Like many educators around the world, I’ve spent the last few weeks scrambling to figure out how to teach remotely, our campus having been shuttered due to the threat of viral outbreak. I’ve toyed late into the night with video conferencing software and social media apps, variously (to go with the iconography of these products) attending a “House Party,” pressing a “Big Blue Button,” “Zooming” in, “Hanging Out,” and (my personal favorite) playing the pool game “Marco Polo.” My spouse (a fellow professor), my children, my parents, my siblings, and several friends have willingly submitted to being test subjects—the last group often in the wee hours because our “work days” are now largely taken up with care of children whose school-doors are likewise locked.
I’ve been struck repeatedly during this period by how impressive this software array is from a historical standpoint. It is the fulfillment of dreams that date back at least to the nineteenth century of devices that would grant vocal and visual contact with correspondents in far-flung places. Let’s acknowledge that the tech industry has come very, very far in a very short time. I can remember the arrival of personal computing and, the following decade, America going online through home computers. My parents remember when television sets became standard household furniture. My grandparents could remember the widespread adoption of telephones.
We are all beneficiaries of these most recent advances. The ability of colleges and universities to close their campuses in a matter of days testifies to this. These tools are now so widely available, so user-friendly (at least among the young), and so cheap—many free—that they can be assumed. (At present, I won’t get into the hidden charges on much “free” software.) The infrastructure of the Internet—not just the servers but also the countless modems, cable lines, 5G networks, and smart phones—should be celebrated at this moment. All I had to do to start class yesterday was click a button and email around a URL. Voila! I was sharing a virtual classroom with twenty-four occupants whom I could see and hear—along with the occasional intruding family member and barking dog. The app adeptly played the part of host, shifting the camera to whomever was speaking and alerting me to participants’ arrivals and departures. Our conversation wasn’t seamless (screen-sharing being especially glitchy), but it also wasn’t a debacle. At the conclusion of my second such session, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. This could work, I thought. I’ve heard similar reports—over text and email—from colleagues.
A few weeks ago, I read an article that argued that this moment could be a breakthrough for telecommuting. Now, the author claimed, countless office workers at last will realize how silly it is to keep schlepping to work every day when so much can get done from home. Think of the reduced commuting time! Think of the savings on office space! Someone is obviously going to make the same argument about online learning. Why bother going back to campus? Think of the reduced travel time! Think of the savings on dorm rooms and meal plans! I’ve in fact heard numerous colleagues express worries about the consequences of us doing this virtual gig too well.
My experience thus far has offered the opposite lesson. For all of the wizardry that video conferencing software and social media apps perform, instantly gathering pictures and sounds from across a continent, what I feel most strongly at the present moment is a palpable sense of loss. It’s a moment when I am realizing really just how good I had it. I’m hearing the same sentiment from colleagues and students. We are all becoming aware of just how much is communicated without words in a classroom. We are waking up to how many dimensions a conversation has, and how many of those are beyond simulation.
Two years ago, THR ran an essay of mine on the fate of Bronisław Malinowski’s notion of “phatic communion”—utterance whose end is sociability itself—in digital times. Toward the end of that piece, I wrote the following words:
Malinowski describes “the breaking of silence, the communion of words,” as “the first act to establish links of fellowship,” which will be “consummated only with the breaking of bread.” At Malinowski’s communion table, solid food nourishes solid bonds. Here we come to a tacit assumption of Malinowski’s paradigm: that phatic speech matters, that it is worth the effort, because the bonds it creates are deep and enduring.
This move to tele-teaching has made me recognize that in times like these any channel through which we can still communicate is good. And thanks to the Internet, I think that we can say that we have it really good at the present time. But at least regarding the classroom, I find myself wanting to double down on the argument that I made that the “phatic communication” we perform on social media is second rate. Attending a virtual house party or lobbing a virtual beach ball is without a doubt amusing. I may well invite students to play with some of these tools in the future. But what these media offer cannot compare to the “phatic communion” that Malinowski witnessed around village fires in the south Pacific and European drawing rooms and that I now see as the classroom’s provision. Now more than ever I am convinced that real—three-dimensional—presences are what we are made to receive.