I have now had several experiences with zoom teaching and as I have indicated, I do not like it. But perhaps I am simply exhibiting my age and my ungetoverable mid-20th century limitations. Are the zoom students missing something? Inasmuch as I do not actually exchanged bodily fluids with any of my students, perhaps not.
Well, I wondered, can I get some insight into the matter by reflecting on whether there is anything I myself would have lost by pursuing my own education online, had that been an option seventy years ago? Assuming a reasonably smoothly functioning capability for questions and answers, what, if anything at all, did I gain by actually being in the same room with my professors?
A great deal, I concluded, but not in any ordinary informational sense. From Harry Austryn Wolfson’s books and zoomed lectures, I could have learned some slight sliver of what he knew about the tradition of philosophical debates from Plato to Spinoza, including the great Arabic thinkers, but I would have missed something not found on the printed page or in my copious lecture notes. In my memory, that missing element is captured in a moment from his Spinoza course in the spring of 1952. Wolfson had decided to try a new-fangled mode of instruction he had heard his colleagues talking about – class discussion. So he put a question to the class: Was Spinoza an atheist? As the graduate students pitched in, eager to distinguish themselves [we undergraduates sat silently], Wolfson grew visibly more distressed. Finally, he called the discussion to a halt. It seemed that when he asked such a question, he meant “What were contemporary 17th century Dutch opinions on the matter?” and when he realized that none of us had read any 17th century Dutch authors [in the original, needless to say] he decided we did not know enough to have a discussion, so he went back to lecturing. It is an amusing story, but for me it was more. It was a moment that taught me what it meant truly to be a scholar, and I have carried it with me for a lifetime. That is why I always make it clear that I am not a scholar, whatever others may imagine.
Another memory from that same semester comes to mind. I was taking Willard Van Orman Quine’s seminar on mathematical logic, in which we students were called on to make class presentations. One evening, a graduate student launched into an exposition of his semester project, complete with several blackboards covered with symbols, and about twenty minutes into his spiel, he got hopelessly tangled up. Something was wrong with what he had put on the board. Quine let him struggle for several minutes and then interrupted, saying “All right, all right, just go on with it.” As the hapless young man soldiered on, Quine sat sideways in his wooden armchair, his legs draped over one arm, seemingly listening intently. Fifteen minutes later, he stopped the student, went to the board, and sorted out the logical confusion that had brought the exposition to a halt. It was a spontaneous display of the quickness and power of Quine’s mind, and I have never forgotten it. If I had merely read his elegant books and listened to his rather formal and stilted lectures, I never would have had that insight into his mind.
I would imagine every one of us has his or her own memories of this sort. Sometimes, the old ways really are best.