a parable for online teaching


The early 1930s. Pre Nazi Germany. Walter Benjamin, philosopher and cultural critic, regularly presents a twenty minute “book lore”programme on German radio.

In his story “On the minute”  Benjamin tells us that when his programmes were first commissioned, the department manager told him that the most elementary mistake novice broadcasters made was to believe that they were giving a lecture to a mass of people. This was not the case – each radio listener was alone. Rather than reaching thousands of listeners, the broadcaster only ever reached thousands of single listeners. Transmission was one to one.

Benjamin goes on to reveal that his first broadcast did not go smoothly. He carefully rehearsed and timed his presentation at home. However, half way through the broadcast he glanced up at the studio clock. To his shock, it said that his time was running out. Benjamin hastily improvised a shorter presentation, jumping ahead in his written manuscript. He finished and then waited for the regular announcer to arrive in the studio to take over. And waited. No-one came. He then looked up at the studio clock to find he had several minutes left – he had misread the clock and finished well ahead of time.

Benjamin was panic stricken and realised he needed to find something else to say. There was, he says, a minute of silence.

I’ll let Benjamin finish the story.

An indescribable terror came over me and immediately following that, a wild determination. Salvage what can be salvaged I said to myself, and ripped the manuscript from out of my coat pocket, took the first best sheet from the omitted ones, and began to read with a voice which seemed to drown out my heartbeat. I was lost for any other ideas. And since the piece of text which I had grabbed was short, I stretched out the syllables, let the vowels soar up, rolled the Rs and inserted meaningful pauses between sentences, Once again, in this manner, I reached the end, the correct one this time. The announcer came and released me, obligingly, just as he had greeted me earlier. But my disquiet persisted. Therefore when, the next day, I met a friend who I knew had heard me, I asked casually for his impression. “It was very nice” he said, “only the radio receivers have a weakness. My one had a whole minute’s interruption again.”.

I love this story for all kinds of reasons.

I love the story because anyone who speaks in public can relate to Benjamin’s anxious glances at the clock, the fear of going over or under time, and the absolute agony of finishing early, the deafening silence and you with nothing left to say. I’ve been there. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you have been there too.

I love the way that Benjamin, the ultimate episodic writer, suggests that he could mix up the order of his writing and there was actually nothing lost. The listener could still piece it together and make sense of it. Benjamin makes a silent inter-textual nod here to both flaneurie and the agency and meaning making capacity of the listener.

I particularly love the way in which the listener blames the technology for Benjamin’s human mistake. It’s the radio stupid. I hope our/your students are similarly inclined and blame the platform, not our pedagogy. . It’s Zoom. Ah Skype. Well you/I can get away with that for the first and maybe second time, as Benjamin did, but perhaps not for very long.

And I love the story because the notion of speaking to thousands of single listeners is also important in online teaching. When we are “transmitting’ we are speaking to single learners, even if there are multiple faces present on the screen. But of course, we can create sociality online, in ways that Benjamin could not. But that sociality doesn’t happen automatically, we have to structure ways to get people to move towards becoming participants and away from being individual listeners.

And I love the story because, well, because it’s just a lovely read, as well as a parable for our time.


Benjamin, Walter “On the minute” in The storyteller. Tales out of loneliness.(2016) London: Verso. pp183-186.

Photo by Maximilian Hofer on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, audience, online teaching, pedagogy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to a parable for online teaching

  1. Susan van Schalkwyk says:

    Thank you, Pat. Such a great story. Today, for the first time, the entire undergraduate programme at my university goes online. We start the day with much trepidation – your post provides a hopeful perspective.


  2. Douglas Taylor says:

    Thanks, Pat, useful as always. I gave that same advice to my son who is an English teacher. You may have seen this story? Just loved it. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/professor-goes-viral-teaching-doll-amid-coronavirus.html


  3. imprografika says:

    Many many thanks!!great reference.


  4. dolphinwrite says:

    I have a question for those entering the new era of education, for we believe even after the current “crisis” in over, online teaching will be part of schools, perhaps as a form for students and parents to review lessons previously taught. What kind of education will the students receive? Most teachers, and certainly good ones, know that teaching is a challenging career, but one well-worth the time if young people are prepared for the future, teaching them to venture forth without fear, but with energy, preparations, and joy for opportunities. Will teachers be able to interact with their students? Will they be able to think outside the box? Will they be able to supplement lessons and create innovative projects? And as each day passes, with thousands, even millions of words being spoken, will they feel comfortable knowing every parent, every adult, every administrator, every agency, will forever have access to every word spoken for it will forever be in computer land. And knowing this, as the years pass and some teachers are fired for something they said once, years ago, how will other teachers feel about the profession and their ability to be a positive example in young people’s lives. Or are we all going to experience a sterile environment, realizing every word spoken will be scrutinized, up for debate, and many will have to go to education camps if they want to keep their jobs. What will the future look like?


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