Commentary

Talking to a screen is not the same as talking to human beings in a room; Going to class is a ritual, an event

April 21, 2020 7:00 am

Florida State University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

PLAGUE-RAVAGED TALLAHASSEE—I’m in the middle of talking to my senior literature students about Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man when the cat sticks his two-tone muzzle up to the tiny camera and scrubs his cheeks on the laptop lid.

My students get a screen-full of feline face.

The cat isn’t known for his scholarly dignity, and I’m losing what’s left of mine. This is Day 28 of online college instruction, now dependent on a temperamental modem and a cloud platform called Zoom.

It just feels like eons.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad FSU, UF, and the rest of the state’s universities, colleges, and schools have closed their campuses. Classrooms teem with opportunistic germs at the best of times–and this ain’t the best of times.

I’m happy that teachers and students (mostly) have the technology to communicate with one another, and that–so far!–I haven’t been “Zoom-bombed” by some racist MAGA moron, unlike a professor at Columbia, whose Principles of Economics class got hacked by guys hurling insults at him or Ruha Benjamin of Princeton whose virtual storytelling session was interrupted by “a chubby white guy in a thong with his genitals bulging” who felt the need to make copious use of the N-word.

I’m grateful, too, that those of us with teaching gigs can present some approximation of a class online.

That doesn’t mean it’s a great educational experience. Or even a good one.

In my courses, we discuss tricky topics such as slavery, inequality, and white supremacy. But whether the subject is epic poetry or organic chemistry or 19th century German history, teaching is a series of social encounters.  You need to be able to read the room, and look someone in the eye, not just stare at the cold little light of your computer’s camera.

Learning isn’t mere ingesting and regurgitating knowledge.

You can (usually) see and hear each other online (though sometimes the mute-function goes haywire), but talking to a screen is not the same as being in a room talking to other human beings.

The screen is a barrier, keeping us from really communicating. Going to class is a ritual, an event (that’s the plan, anyway), not just another piece of passive click-consumption like buying a toaster on Amazon or checking out Trae Crowder’s new rant.

Sure, there’s an upside to online: you don’t have to wash your hair as often. You don’t have to wear shoes. Or even pants, though you should definitely 1. Get out of bed; and 2. Put on a shirt.

But beyond the chance to dial back on personal grooming, it’s hard to defend online ed.–except as an emergency measure. Indeed, it’s potentially damaging, especially for students who don’t come from the solid, middle-class homes both the government and the universities themselves generally assume they do.

We don’t like to talk about the digital divide, but it’s real.

During our current virus emergency, campus resources for first generation or economically disadvantaged students are largely unavailable. The library and computer labs are shut. As a result, two of my most interesting, lively, engaged students missed a week of classes because they didn’t have access to a computer.

Nevertheless, as long COVID-19 rules our world, educators and students from kindergarten to graduate school are stuck with the virtual classroom– to their detriment.

But, wait: it gets worse. Many of the Republicans who have run higher ed in Florida for the last 20 years would like “distance learning” to become much more prevalent. Along with then-Gov. Rick Scott, the Board of Governors declared they want 40 percent of undergraduate courses to be taught online by 2025.

That’s bad news for many majors: humanities, creative writing, languages, performing arts, fine arts, natural sciences, social sciences–all of which benefit from dynamic, spontaneous classrooms and hands-on experience in a lab or a studio.

And it’s bad news for those of us who think education is not just vocational training geared solely to getting a job, but a way to encourage people to think, to become authority-questioning citizens equipped to understand the broad spectrum of human experience: scientifically literate, culturally curious, and open-minded.

Such people would not, of course, be reliable Republican voters.

Having said online ed is a problem (as well as a pain for professor and student), I am nonetheless glad Gov. Ron DeSantis (finally) decided not to re-open Florida K-12 schools.

Instead, he allowed the re-opening of some beaches, which may not be the brightest of ideas, given that nobody practices social distancing on the beach.

DeSantis may cave into pressure from his patrons at Associated Industries, the Florida Chamber and the chuckleheaded “Don’t Tread On Me” types protesting gubmint overreach to prematurely bring back commerce.

But money won’t help if you’re lying there in a hospital bed, your lungs clogged, your organs shutting down.

I want us to get back to campus, get back to the store and the bar and the café and movie theater and everywhere else, but not till we can broadly test and develop good infection models, and not until there’s a treatment.

Maybe by then–whenever it is–we’ll have developed a greater appreciation for the good, old ways of classroom instruction.

Until that happy day, I’ll keep teaching barefoot and mildly unkempt, hoping the cat will shut up, hoping the students will keep logging on.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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