I taught my first class in September, 1955 and with a few breaks, for the Army and one thing and another, I have been at it ever since. For the first 65 years I met my students face-to-face in a classroom. I could see them, they could see me, after a bit I got to know them and after a bit they got to know me. From time to time I used modern technological devices to assist me in my teaching, like printed books and mimeographed handout sheets, but operationally speaking the basic activity in which I was engaged was not fundamentally different from what Plato did in the Groves of Academe.
Thirteen years ago, I took a giant step forward into the 21st century and started blogging. Some years after that, I even went so far as to record more than 30 hours of lectures on a wide variety of subjects which I posted on YouTube. Strange as it may seem, when I began blogging and putting lectures on YouTube I did not at first give much thought to the fact that my relationship to my audience had fundamentally and irretrievably changed.
The technology brought with it striking changes. Interpreting somewhat the statistical data provided by Google, I estimate that my daily blog posts reach a worldwide audience of considerably more than 1000 people. Only once in my life have I actually addressed that many people in person – at the first meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City, where I was one of four commentators on a speech by the great Polish communist and scholar Isaac Deutscher.
I think in my long career I must have taught the Critique of Pure Reason twelve or thirteen times, reaching in those classes perhaps 175 students or a few more. But the first of my nine lectures on Kant posted on YouTube has been viewed 164,000 times, according to YouTube, and even the ninth and last lecture in the series has been viewed more than 13,000 times (which, it is probably reasonable to assume, means that more than 10,000 people have watched the entire series.) It would take me 50 teaching careers to reach that many students in person!
And yet, and yet. It really is not the same. I have from time to time made a fuss about people who post anonymous comments on this blog, and in the last several days there has been an extended thread of comments about this matter, but to tell the truth, it is not the presence of abusive anonymati that upsets me the most. It is quite simply the fact that I cannot see you, you cannot see me, we cannot talk to one another in the way that I did with my students for my entire adult lifetime.
Now one might say, “Why are you so disturbed? It does not upset you in the same way to publish a book that is read by you know not whom, you know not where, and even in languages you yourself cannot read.” Which is true but somehow does not alleviate my discomfort.
When the pandemic hit, I was teaching a graduate course on the thought of Karl Marx at UNC Chapel Hill and after the first nine meetings I was forced to switch over to zoom. Even though I knew the students and had spent time with them personally in class, I hated that and dream of going back to the good old way.