The semester started three weeks ago, the calendar tells me. Like so many, I am only teaching online, for the foreseeable future.
Last March, when we didn’t bring the students back from spring break, finishing the semester meant continuing to develop our already-existing relationships by other means. But now class is little squares on a screen, by design. Little pictures of people I have never actually met in time and space, and possibly never will. Our entire engagement might be virtual.
This arrangement does not sit very well with me. It is more palatable with my adult doctoral students — who after all usually have greater motivation to accomplish what they signed up to do, and with whom I contracted to only interact this way with from the beginning. We all knew the limits and affordances going in. And having a 100% distance offering has increased access to our Ed.D. program, and affordability, so it is an undeniable win. (Plus they are adults, and one of the things about adults is that we are good at managing expectations.)
But with my undergrads in the Honors College — with whom I am working in my high-connection, high-relationship “Narrative and the Caring Professions” course this fall — well, I guess I am still trying to make the bug a feature.
Sometimes, while teaching, I change the settings to make the square of whoever is speaking automatically bigger, to try to approximate the sensations and proportions of actually dialoguing with another real person.
But this mostly makes it worse. I mean, things more or less look right: the top-of-the-line monitor my institution helpfully supplies me renders finer detail than my poor eyes can probably make out, and the colors are vivid. But all a bigger square really reveals is that everyone has the same default expression in Zoom, somewhere between bored and worried, with eyes focused somewhere around each others’ Adam’s apples, like we are all wearing really interesting necklaces. I am just a picture too, to them, after all.
And of course once you make one student’s picture bigger, the rest of them vanish, screen space being finite and forcing a tradeoff that doesn’t exist f2f. There is no peripheral awareness in online teaching, that I have found anyway. No focusing on one while also being in the room with another couple of dozen who you can hear breathing and rustling and conducting their own private investigations or wanderings or prosecutions. There’s no “business,” in the actorly sense (“the non-spoken physical activity of an actor…activity not crucial to the plot but helping to fill out a realistic scene/character”).
Ironic, of course, because supposedly online communication is all about business. But the absence of the fidgeting, scraping, snuffling reality of many people sharing time and space howls in my ears, as deafening a void as the no-place I am plunged into by my noise-reducing headphones. All I hear is my own voice, through heavy wet wool.
Jack White’s lines are obliquely, gothically, on point, like they so often are:
I wanna cut out my tongue and let you hold onto it for me
Cause without my skull to amplify my sounds it might get boring
I glimpse myself as I must appear, sometimes: finally an old man yelling at a television.
But the worst, of course, is when someone’s roommate or child or dog in one of those distant rooms says or does something more interesting than what is happening on the screen right then, which is not hard to do. And someone’s eyes and focus leave even the camera and skit to somewhere up and away, or someone to the side. And since everyone is so good at turning off their mics by now you’ll never know what it was, never hear the joke that’s led to the barely-suppressed laugh or the widened eyes as they wander back to the camera and the screen.
And that’s when the truth that we are working so hard to obscure comes into the sharpest relief: the class I am facilitating is really just one content feed among many, to be managed efficiently as possible and muted when necessary.
‘Twas always thus, of course, in school. Attention sought, feigned, coveted away. But when we shared time and space it was easier to pretend otherwise, because the presence of our bodies stubbornly insisted that where and when we were physically also expressed our mental and emotional presence. This is (was, in the beforetimes) the fiction every teacher has to buy into, in order to even begin class: if I “have your eyes” and you are not talking, then you must be “with me.”
But of course, who or what we are “with” in our attention is our most intimate fact, rarely fully known. And my college students this fall — finally empowered by distance to control where and how they are — no longer have to pretend.
It is kind of cute, in a “bless your heart” way, how many of us teachers are trying to pretend that the old stories about attention still hold. The ways so many of us implore (“require”) that our students never turn off their cameras: insist they perform with their eyes and faces some version of what we have demanded of them in our classrooms for generations.
But let’s face it: that bit of pretense is for us, not them. We teachers need the affirmation. We need our students’ complicity in the story that what we are bringing is what matters most in their lives right now — whether or not our offering deserves that place, whether or not the circumstances of their lives permit it even if they want it to be. Because if they are not doing their part to continue to tell that story, how can we possibly do ours?
I believe that teacher-guided curriculum (and not all curricula are teacher-guided — or perhaps should be) is an assertion by one to another that, among all the possibilities to which you could be attending at this moment, this is the one that matters most. And such curriculum only exists when enlivened by that attending. Therefore it must find the students, at least tentatively, on their own terms, and they must find it.
After all: until the best and smartest plan for class meets the reality of students’ lives as they intersect with it, it is only a plan. It is just one stranger’s feint of structure and direction into the inchoate reality of another stranger’s moment-to-moment concerns. A map of a place no one has ever gone — or can go, unless we take each other there.
If my students never show up for my curriculum with anything other than bodies in front of cameras and eyes cast somewhere on the screen I can’t see: does my curriculum really exist?
What does it really mean to conceive of what I have dedicated my life to teaching in a way that is more alive than anything else on offer right now?
What value proposition on my part could possibly cut through the fear, the worry, the isolation of this terrible slow-motion cataclysm we are all pulled along by, each day? The revealing of generations-deep structural obstacles to “every student succeeding”? The follies of online content delivery, of doc cams and breakout rooms and chats, public and private, that hum along parallel to so many Zoom discussions like notes passed along the back row (which the best teachers know they are supposed to intercept and open and read to everyone)?
Well, that is the job right now, y’all.
The sciences still say, look: these are the facts; this is what we know of the observable world we share. Shape yourself to them, and participate in extending their borders.
The humanities still say, look: this is how we think we should conduct ourselves in that world, with ourselves and with each other. Imagine what those who wrote these words were thinking. Consider if and how what they wrote illuminates this time and place.
And for those who work in the arts: the beauty, found and made, of the world still says, with Rilke, there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
As Emerson said, stunningly, in a very different time: We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.
I am skating as well as I can. If your life includes teaching, I hope you are too.
And if your life includes learning, I hope you get to turn off the camera sometimes. That you turn off the self-view all the time, of course, because nobody needs that kind of aggravation. But that in this time of gazes sought, met, and avoided: I hope you get to take back the right to decide how you are seen, and what you see.
And I hope the curricula presented are worthy of your attention. Your fragmented, troubled attention, which you, heroically, are still trying to bring to what your teachers have on offer. Even as the best of our work can seem trivial compared to everything else demanded of you now.
Please remember that, even with everything so different and terrible, class is still always about to start. This could always still be the day, the reading, the discussion, that changes everything. That reveals and dazzles; that makes sense out of the madness; that takes your breath away.
Let’s keep trying to find that moment, and each other. We can do this. It is what we do.