Once you are in, you are glad of it. Treading water, you shout back to those on the bank, encouraging them in.
Week 3 saw the return for many to in person teaching. The impetus to leave the house has returned. Yes, what we pack in our bags differs, a bit of hand sanitiser and a face covering; and don’t forget a pencil, borrowing one can get you expelled. Yet, there is a certain excitement in swinging your rucksack on, grabbing the key from the hook, and venturing out.
For many, sliding into the water has been a tentative moment. But at no point during my tutorials this week did I think that I would be in ruins in bed applying leaches. Distancing was good with the rooms well ventilated, cold enough to remind you of the latitude that we live at.
If we are safe about it, the merits of in person teaching are incontrovertible. The surrealism of St Andrews COVID fanaticism and scaremongering over in-person teaching can be traced back to the poisoned groundwater of the anonymous facebook pages. However, from conversations during distanced loitering, most students that I have spoken to appear excited for the return to naturally communicative learning.
The intricacies of student living, from societies, ensembles, and sports teams to the wide variety of schools and the disciplines and modules within them is astonishing. It is like we wend our way through university in Brownian motion with horse blinkers on. We barely see or know any of it. Sparse rooms of tables, chairs, and whiteboards facilitate debates about Older Scots poets and economic stimulus packages, and these conversations drift out into the corridors with us.
William Whyte, in his book Redbrick: A social and architectural history of Britain’s civic universities (2015), suggests that we view universities not as a place but an ideal. This certainly encapsulates the wider national conceptualisation. COVID forced a change of place, the classrooms substituted with Teams and Moodle. For those with restricted access to technology, it was replaced with nothing.
Online learning is in essence a place, a location in our pockets and on our laptops, constructed of ones and zeroes over numerous servers. But, even compared to the most horrific buildings of the 60s, it is truly an awful place. I am not criticising the provisions that the university has implemented, Moodle remains a useful place to put documents, Panopto is a good place for a lecture and to peruse through your tutor’s bookcase. Playing and pausing as you please, you can pacify the most excitable of lecturers. However, the urgency and immediacy of the lecture is toast, the need to absorb and understand or else fail halted by the opportunity to make a cup of tea and put some jam on some bread before resuming.
Worse though is when you fire up Teams for a tutorial. After fighting flatmates for wifi you join a wall of faces. The natural inflections of speech are substituted with the requirement to either be the speaker or not. You cannot chip in with a page number or make it clear that you want to join in. You are either the centre of attention or muted, hand up or hand down. Gone is tonal variation, eye contact, and the bodily expressiveness which is essential to our communication. They are exhausting exercises. When recorded the open forum of debate dissolves into a fear of being misinterpreted. In the world of identity politics, the new mania over language reduces us to a transcripts devoid of subtlety. In an indifferent Teams meeting you must use the correct terminology or the recording will catch and kill you. A lot of it is just a manner of speaking. The marketplace of ideas in its most Socratic and Miltonic state does not exist online. The internet is a feeble agora of cowardice, take downs, and meticulous observation.
This pseudo-interaction makes us lonelier, what debate there was ceases when you press the hang up button; but even before then the stilted communication is an uncomfortable performance. In my in-person tutorials we returned to the immediacy of learning; knowing that you are not alone on the module, and though masked and distanced, you could enjoy the humanity of learning. This was very much amplified by six months without it.
Headphones in and resources at our disposal, it is also too easy to live within our own heads. When surrounded only by your flat mates and watching lectures on your own flexible timetable this only becomes more pronounced. That is why, taking heed, we must dive into in person teaching. It gets us up and out, makes learning urgent, real, and effective. Technology cannot contain the university experience, for those that can access it safely, it is something to be embraced. Wait, not embraced, welcomed.