the presence of social distancing

Working on laptop in forestI am probably taking my undergrads online starting Monday, as they return from spring break. This isn’t university policy yet, but it’s not NOT policy either. Most recent guidance states that “faculty may choose to take classes online as they determine best meets the needs of their classes,” and I so determine. It is time for “social distancing,” clearly.*

It is the smartest move now. My concerns about viral vectors into our mountains, especially as 18K+ young people return from across the state and further-flung places, are well-founded. I have been teaching the doc students via videoconference software for a while now, so we’ll just continue that work apace. There shouldn’t be too much disruption.

At least not in continuity. The syllabus will be addressed with few hitches. I will say things to a screen, and people on the screen will say things back, and we will call it school. Papers will be written and read, and grades and credit assigned. All good.

But not all good. I fear the disruption instead will be in other areas that are becoming almost impossible to argue for, especially as the technology becomes nearly seamless and more and more widely available.

The disruption will be in presence.

Presence isn’t just about seeing students and verifying that they are paying attention. We can do that better than ever remotely, now — better than we could just one or two years ago. In the conferencing software my campus uses, I can use cameras and simultaneous messaging and polls and breakout groups I can “drop in on,” like a teacher circling the room. I can even see what students are accessing in the online content management system. (Though I of course can’t know if, or how, they are reading what they have open. The sovereignty of the individual reader remains serenely intact, try as we might to crack it wide.)

Presence is instead somehow about the subtle but essential shifts that happen when everyone involved in learning decides that it is important enough to get up and compose themselves and physically go to its own special place to do.

Of course, there’s an ancient, delusional danger in pretending that dedicated school spaces are solely places of learning. “Learning” hasn’t been the only thing happening in school since we started having school. No one is “on task” in school, hardly ever. (I have sometimes felt that handwringing about phones in class was always misplaced, because it faulted technology for a reality that was not its fault.)

Because we are never fully attending when we are in class. We are passing notes, yes — but we are also daydreaming, looking at the light climbing the cinder block walls, the hair of the girl in front of us, our own marginalia that we doodle and act out. The worlds each student (and teacher) create in their minds are far more real than the one we are physically inhabiting together. Teachers worried about the distractions of technology seem to want to return to the garden — where they could pretend everyone was attending, because everyone knew the moves and agreed to detente, as long as the moves were enacted. The propped book, the empty but correctly-directed gaze. Maybe it’s just harder to pretend now.

Maybe the real challenge of synchronous online teaching is to determine if what we are doing is teaching, or the maintenance of a picture of teaching: a simulacrum. Susan Sontag — in another age of images and “telepresence” — noted that “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.”

But has there ever been a world of the classroom beyond an “anthology of images”? After all, the pretense of coming together in school is usually to share impressions and interpretations of texts we read in common (SS again: “Print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world”).

So if that’s the case, why can’t the act of sharing those impressions and interpretations likewise take place through images? What is lost in the move from embodied presence to virtual? Am I really about to rhapsodize about the sensory milieu of the several classrooms I have prowled in my time? Camo ball caps and Kanken backpacks? Or for that matter, JNCO jeans and Axe body spray? (I have been doing this for a long time.)

I am honestly not sure what I am afraid of losing.

But it is something about the elevated focus that I, at least, am called to bring to bear, whenever I am physically in a room with those I am trusted to care for as their teacher. Something about a sense of occasion that I, at least, feel prevailed upon to create. A responsibility to shape this space and time deliberately, despite (well, concurrent with) all the ways the other folks in the room are choosing to use it.

Related: I have learned to say ridiculous things in classrooms. Like, “Forty-five minutes from now, I am hoping you will be different in these ways because you will understand these two ideas.” This kind of teaching is the murmuring of incantations, really: sacralizing a time and place toward an end I, in generational tradition, think very worthy of such intention.

Were “educational objectives” ever anything but spells that hoped to shape the world to their measure? The world has a stubborn way of doing what it wants whatever we conjure. How silly to presume otherwise. What folly, the whole business of saying hey: attend to this right now, not to that. Trust me, it’s worth it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. (Trust me? Really? On what grounds? Pedagogy is never not coercion, whatever it dresses up as.)

But I still feel like saying ridiculous things. Making that extravagant, dramatic gesture: casting the circle, holding the space, closing the classroom door and thereby closing this moment off from all the other ones. That is part of it. That is the beginning and end of it.

I guess I worry I won’t know how to do it when coming to class is merely joining a meeting, and then leaving a meeting, with two clicks. And when what happens in-between becomes just another input on the screen, where we all will receive thousands upon thousands of inputs, today and every day. Is my magic strong enough to overcome the dazzling wonder, but ultimate banality, of the medium? My mojo really only works face-to-face. Most mojo does.

Well, a classroom is a pretty uninspiring place too, however many posters you hang. Perhaps it is a difference in degree, not in kind. We’ll see.

Into the pixelated void we go. Wash your hands, and take a seat.

*Update: on the evening of March 11, my institution, like so many others, took social distancing measures.  Spring break was extended by a week, to be followed by a move to online teaching, and those who live in residence halls were “encouraged to remain home or off-campus”.

Image from GoodFreePhotos.

Published by Chris Osmond

I am associate professor of educational foundations at Appalachian State University.

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