I skipped the Literary Arts departmental meeting of Monday, March 9th, and I shouldn’t have. Item seven on our agenda, “COVID-19,” suddenly became item No. 1, and the upshot, as I soon learned, was that we, the teachers of creative writing at Brown University, were now to begin the process of teaching writing “remotely,” meaning, as we all have come to know, via Zoom, or Google Hangouts, or Canvas, or Whereby, or Slack, or Padlet, or similar platforms.
How I felt about this suggestion of “remote learning” was: what a mess. I teach primarily undergraduates, and all I could think about was the graduating seniors, and the hellish last semester they were going to have, panicky, trapped at home, mitigated in their independence, likely to go without a graduation ceremony, and stuck in a little video postage stamp for hours a day. They were enrolled at a great university, but would not be able to make use of it, not the libraries, not the common rooms, not the rehearsal studios, not the laboratories. And close behind this initial feeling was anxiety about the product itself, the online product that I was about to be selling to the students, a product that was hard to believe would not be inferior.
A frequently repeated theoretical position in my creative-writing classes is: Literature is a humanist form. This idea is not only so old-fashioned as to be baldly quaint at Brown, like a beverage in lead-lined pewter; it is also sometimes considered just plain wrong. Many a student has cast a jaundiced eye upon the very conception of humanism.
But humanism is exactly why, in my view, a classroom with human bodies in it, struggling over 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 emotions and human consciousness, and so the instruction can’t be converted into data points. The literary arts are more about a human in the room feeling something, expressing it, and the other humans listening, and, ideally, feeling similarly. Such is the invention of compassion. Our instruction is not only about dispensing information; it is also about bearing witness, grappling with the complexities of another.
But Zoom and its shortcomings hurtled down upon the LitArts program, like every other on College Hill, and there was nothing left to do but learn how to use this interface, to try to cause the humanness to shine through the ones and zeroes. I shared the news with my students, bumped elbows with them one last time. And then they were gone.
I posted a call for Zoom help on Facebook, where I learned about “sharing your screen,” “breakout groups,” and “asynchronous teaching,” for the kids who are taking my course from Mumbai and Singapore, and who won’t reliably be able to stay up until two in the morning for class. It turns out that many of my friends have taught digitally for years, in community and prison workshops, through public libraries and Y.M.C.A.s, and their students have become stronger writers, have learned, and grown.
Remote learning may be the only feasible way to instruct in this lethal time, but that doesn’t mean remote learning represents the best idea in humanist education, or that it is anything like the long-standing model of the liberal arts, a two-thousand-year-old idea of teaching that may be the basis for the university itself. What we are selling now is a hastily arranged experiment. And it’s easy to grieve over that. But what we cannot give up on, in our grief, is the students themselves, at home, panicking, and soon to be found in the video postage stamp on Zoom or Slack or Canvas or Hangouts. I know I can still explain split infinitives to them, no matter what. Now, if I can just figure out how to call through the wireless networking to their hearts. ♦
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