At least I’m not the oldest and fartiest old fart around

This philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has a remarkably pessimistic view of the future of academia. He has written a requiem for the students — as if they’re all dead now — because we’re using online teaching.

As we foresaw they would, university lessons next year will be held online [in English]. What was evident to careful observers — namely, that the so-called pandemic would be used as a pretext for the increasingly pervasive diffusion of digital technologies — is being duly realized.

We are not so much interested here in the consequent transformation of teaching, in which the element of physical presence (always so important in the relationship between students and teachers) disappears definitively, as we are in the disappearance of group discussion in seminars, which was the liveliest part of instruction. Part of the technological barbarism that we are currently living through is the cancellation from life of any experience of the senses as well as the loss of the gaze, permanently imprisoned in a spectral screen.

Actually, I don’t yet know how university classes will be held next year. We’re tentatively hoping that we’ll have some measure of normality restored, and are planning as if we’ll have students on campus in the fall, but we also have contingency plans in the works in case we’re only partially open, or have to close the campus after starting, or who knows what. This is also not a “so-called pandemic”, it’s an actual pandemic. We have to respond appropriately to a serious disease, because what’s most important is the health and safety of our students. Most of us aren’t particularly interested in having these young men and women sit at our feet and worship our words of wisdom, especially when it puts their lives at risk.

I’d rather go back to the old, comfortable, in-person methods of teaching, and it’s true that we’ve lost something when we have to do everything online. But he’s wrong about some things: I didn’t find that group discussion suffered particularly. The hard part for me was the asynchronous lecturing — losing the immediate feedback from having an audience, and not being able to punctuate an explanation with an opportunity to put students to work applying the methods. It took me a few weeks to get into the swing of it all, but near the end I was getting some very good group discussions going on Zoom. You just have to learn to use the medium. You, the teacher, have to adapt and change. I read Giorgio’s whine, and he sounds like a guy who doesn’t want to learn anything new, and is very good at inventing pompous excuses.

Some things are highly unsatisfactory when translated to the screen — lab work in particular is pretty much impossible to do well. I want to see that restored as soon as possible, but other bits don’t suffer much at all. Philosophy, for instance, ought to be eminently teachable through a “spectral screen”. Bodies are just another kind of meat robot holding the brains we want to reach, after all.

At first, Giorgio just sounds like a cranky old person who doesn’t want to do anything new. But reading further, I had to conclude he’s just a loon. His conclusion is stunningly out of touch.

1. Professors who agree — as they are doing en masse — to submit to the new dictatorship of telematics and to hold their courses only online are the perfect equivalent of the university teachers who in 1931 swore allegiance to the Fascist regime. As happened then, it is likely that only fifteen out of a thousand will refuse, but their names will surely be remembered alongside those of the fifteen who did not take the oath.

Whoa. Reluctantly accepting constraints on our familiar methodology for the sake of our students’ health is the equivalent of fascism? We’ve got students who want to learn, and compromising in our approach is not surrendering to the dictatorship of the ‘spectral screen’. It’s persevering in the face of adversity to do everything we can to educate people.

But then, this is a guy who thinks the pandemic is “so-called” and is a bit out of touch with reality. Does he need a few students to die before he wakes up to the cost of his intransigence?

2. Students who truly love to study will have to refuse to enroll in universities transformed in this way, and, as in the beginning, constitute themselves in new universitates, only within which, in the face of technological barbarism, the word of the past might remain alive and something like a new culture be born — if it will be born.

It’s not “technological barbarism”, it’s a tool for communication. That’s what teaching is about.

I don’t think that encouraging students to gather in large groups to give old farts the ability to engage with them in the traditional way is safe or sensible. We’re all looking forward to the day medical treatments restore our universities to their familiar modes of operation, but until then, respect the health of our communities and fire up the damned Zoom thingie. Make do. Try new approaches. Show a little flexibility.


  1. unclefrogy says

    using the term “so called pandemic” really says all I need to know about this professor and his opinion
    uncle frogy

  2. says

    “In English”? Over the last few weeks in my university Design Aesthetics class online I swear my Italian professor used Italian and not English on occasion. Should I report him to the language police?

  3. Artor says

    “…The so-called pandemic would be used as a pretext for the increasingly pervasive diffusion of digital technologies…”

    Aside from the attempt to dismiss the very real and deadly pandemic sweeping the planet, it’s hardly a pretext. Digital technologies have been proliferating for decades now, and have been close to saturation for a while. People are using existing technology to work around the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? Should we all be meeting face-to-face and dying even faster?

  4. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    Ooof. So pompous. Why do so many try to use an inflated vocabulary to further inflate their ego? Seriously.

  5. Bruce says

    Let’s recall that university teaching 300 years ago didn’t have interesting group discussions. Instead, the classic idea was the prof told students in September what to read, or what to listen to the Readers reading out loud, and then how to ask them questions, and then where the exam was in June etc.
    Certainly some old farts objected when they were told they’d actually have to come to class, and actually have to let students speak.
    Teaching on-line even partially has a lot of challenges, but it’s not necessarily worse than last year, and especially not as bad as 300 years ago. The oldest old farts need to get a grip and get with PZ.

  6. Bruce says

    We should also note that one of his biggest complaints was that students would suffer from missing the academic life outside of their lecture halls. And of course this is an unfortunate but necessary effect of a true pandemic.
    But seriously, his school is in the middle of urban Naples. When his students leave his classroom building, they are not in any sort of idyllic Morris-like university Elyseum. They are in a rough and gritty urbanization, where their scooter needs enough horsepower to impress the girls on the way home to momma for their pasta and for their passiagiata walk through town, once the quarantine is lifted. What inhibits them from gathering in the taverna for some vino is not the modality of instruction, but rather whether the pandemic allows such gatherings at all.

  7. says

    Is he really complaining about the threat to academia’s economic exclusivity?

    I was raised by academics who believed In a non zero-sum model of knowledge: the more people knew things the better off everyone was. Dad saw almost everything as a transformation of knowledge: when a laborer in renaissance Milan looked up at the dome of the Duomo, they were absorbing the knowledge that that sort of thing was possible and, to a student of architecture, it’s a master-class in 1st generation iron-reinforced construction. My dad’s view of knowledge is that it’s inherently egalitarian – it’s harder to bamboozle and dominate a person who understands as much about the world as you do.

    When I see/hear someone complaining about how online learning is ruining the academe I hear the dying wails of economic elitism: how dare you teach someone in Chennai math, they might be dangerous if they turn out to be the next Ramanujan. Or what if that kid in sandals turns out to be the next Elon Musk? Distance education is destabilizing and the exclusivity has shifted from “what is your knowledge qualification?” To “what school did you graduate from?” That’s why we’ve got elites trying to game that system for their frogspawn, even if it means demeaning bribes instead of endowing buildings. The elites aren’t stupid, they see what’s happening, it’s guardians of the gate that haven’t got with the new program.

  8. garnetstar says

    So, during a pandemic, like, say, this one or the Black Death, he’d just prefer to not to have any classes at all? Because everyone is either sick, dead, caring for the sick and dying, or too terrified to leave the house?
    Only during about the past 15 years has the opportunity to continue learning by online means (or to continue carrying on with anything by online means) even been possible. It’s pretty much the first pandemic in human history that the world’s been able to carry on a semblance of what we’d like or need to do, and that’s a great boon that we’re enjoying that people all through the ages didn’t have.

    So, instead of whining that everything’s not the same as in-person, count our blessings.

  9. lucifersbike says

    I spent a happy, if grossly underpaid, period of my long-gone youth as a language assistant at an Italian university. I was somewhat surprised to read the good professor’s comment “the element of physical presence (always so important in the relationship between students and teachers)” since in my experience such contact was almost non-existent except in the case of a professor who was all too keen on the element of physical presence if the other party was young, female and blonde. The sort of tutorials or the pastoral care I’d had as a student in the UK were almost completely unknown.
    I’m not sure how much my efforts benefited the students, but I met my wife and learned Italian while I was there, both of which have immeasurably enriched my life.

  10. wajim says

    @9: Does Lucifer’s bike come with training wheels? ‘Cause that would be so cool.

  11. leerudolph says

    Marcus Ranum @7: “Or what if that kid in sandals turns out to be the next Elon Musk?”
    That’s just a risk we have to take.

  12. rpjohnston says

    The only REAL way to teach is in a cave, using hand shadows by the fire, wearing only skins. If anyone has bathed since the last rain, reject them for the technological heathens they are.

    Wait, what was the point of teaching again? Something about expanding knowledge? Bah, that’s what the librulz say. Teaching is about showing all those guys who used to laugh at you by cowing a younger generation!

  13. fergl says

    I really dont think fartiest is a real word. Although I think it should be. Im from the UK so I should know.

  14. blf says

    poopyhead, From memory, some of your students have access problems, e.g., poor internet connection (unreliable, slow, whatever) or just a mobile phone. How much of a problem does that seem to be(? have been)?

  15. komarov says

    I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to attend all those lectures, save for practical or student work and question/revision session, online, forever. How awful it would be.

    Never being stuck at the back of the most delapidated room on campus which somehow still relies on chalkboards and projectors older than the most senior of lecturers
    Never wondering, what does that smudge say? Which symbol is that?
    Not hurting my wrist trying to keep up with the zealous madperson scribbling on the walls, while also being expected to also somehow listen and understand their ravings
    Being able to turn up the volume or even turn back the clock when I didn’t quite catch (or comprehend) something
    If the lectures are recorded, going through them at my own pace, in a day, a semester or anywhere in between
    Doing that as many times as I like

    By Jove, what a ghastly fantasy!

    No, now – especially now – is the time to squeeze people into worst of badly designed lecture halls. The ones where the tables barely accomodate a single piece of paper. The ones with seats made for torsos without arms and legs – and yet the fixed tables are still too far away to comfortably take notes. The ones with the bad acoustics amplifying every creak, cough and wheeze while reducing the lecturer to an echo of a whisper. Because that’s how it used to be, maybe, long ago.

  16. blf says

    komarov@18, “the zealous madperson scribbling on the walls, while also being expected to also somehow listen and understand their ravings”. Ha! That’s easy! Try “the zealous madperson scribbling on the walls with one hand, erasing the scribbles with the other, whilst standing in front of the scribbles all the time so you cannot see the (presumed) smudged scribbles, and imperceptibly mumbling all the time (facing the scribbles).” (I still shudder in horror at that actual experience, albeit I was warned about it by other students.)

  17. blf says

    Being a mathematician means I can’t count. I meant komarov@15, not @18, in @16. (At least this comment should be in honor of Yellow Pigs @17, albeit the month is wrong.) Actually, no… I used the Tardis, see, and… then… but… which solved everything with only a few glaring plot-holes! Erases scribbles and leaves, declaring “it’s obvious!”

  18. chrislawson says

    I really don’t enjoy video-link teaching, but what kind of selfish idiot thinks it’s worth risking the lives of students and staff to demand face-to-face teaching?

  19. JoeBuddha says

    But, look on the bright side. Fewer opportunities to abuse your students. Not zero; entitled intelligent assholes are endlessly creative, but makes it harder. Let’s put education back into education, mkay?

  20. gijoel says

    Glob help us. Is hate to think what this idiot would day if we were facing a virus with Ebola levels of fatality

  21. says

    Is this guy one of those “I can be as much of as asshole to my students because I’m a professor!” types? Or, more specifically the “being an asshole to my students builds their character” types? I get the vibe that he’s one of those types.

  22. Ridana says

    #16 @blf:

    Try “the zealous madperson scribbling on the walls with one hand, erasing the scribbles with the other, whilst standing in front of the scribbles all the time so you cannot see the (presumed) smudged scribbles, and imperceptibly mumbling all the time (facing the scribbles).”

    I had that guy for inorganic chemistry! Actually he’d fill a board with equations, then lower another board over what he’d just written and continue writing. I ended up dropping the class anyway, because I kept getting zeros in the “what’s in this sample?” labs, causing me great despair over having no idea what I was doing wrong (many others seemed to be in the same boat). After I dropped it, I learned that they had received the wrong key from the sample provider. But with a sane prof and the right lab key, the second time around was much better! Not sure what they did to remedy this for those who stuck it out.

  23. chrislawson says


    My guess is that the students whose experiments succeeded made sure they got the answer that was expected of them rather than the answer from observations.

  24. Dunc says

    One of the most popular and successful universities in the UK is the Open University, which has been using technology to enable remote study since the 1970s. It works extremely well.

  25. says

    #21 @Susan Montgomery
    Giorgio Agamben is a leftist professor of philosophy who devoted his entire life to continuing the French poststructuralists’ study of authoritarianism and the “state of exception” and more or less followed that line of study straight off a cliff. To oversimplify, Agamben does not believe states should be permitted to declare states of emergency. At all. He sees jackboots around every corner and once compared the way US border controls treated him, a well-off, educated Italian white man with powerful connections in American academia, to the holocaust via his idea of “bare life”, which supposedly means human beings completely stripped of their individuality and personhood by the state but in practice seems to mean “any time the state imposes anything at all on Giorgio Agamben”. And with his repeated coronavirus FUD, he’s become where anarchists meet right-libertarians on the dark side, using his smarty-pants education and enormous vocabulary to express a vision of human freedom barely more sophisticated than that expressed by the Sex Pistols, and far less entertaining.