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Saturday, April 11, 2020


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.


Brian said...

Years ago Hubert Dreyfus wrote a book called 'On the Internet' in which he outlined several concerns about 'online learning'. As I recall he was in part worried about the nature and depth that could be attained without having 'skin in the game', real presence. He didn't seem to think that much beyond conveying certain kinds of basic information was possible as technological mediation increased and abstracted away from a 'live', in-person experience.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Fascinating. Bert and I were friends and graduate students together back in the late 50s.

LFC said...

It seems to me that class discussions would be more difficult -- though not impossible -- online, inasmuch as you (meaning both professor and students) need to see body language and hear tone of voice to have a discussion in the full(est) sense, no? I assume that Zoom may not give the actual tone of voice that you would get in person, and there's no body language since all you are seeing, I assume, are disembodied heads.

As far as what I got from actually being in the same room with professors during lecture courses, as opposed to small seminars, probably not a whole lot beyond some amusing anecdotes. [n.b. Same undergrad school as RPW, but I'm younger than RPW] I remember, for instance, the way J.K. Fairbank slammed his pointer down on a table as a signal to the projectionist in the back of the lecture hall to change slides (this was way before PowerPoint), or the way John Clive put his head very close to his lecture notes to see them and then looked sort of like a whale coming up for air when he resumed talking, but while both of them were eminent scholars in their fields I can't say I would have missed much if their lectures had been zoomed and I hadn't been there in person. I have a couple of more substantive or amusing anecdotes, but they don't alter the basic point.

Well, one perhaps more meaty anecdote. In my last semester of college I took a course on British politics co-taught by two profs, one of whom was Samuel Beer. Basically a lecture course, but only about 30 or 35 students (I'm guesstimating, don't remember the exact number). It was a few years after the 1976 U.S. presidential election, though before the 1980 one. Although the course was about British politics, for some reason there was a diversion into U.S. politics that day and the '76 election came up. I raised my hand and remarked that there was not much difference between Carter and Ford (or maybe I said between Carter and Reagan, who had challenged Ford in '76 for the Republican nomination) -- neither one of those opinions is an opinion I hold today, btw.

Anyway, Beer got angry (I think that is the apt word). (At one point in his life he had been active in liberal Democratic politics, I think, though I didn't know that then.) He kind of rounded on me and told me that I didn't know what I was talking about -- he didn't say verbatim "you don't know what you're talking about" but he reacted sharply and he basically said that without using those exact words. For a Harvard professor to address an undergraduate in a classroom in that way, shorn of the usual veneer of academic politeness and euphemisms, was unprecedented in my experience, and I was kind of shaken by it. Now I think of that moment as refreshing and authentic, but that's with the benefit of several decades' hindsight. Not sure what the moral of the story is, but I've never forgotten that moment. (Btw it's possible that I've told this story before here...)

P.s. Fairbank, Clive, and Beer are all deceased. RPW knew Beer (if I recall correctly from some previous discussion here).

Dean said...

For the most part, I've been impressed with the online consultations I've had with students, but these aren't substitutions for classroom instruction. They're usually one-on-one meetings with students who come to my library for focused research assistance. I've also enjoyed most of the group gatherings hosted online by my law school, perhaps because I appreciate being able to "attend" them from the comfort of my home. Otherwise, I don't like Zoom at all. It's a clunky, unreliable mess of a technology. Perhaps the sudden high demand for it will prompt others to develop a better tool. (I know that this is already happening.)

My Quine moment was during law school, in a seminar about law, cities, zoning, and inequality conducted by Prof. Rachel Moran, whom I adore, but to whom I once revealed that I left her tort law lectures with a stomach ache. (My stage fright is much more severe as an older person--as I was in law school--than when I was a youngster.) We were work-shopping our papers in the seminar, presenting our preliminary outlines and arguments. A student was on for the day. She summarized her uncertain plans, then confessed that she was confused as to how to move on. Promptly, Prof. Moran improvised a suggested solution, and in so doing she verbally and elegantly cut the Gordian knot the student had set up for herself. Another student and I turned toward each other, our eyes agape at the marvel we'd just observed. After class, the other student remarked, "It was like watching her solve a Rubik's cube."

j. rapko said...

Your post induced a bit of searching through some forgotten corners of my memory. One thing that greatly struck me as an undergraduate then graduate student at UC Berkeley was a sense of the incongruity between certain philosophers' characters as experienced in lecture and conversation and their characters as implied in their books. I came to think that with certain (well known) philosophers one was better off just reading their books, partly because of their repellent character in person, but also because it seemed that everything they had to say was in their books; their lectures were just summaries of their writings. On the other hand were those who seemed much more interesting than their books. One might learn from their books, but in some cases the put such a small part of themselves in their books--the most extreme example of this was Leo Löwenthal. And others who wrote important books, but whose philosophical character, depth, and range seemed greater than their books, included Charles Taylor and Hans Sluga. And a seminar on the self co-taught by Bernard Williams and Richard Wollheim was like a Cai Guo-Qiang fireworks display. --Although all of this MIGHT be conveyed through zoom, I doubt it. To me it seems rather like looking at visual art: it may be of some interest in a photograph, but the life-changing quality requires physical presence and (quasi-) corporeal engagement.

Brian said...

I recall your mentioning Dreyfus a while back, professor, maybe on the occasion of his passing. I encountered his work as an undergraduate doing my senior 'thesis' on philosophy of mind (articificial intelligence) about 30 years ago. The book I used was 'What Computers Can't Do'. Only much later did I realize he was a renown authority on Heidegger. While I still struggle to understand Heidegger I can see the links to his work on AI, the role of 'embodiment', and how this may influence his ideas about learning and technology. For years I've been interested in different experiential modes of learning, whether didactic, participatory or whatever we call it. I suspect that 'inhabiting a world', embodiment, etc. have effects both obvious and more subtle on our experience of what it is to 'learn'. I don't think I'd want to do a philosophy seminar entirely online.

s. wallerstein said...

In my experience the richest intellectual and spiritual part of university life was the contact with my fellow students, my peers, outside of the classroom and even inside the classroom (the notes we passed back and forth) rather than what the professors said in class, which didn't interest me much in general. If you half paid attention in class and did the reading, you'd get a good grade, just like in high school.

I was in college during the "don't trust anyone over 30" era, and that probably influenced my lack of real attention to my professors as human beings. Although when I make an effort to re-see my teachers, a couple of my high school teachers interest me more than did my college professors.

However, as LFC says above, to have a good dialogue with anyone, in this case, with a peer, you need to be able to observe body language, facial expression and tone of voice.
I've made a lot of "friends" online, but none have ever become close friends, while there are close friends whom I haven't seen for years, but with whom I maintain contact online and since I can visualize their body language, facial expressions, etc., I can stay close to them. By the way, I'm not in Facebook or Instagram or any ap where you "make friends" online.

So online teaching will not only impoverish the contact between teacher and student, but also between students.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Apart from the fact that humans have, until recently, learned exclusively in person-to-person interaction. Since that has worked so well for so long it seems strange to me that we now think a more efficient means is desirable. As a musician, I notice the really poor sound reproduction on computer based programs. Skype, Zoom etc. it doesn't matter. The combination of bad microphones, the likely lack of attention to sound quality in the programs , along with the limited capabilities of a computer's speakers, I doubt if tone, affect, inflections, timbre, etc. survive the transmission. Subtle facial movements that contribute to an understanding of meaning are most likely lost as well. If I were deliver a line that was intended to be sarcastic w/o a change my speaking voice but instead used a roll of my eyes, computer viewer would not interpret my meaning as well as the students in class.

And, Zoom doesn't allow the interaction between students and profs after class to occur,w which I often, both as a student and professor, felt was quite useful.

Finally, I doubt the infamous and hilarious "Bush Beaters and Rabbitt Whompers Lecture" would come across nearly as well on-line.

Anonymous said...

While it's probably keeping teachers employed and students busy during the pandemic, online education, e-learning, etc. has been hyped and advertised by corporations looking to turn a profit. The students' enthusiasm for online learning seems to be much less than the corporations.

LFC said...

P.s. Don't want to seem too hard on Beer. I think his reaction was probably closer to a sharp "that's not true" than how I portrayed it above. He was a very good scholar and a legendary (to use an overused word) teacher. I think the moment has stuck with me because it was probably the only time in college that a senior professor engaged directly and bluntly with something I said.

Jennifer said...

I asked my students (via Zoom) if our class would be improved by a holographic reproduction of our former seminar room with all of us, as holographs, seated and interacting at the table with our texts, the blackboard, no-lag discussion, body language, etc. (In response, one student asked if we were to recreate the seminar room holographically, could we fix the flickering flourescent light?) But the question was designed to locate that missing element. There is something missing.

I have now completed my first two weeks of teaching online, and, while I try to remain positive and flexible (good traits in a teacher), I know why I have turned down teaching philosophy online in the past.

Even if the class is purely lecture, a Zoom video cannot convey the excitement in the room. I was a student of Hubert Dreyfus in the late 80s and early 90s, and the mood in the classroom was one of excitement, curiosity, and love and respect for such a good professor.

On Zoom, I can hardly see my students' faces let alone "feel" whether they are following along. I'm unsure of my pacing, but perhaps I will develop new skills for a new age.

Arno Turdstile said...

The attenuated emotional possibilities of remote and online learning leave the instructor adept at intimidation in person at something of a loss, reduced to offering whatever intellectual content the instructor can muster.

Jerry Brown said...

"leave the instructor adept at intimidation in person at something of a loss"

That is an interesting thought. Few of my teachers were ever physically intimidating. Some were maybe 'socially' intimidating as in they might embarrass me in front of the class if I got annoying to them. Some were intellectually intimidating but in the sense that they pretty much had an answer to any question asked. Some were not intimidating at all and not the best teachers. And some were very intimidating but very good teachers.

But most of my teachers were good I like to think. A very few of them were not.