I skipped the Departmental Literary Arts meeting on Monday March 9 and I shouldn’t have. Item seven of our agenda, “COVID-19 “, suddenly became item # 1, and the result, as I soon learned, was that we, the professors of creative writing at Brown University, now had to begin the teaching process. writing “remotely”, that is, as all of us have come to know, via Zoom, or Google Hangouts, or Canvas, or Whereby, or Slack, or Padlet, or similar platforms.
What I felt about this suggestion of “distance learning” was: What a mess. I mainly teach undergraduates, and I only thought about graduating students and the hellish last semester they were going to have, panicked, trapped at home, mixed in their independence, likely to be without a ceremony. graduation and stuck in a little video postage stamp for hours a day. They were enrolled in a large university, but could not take advantage of it, neither the libraries, nor the common rooms, nor the rehearsal studios, nor the laboratories. And just behind that initial feeling was the anxiety about the product itself, the online product that I was about to sell to students, a product that it was hard to believe would not be. not lower.
A theoretical position frequently repeated in my creative writing courses is the following: literature is a humanistic form. This idea is not only so old-fashioned that it is downright quaint in Brown, like a leaded pewter drink; it is also sometimes seen as just plain wrong. Many students have cast a blind eye on the very conception of humanism.
But humanism is exactly why, in my opinion, a classroom with human bodies, struggling for the meaning of a short story, works. Because the literary arts are not the same as the study of economics or astrophysics. The literary arts are about human emotions and consciousness, and therefore instruction cannot be converted into data points. Literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and other humans listening to it and, ideally, feeling the same. This is the invention of compassion. Our instruction is not only about the dissemination of information; it is also witnessing, confronting the complexities of the other.
But Zoom and its loopholes rushed over to the LitArts program, like everyone else on College Hill, and there was nothing left but to learn how to use this interface, to try and make humanity shine through some and zeros. I shared the news with my students, banged my elbows with them one last time. And then they left.
I posted a call for help with Zoom on Facebook, where I learned about ‘sharing your screen’, ‘chat groups’ and ‘asynchronous teaching’, for the kids following my course in Mumbai and Singapore and that will not be reliable. be able to stay awake until two in the morning for lessons. It turns out that many of my friends have taught digitally for years, in community and prison workshops, in public libraries and YMCAs, and their students have become stronger writers, learned and grown.
Distance learning may be the only possible way to teach in this murderous time, but that does not mean that distance learning is the best idea of humanistic education, or that it resembles the model of long standing in the liberal arts, a thousand-year-old idea of education which can be the basis of the university itself. What we are selling now is a hastily arranged experience. And it’s easy to cry about it. But what we cannot give up, in our grief, are the students themselves, at home, panicked, and who will soon be found in the video postage stamp on Zoom or Slack or Canvas or Hangouts. I know I can always explain divided infinitives to them no matter what. Now if I can just figure out how to call their hearts through the wireless network. ??