
Gonzo journalism is certainly still around and exciting all kinds of people. We see gonzo in all kinds of cultural forms – admittedly some of it’s not very good – and true connoisseurs of the gonzo vibe know the difference when they see, hear and read it. I’m learning about it all the time. People I know are studying PhDs in gonzo. Why not gonzo teaching, education and lectures? Why not gonzo field trips?
However, to understand the gonzo way in education, it’s important to face the decay and hypocrisy it seeks to escape. Simply put, UK government-led teacher training initiatives are often worse than total crap. This statement will, no doubt, not immediately sit well with my learned and conscientious, career-teaching fellows who’ve thus far dedicated their professional lives to trying to make the world a better place through their design and delivery of quality education. Well that’s just an obstacle they’ll have to overcome if they continue reading.
It’s not that difficult to overcome the idea that to control a society you have to control its citizens and the best way to control their minds is via education. To facilitate such control then becomes dependent on controlling the teachers who design and deliver it. Teachers can be powerful, individual agents, or rendered impotent by state demands to conform to its agenda.
So the best move of any government truly serious about remaining in the business of government is to ensure that teachers serve the states’ ends. Therefore, there have been countless attempts to control teaching practice over the centuries. These attempts range from prescriptive curricula – very popular in the UK school system of late – making sure certain topics are taught and examined a certain way. Recent media reports have unmasked a system where school children “graduate” in huge numbers only to be found incapable of reading, writing and performing basic arithmetical tasks. Other reports have linked certain, for-profit school and college examining bodies as being in the market to make their exams as “accessible” to school children as they can, driving up their paid-adoption by schools which seek higher pass rates and therefore are able to maintain the illusion that they’re therefore better performing school. It’s all about the free market in action, not really whether kids are any use to themselves or the world at large.
However, when I sat with some educators a few weeks ago to discuss how awful and useless national teacher training was as a system with its unconvincing outcomes, they rose up in arms against the power of my gonzo, only to eventually be convinced to a man and woman that I was right, by the use of basic reason.
The argument was simple. They’d all come into the profession because they saw it was worthy, and with the mantra that wanted to “change the world by changing it one mind at a time.” They all altruistically wanted their students to “be the best they could be.” A favourite movie they always quote as a major influence was Dead Poet’s Society. They always remember Robin Williams as the rebellious teacher, prepared to take on the antiquated, elitist system of schooling that swore “it was dangerous to get students to think for themselves” and employed innovative, engaging learning strategies to win young hearts and minds.
Teachers often appear bleary-eyed as they recount the adventures of this moralistic tale. This is until I remind them that the outcome of the Dead Poets Society was that one guy betrayed the rest because of his discomfort, another was expelled for his behaviour, and yet another blew his brains out. The only “success story” was Ethan Hawke, who seemed incapable of doing anything other than standing atop his desk shouting “my captain, my captain!”
The real product of the rigid and unengaging public schooling system is possibly at best a bunch of materially ambitious, overtested and instrumentalist school leavers. These conformists mostly lack clear direction, can rarely get entry into careers and almost by default end up sitting in the classrooms of public universities.
This was an easy option up until the early 1990s as the UK tax payer almost wholly picked up the tab. So it was a legitimate license for students to drink local bars dry, smash shit up and attend the odd lecture now and then. This pleasant past exists no longer as successive UK Conservative governments, who are anti-taxation anyway to the benefit of the richest in society, decided to make students pay their own way. The fact that this inequity continues and is getting a lot worse, is probably another discussion for another time.
The result is classrooms are full again with students willing to pay fees to undergo study programmes focused on stuff that’ll get them work when they graduate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an exercise, just more hoops they feel they need to jump through on the way to never-ending paydays and all the shit those’ll buy. Who blames them?
Of course, programmes that don’t offer jobs at their end – like philosophy or history are being seriously fucked right now. In fact many humanities departments are closing these offerings down as being “unviable.” Pretty shit if you bother your arse to get a doctorate to teach philosophy because now you probably have a job no more. And the fear and loathing grows.
So now we’re a little stuck between a rock and a hard place. We’ve got institutions which don’t like us to fail people because that’s bad for business. We’ve got students who don’t want to fail because they’re paying to “buy” a piece of paper that’s promised to be the expediter of their dreams and we’ve got an economy that’s not really brimming with new jobs.
In between the consequent cycles of drunkenness and depression, the average university academic is faced with a stark dilemma. Facing the average lecture theatre full of hundreds of untouched minds, they have to ask themselves “how can I reach these kids?”
I believe the method lies in the application of the gonzo lecture. This is less an application of a set of pedagogical techniques and rather more the adoption of a state of being. Someone once attempted unhelpfully to define “Gonzo journalism as something Hunter S. Thompson does.” Similarly, the Gonzo lecture is what the Gonzo lecturer does.
As with Hunter himself, it involves the living out of life as art. For the gonzo educator, this is lecturing which is crazy, ecstatic, uncontrolled, using the first-person narrative to convey factual information. It includes the lecturer as the central character of the lecture. Much of the lecture cannot be accurately characterised as fiction or non-fiction and includes profanity, humour, exaggeration and embellishments of the facts being presented. This is life as art, a chaotic encounter resulting from the corruption of the educational dreams for sale.
In order for this to take place, the lecturer must have the appropriate mindset. They must have a topic with related points to convey with their critical considerations to hand. This is then thrown at the audience using various methods, in an enigmatic, raw and unedited style. It’s a fusion of reality and stark fantasy that amuses the speaker and outrages the audience – point of view run wild. The result is an often-funny set of presentations and interactions that’s generally popular with a student audience which is generally jaded by the ineffectiveness of the standard lecture delivery style. They’re engaged by its subjectivity, its craziness and extremism and its dark references to sex, violence, and other taboos, with its wild humour. The lecturer is transformed from elitist boffin into unconventional, confrontational hell-raiser.
I recently posed a question to an international consortium of leading educators about the gonzo style of teaching. I was surprised, astounded and in some cases disgusted by their responses.
The question was:
“Where’s the gonzo in your pedagogy?”
The replies which came forth displayed a wide variety of discourses, displaying world-views and themes that following suitable, interpretative analysis could be categorised into a good number of groups.
As this research is part of a much wider and ongoing research project, which is funded by a variety of important bodies and stakeholders, it appears appropriate only to share the rawest of excerpts for my privileged, insider readership here at Go Gonzo Journal.
It should be made clear at the outset that the validation of the following cases is still underway and that this writer has no direct knowledge whatsoever of any of the situations or incidents being described. It should be stressed that the staff and editor of the Go Gonzo Journal accept no responsibility for any of the behaviours being described – in particular the ones that appear to depict potentially illegal activities or may have lead to physical or psychological harm of any of the people involved. In such cases, the names of the protagonists have been altered to protect the guilty.
We’d also stress that these incidents were conducted by specially trained Gonzo Education Practitioners (GEPs) and should not under any circumstances be attempted in your own learning spaces without similar training.
All that follow seem to demonstrate isolated “gonzo incidents” rather than whole sessions devoted to gonzo delivery.
Theme 1 – Escape
A) The strange case of professor Gepetto who delivered a lecture on Health and Safety law in the largest institutional lecture hall. A critical realist, he opened a lecture with an angry rant about an oppressive government campaign to greater regulate the ordinary lives of its citizens through Health, Safety and Risk legislation ads an artefact of what he called the “nanny state.” After reportedly calling the UK coalition “a bunch of scum-sucking, unelected Pig Fuckers” he then proceeded to lambast a real-life case of a pending government ban on an annual-centuries old cheese rolling festival.
Reading from a large, leading textbook which gave an account of another, official government report, the professor highlighted how the government had refused to allow the event on the official grounds that “hundreds of people running at the same time down a 45 degree, grassy slope trying to catch large, rolling wheels of cheese was potentially hazardous to the health and safety of the participants.”
Highlighting the ridiculous restrictions of complex laws and the detrimental affects on the communities they were intended to protect, he wrenched a plastic stand from the top of the table in front of him. He read the bold, printed message from the university offices of facilities management:
“Dear lecturer, please read the following directions to all students using this lecture theatre (not wheelchair users).
In the event of the fire alarm sounding, please leave the auditorium via the nearest door.”
Professor Gepetto paused and eyed his audience coldly. “So what does this mean for your safety?” The question, though clearly rhetorical, had the audience thinking. Raising his eyes to the solitary figure sitting in rear corner of the stalls. “You,” his eyes narrowed, “you in the grey hoody.” He was pointing, “leave through that door behind you. Leave now.”
The sullen youth slowly stood and trudged to the door, yanking at the handle. “It’s locked” he confirmed.
“And what does it say on that door?”
“Fire Door – Please Keep Locked.”
“So!” the professor declared triumphantly, “…we can therefore surmise that all in all, my friend, in the event of fire, we can say in Health and Safety terminology you appear to be pretty fucked.” The student nodded to his laughing peers.
“And that’s an able bodied person, ladies and gentlemen,” professor Gepetto continued. “What about if you were indeed one of the fated wheelchair users ignored by this very edict?” He waved the sign with emphasis. “Then we could say, you’re even more fucked!” The audience’s hilarity grew. “In fact, were you a wheelchair user then the message from the Office of Facilities Management in the event of fire to you is FUCK YOU WHEELCHAIR USER! LET’S MEET JESUS!!!”
As the roars of outraged laughter subsided, Professor Gepetto began to critique the general account of the development of such dysfunctional laws since the Elizabethan era, and the book from which it came, which had apparently been written by his academic nemesis at a neighbouring university.
This detailed critique eventually descended into broader comments such as “this book is a pile of fucking bullshit” and “it reads like a retarded goat-herder wrote it, rather than someone who’s so obsessed by the rich smell of his own farts to consider that maybe rather than a leading thinker in the field, he might be a total fuckwit.”
At the conclusion, the professor added “this book is so shit, I reckon I don’t need it on my shelf.” Dramatic pause as he stared at the audience “…who wants it?” The throngs of learners stretched before him, as far as the eye could see.
“Me, me, me!” The chorus rose. A sea of student hands raised in the air.
“Then take it!” He launched the book into the air as if it were a Frisbee. It sailed in a perfect curve toward the ceiling of the great auditorium before making a sharp descent into the mountain peak of hands that swelled to meet it. The scrum dissipated to leave a single, triumphant young woman clutching the white volume aloft, shouting, “It’s mine!”
Years later, professor Gepetto was still being introduced on campus to final year students, who were heard to exclaim “yes I know you, I took your year 1 class. I was there when you threw the book. Though not sure that lecture complied with health and safety law. In fact, you’re damn lucky you didn’t kill anyone.”