When Plutarch’s young friend Nicander started university, the writer sent him a treatise with advice on how to listen to lectures, De recta ratione audiendi. Much of it remains astonishingly relevant today for today’s students, even if I don’t like his first simile and, under no. 3, I think laughing and smiling are perfectly acceptable!
1. Don’t Go Mad Socially in Freshers’ Week
Sudden absence of control from home unchains the impulses towards pleasure and the feelings of suspicion towards hard work. “And just as Herodotus says that women put off their modesty along with their undergarments, so some of our young men, as soon as they lay aside the garb of childhood, lay aside also their sense of modesty and fear, and become full of unruliness”.
2. Don’t Be Late to Class
“Some think it only right that the speaker shall come with his discourse carefully thought out and prepared, while they, without consideration or thought of their obligations, rush in and take their seats exactly as though they had come to dinner, to have a good time while others toil.
3. Lecture-Hall Decorum
Even with atrocious lecturers, it is imperative “to sit upright without any lounging or sprawling, to look directly at the speaker, to maintain a pose of active attention, and a sedateness of countenance free from any expression, not merely of arrogance or displeasure—not only frowning, a sour face, a roving glance, twisting the body about, and crossing the legs, are unbecoming, but even nodding, whispering to another, smiling, sleepy yawns, bowing down the head, and all like actions, are culpable and need to be carefully avoided”.
4. Don’t Hold the Class Up
Don’t be like the students who “hold back the speaker on every possible occasion by inane and superfluous questions, impeding the regular course of the lecture”.
5. Don’t Introduce Irrelevant Questions
“Those persons who lead the speaker to digress to other topics, and interject questions, and raise new difficulties, are not pleasant or agreeable company at a lecture; if it is on ethical philosophy don’t ask about science, maths or logic”.
6. Don’t Demand Spoon-feeding
Some students do no work themselves, “but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and pre-digested”.
7. Be a Good Listener & Don’t Interrupt
Avoid being like “those who instantly interrupt with contradictions, neither hearing nor being heard, but talking while others talk, behaving in an unseemly manner...forward and contentious”. “Guard against proposing many problems or proposing them often. For this is the mark of a man who is taking occasion to show himself off. But to listen good-naturedly when another advances them, marks the considerate gentleman and the scholar. An offensive and tiresome listener is the man who is not to be touched or moved by anything that is said, full of festering presumption and ingrained self-assertion, as though convinced that he could say something better than what is being said, who neither moves his brow nor utters a single word to bear witness that he is glad to listen, but by means of silence and an affected gravity and pose, seeks to gain a reputation for poise and profundity”.
8. Don’t Condemn or Acclaim Teachers too fast
For you too are capable of “poverty of thought, emptiness of phrase, an offensive bearing, fluttering excitement combined with a vulgar delight at commendation”. But don’t be a sycophant because you will get “no benefit from the lecture because it has been made full of confusion and fluttering excitement by your continual applause” and you will be regarded as either “a dissembler, a flatterer, or a boor”.
9. Ignore Peer Pressure and Make Up Your Own Mind
Do not distract yourself by turning to look at “the other persons present to see whether they are showing any pleasure or admiration”. Just as when a person leaves the hairdresser “he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming”, you should evaluate the lecture afterwards independently.
10. Learn to Take Criticism Constructively
“Admonitions and rebukes must be listened to neither with stolid indifference nor with unseemly emotion”. Do not laugh at the criticism, “nor listen unmoved, grinning, dissembling in the face of it all”. On the other hand, don’t be demolished by it, “running away if you ever hear a single word directed against you”, because shame has no place in education. “Indeed, even if the reproof seems to be given unjustly, it is an admirable thing to endure it with continued patience while the man is speaking”, but go to him privately afterwards to discuss the matter and ask him to keep his severity “for some real misconduct”.
I recognise all the types of student Plutarch describes here: I also recognise his less edifying teachers. Here’s to a lovely, civil, constructive and happy new term in lecture halls across the land!