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Wine writers and universities: more in common than you’d think?


The Huffington Post had an interesting piece the other day on The Impending Demise of the University that reminded me that what we see happening in wine writing is happening also across many sectors of the culture. Basically, the author (described as a consultant to government and business leaders) sees “a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.”

The old model of teaching is “the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students” giving a “one-way, one-size-fits-all” lecture that leaves many students “isolated in the learning process.” He contrasts this with how today’s young people, “schooled on Google and Wikipedia…want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education.”

The author has advice for professors: They “will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students — shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one.”

There are eerie and obvious parallels between this point of view and the criticism that social media-ists are giving to traditional wine reviewing. To paraphrase the blog-twitter critique, students [wine consumers] no longer want to be on the receiving end of a top-down “lecture” from the “professors” [famous wine critics] who give a “one-size-fits-all” [wine rating] lecture that does not allow the student room to inquire, converse or be interactive. (I think I expressed the social media case fairly. If I didn’t, I’m sure they’ll let me know.)

Surely this is the nugget, or one of the nuggets, of the long conversation we’re engaged in over where wine writing and reviewing is going. It’s an important conversation, and, by the way, one of the reasons I like blogging is because it does enable me to have an interactive experience with readers; I enjoy the comments and I often reply to them.

I need to say this, however. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned — I haven’t been inside a classroom in more than 20 years, except to give a few talks about wine — but when I went to college, it was to learn from people who knew more than I did, not to have an “interactive conversation.” Sure, it wasn’t all one-way; in my Heidegger seminar on Being and Time, for example, we had a lot of back-and-forth. My philosophy professor was happy to “rap” with us, and, as we were usually all stoned, it worked out pretty well.

But for the main, I went to school to learn from older professors who knew more than I did and were willing to teach me. I wanted more to listen than to talk (although I also wanted to feel free to raise my hand and ask a question or make a point, which I did). Have things changed so much now that that is no longer the purpose of a university education? Maybe the answer has some relevance to the future of wine writing.

  1. Hi Steve-
    I actually do think this is a nice analogy, but I don’t entirerely share your concerns (partly, I’m sure, because I am one of the “students” in this analogy). I agree that the old fashioned top-down university model is still important for many fields of study in which there is objective, fact-based expertise that can only be learned from seasoned professionals, historians, mathemeticians, astro-physicists, etc. On the other hand, there are some courses of study that are all about self-discovery and self-instruction, guided and supported by other students and professors. I received my Master of Fine Arts degree. The reason I sought the degree was not because of the credentials it offered (not exactly highly respected in most circles), but because I knew I still had much to learn from fellow art students and professors. I depended upon my professors to teach me particular techniques and to push me to invent my own. My classes were not about instruction, but about discourse, self-exploration, and critique. It was a very self-disciplined discipline, with professors acting as mentors, guides and thought partners. THIS is the dynamic that I would love to see in wine writing– where professional wine critics are present as mentors and as experts in technique and history, but support and encourage bloggers to explore wine for themselves, to cultivate their own senses and to develop their own voices. Will you be willing to play this role?

  2. Wine Conscience: Yes, that’s a role I hope I do play.

  3. “when I went to college, it was to learn from people who knew more than I did” – Of course! That is *learning*!
    Before you can ask questions and explore areas of interest, you have to assimilate a body of basic knowledge.
    How eager would we be to see a doctor or consult a lawyer if, as students, they got to pick and choose what they studied and learned?
    Arguments of dogmatised myths and fallacies aside, you can’t have an intelligent conversation when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  4. Wine Conscience:

    Wine is also “objective, fact-based” – else there would be no V&E degrees offered.

    Any discipline can be seen as “vague” or “subjective” when one is ignorant of the underlying facts and scientific principles.

  5. How about the Socratic method? The teacher has to be really on top of things, but it’s quite interactive.

  6. Stunning comment by Wine Conscience. I almost forgot what I wanted to say about the post itself.

    The old system of education has value to a point. What universities will have to focus on is providing supplemental sources of information that can allow students to explore their roles further in that study. How’s this for a simple change–have digital recordings of all lectures. Allow students to tag certain sections of the lecture with questions and comments along the timeline. At any point a student can stop the lecture and answer a question/continue a comment. The professor can also get involved linking to supplemental materials or expressing their own expertise. All of a sudden the conversation is no longer bounded by the time we have in class and there is an archive which allows us to easily follow the flow of information.

    Yet whatever the method, inevitably successful education is decided by the drive of the student to learn.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    To me this “interactive process” is bullshit. Or I never understood the learning process. People who complain that they don’t learn because a professor doesn’t teach them the right way, or are boring, or don’t “relate” are missing the point. The problem is the pupil, not the professor. Today’s pupil thinks that if they don’t learn it is the professor’s fault. They expect to be entertained and for knowledge to flow into the little brains and stay there without effort on their part.

    The only thing a professor can ever do is give a person access to information and give them some help when they get stuck. I don’t think anyone ever taught me anything. I had to learn it for myself; the result of asking myself a question and finding the answer. I would say by today’s standards my enology professors were all “one way, one size fits all”, but I never had a professor who wouldn’t answer a question, give some direction, and help me probe deeper.

    The last thing we need is for 50% of class time spent listening to students who think they have something interesting to contribute.

  8. Surely there is a middle ground. Yes, I want to listen and learn from those that know more than myself. But I do find I learn more if there is an interactive element to the process. Hopefully, we will continue to evolve and look for best practices in all arenas, be it academics, wine, etc.

  9. I don’t believe that the “old model of teaching” is going away but that alternative models are being offered to today’s college students to address their diverse needs.

    As the Director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, I have found that there are many student who are capable of learning the science of Viticulture and Enology in an interactive, online classroom.

    The Southern Oregon Wine Institute is a division of Umpqua Community College (Roseburg, Oregon) that is engaged in developing and delivering an instructional program in Viticulture and Enology to serve students from a seven county area in southern Oregon. We serve Douglas, Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Klamath and southern Lane counties. Students are taught in an Online/Hybrid method with lecture components delivered at a distance in on-demand, web-based formats while the laboratory components are delivered in face-to-face sessions at UCC and local vineyards and wineries.

    Our college is not alone in approaching today’s college students through online instruction. Chemeketa Community College (Salem, Oregon) is developing online curriculum to serve the needs of a consortium of colleges in Oregon.

    Many students who are place-bound and would find it difficult to commute to a regional institution are accepting of this form of instruction. Some of my student can remain employed in the wine industry while advancing their educational goals.

    There are some potential students who will perform better in a traditional face-to-face classroom. To accommodate these students, there should be concurrent classes offered in both teaching modes.

    I suggest that there is a place for innovation in higher education. With proper guidance, colleges can offer innovation in their teaching methods to make the science of Viticulture and Enology approachable to all who wish to study these subjects.

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