Yes, yes, I’m teaching my classes on Zoom (☹️).
It’s weird for me, but I’ve got it (I think) and, against my will and better judgment, I feel a little thrill and a burst of relief each time class ends without the internet exploding. I push all the right buttons, issue all the appropriate commands. Oh, joy! (😀).
So here we are, suddenly, all of us: distance learning, e-learning, online teaching, virtual classrooms—the whole bewildering turmoil. I soldier on, necessarily but not happily, all the while with an irritating chorus of cheerleaders in the background pushing me forward: “online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement and differentiate instruction;” “digital tools save time and do the heavy lifting by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments;” “distance learning can continue delivering instruction without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.” Every line offends what I know to be true about teaching, and my sense of what it can achieve, but, wow! snow days or COVID-19—that pretty much covers the waterfront; wait! better add floods and fires and extreme weather.
I was particularly annoyed when I saw my neighbor Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, on TV finding, as always, a silver lining in the catastrophe (after Katrina, you may remember, he famously declared that New Orleans was now liberated to create a whole new school system from scratch!), this time ushering in the pandemic as dress rehearsal for the “classrooms of the future.”
Come on, Arne— Zoom is not the future of classroom life or teaching. In fact, that response betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of each. When I saw Arne jogging while on my walk the other day, I suppressed the desire to strangle him, and, fortunately, remembered that I couldn’t get closer than six feet.
Of course distance learning is nothing new—I took a correspondence course on figure drawing in the 1950s (a bust in my case, although I liked the colored pencils) and was tempted to take another on body building offered by Charles Atlas (the advertisement in the back of my comic books promised I could transform myself from a “97-pound weakling” into a tough guy who would never again allow a bully to kick sand in my face at the beach—of course I didn’t have a beach, but whatever). Correspondence courses and distance learning stretch in all directions—back to 1873 and the founding of the US Society to Encourage Studies at Home, onward to 2008 when salvation was offered in the form of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. A colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Chicago told me in 1995 that e-learning represented the end of educational inequity: “In the remotest village in the Third World, or the most segregated poor neighborhood in this city, a student will be able to access the best professors and hear the best lecture ever given on Romeo and Juliet!” OMG!
The “Great Books Program” has been around for decades, and the “Great Courses,” a series of video classes produced and distributed by the for-profit Teaching Company based in Chantilly, Virginia, claims to have developed over seven hundred courses and sold over fourteen million copies—once again “the greatest scholars and their classic lectures.” So with these and other entrepreneurs already up and running, along with the millions and millions of books out there, why are we even bothering with Zoom? Or classes. Or bricks and mortar. Or professors.
A colleague with experience in distance learning told me that online classes are to actual classrooms what frozen pizza is to home-made pizza: similar ingredients but a vastly different experience. Staying with the metaphor, pizza delivered is straightforward and concrete, as well as often delicious; real classrooms can be delicious as well, but not because the teacher/pizza person “delivered instruction.” Teachers might write books and record lectures—I’ve done both—and those can be more-or-less delivered into the waiting hands (pizza-style) and upturned heads of hungry consumers.
Classroom teaching is quite different—it’s a relationship, a transformative journey for everyone involved. That’s why good teachers come to class ready to teach, but also primed to see, to hear, and to know their students as three-dimensional creatures, much like themselves, each the one-of-one, each a member of the group—an intimate encounter that cannot adequately take place at a distance. The teacher comes as a student-of-the-students, prepared to change lives, and simultaneously prepared to be changed by the propulsive, life-altering energy that’s released whenever a human being’s mind expands or rearranges itself.
Caution: Class Underway—May Be Explosive!
Social distancing is such an awkward, ugly term as well as an unfamiliar but necessary practice we’re all learning to implement together. As we move through these dire and unpredictable times, we might change that language and call it what it is: social solidarity—among the zillion things we can do to help one another out as part of a shared community is to break the chain of contagion and allow some sensible space between us—it’s an act of cooperation, really, not distance or isolation, and an expression of human harmony and not dissonance. Let’s call it by its truer name: social solidarity!
I have two seminars this term, one on Writing Creative Nonfiction, and one on Ethics and Education. I have students zooming in to class from western Canada, Eastern Europe, the Bronx, South Asia, Texas, and places in between. Their circumstances are dramatically different, of course, and yet they are uniformly flexible and forgiving, kind and generous with me and with one another, comrades facing the world arm-in-arm. Each seminar is scheduled for three hours a week, but I’ve kept to about an hour and a half, supplementing with extensive office hours, and regularly correspondence with my students.
Both courses invite us to peer into the pandemic and shine a bright light on the many, many contradictions that the virus illuminates. The ruling class—the powerful, the wealthy, the 1 percent and their enablers in the political class—has an agenda that’s aggressively promoted in good times and in bad, an agenda pulled quickly from the bottom drawer in any crisis and rushed relentlessly toward center stage. So here we are: the privatization of public goods and services, massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private, the destruction of participatory democracy and the erasure of the public, the suppression of voting, the reduction of education and health care and public safety to products, the intensification of white supremacy, and more. And so we wrestle in class with the outlines of an alternative agenda—what are we willing to fight for?
The perennial contradiction between “we” and “me”—a basic human tension with vast social, cultural, and political differences and dimensions—lurched violently toward an exclusive “ME” in our country in 1980 with the “Reagan Revolution” and its racist dog whistles, its opposition to any concept of collectivity or the public, its weaponized individualism, and its anemic, libertarian definition of freedom. Public safety became “own a gun;” “public education” became a product to be bought at the market place; public health was reduced to “take care of yourself.” The word itself—public—in some contexts was racially coded: public welfare, public housing, public aid, public transportation. Saint Ronald Reagan, godhead of the Right and the icon to whom every Republican leader bends a knee and genuflects piously to this day, famously said this at his inauguration: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That’s the dogma we’re now suffering together now, and that’s the orthodoxy under examination in seminar.
In the opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Johnny struggles to explain to the big crime boss, Leo, how he’s been wronged by an associate mobster, Bernie. “I’m talkin’ about friendship,” Johnny says, and the camera lingers on the saliva forming in the creases of his thin, menacing smile. “I’m talkin’ about character,” he continues structuring his case. “I’m talkin’ about—Hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word—I’m talkin’ about ethics” (pronounced e-tics).
“When I fix a fight,” Johnny proceeds indignantly, “Say I play a three to one favorite to throw a goddam fight. I got a right to expect the fight to go off at three to one.” Then Bernie, the lying cheat, hears of the deal, manipulates the situation, and the “odds go straight to hell.”
“Now, if you can’t trust a fix,” Johnny whines, “what can you trust?” Without ethics, he concludes, “we’re back into anarchy, right back in the jungle. . . . That’s why ethics are important. It’s what separates us from the animals, from beasts of burden, beasts of prey. Ethics!”
“Do you want to kill him?” asks Leo, cooly.
“For starters,” Johnny replies earnestly.
Johnny, Leo, Bernie—and the Trump mafia—are all talkin’ about ethics.
And the crisis rages on.
27 April 2020
William Ayers, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has written extensively about social justice, democracy, and education, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. His books include A Kind and Just Parent; Teaching toward Freedom; Fugitive Days: A Memoir; Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident; To Teach: The Journey, in Comics; Race Course: Against White Supremacy; and Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.