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.