The most surprising thing about this year of teaching on Zoom is that student exams got better. I don’t mean that student exams are better now than they were earlier in the year. I mean that they are better than they were before we moved to Zoom. Also, our classes have more students now than they did before the pandemic forced us into digital exile. My seminars and lectures in Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University are full—indeed, all of the basic Judaism classes here are full—and our department of eight full-time faculty members has over 200 graduate students. Freed from social obligations, commutes, and the need to leave our home workstations, the eight of us are publishing more and better articles and books. We can also apply for more grants and attend more online conferences. By these external measures, then, the department of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan is thriving.
Yet, of course, we are not thriving. What is amiss is hard to say. I am not speaking of the virus or public health, or what’s befallen me or anyone else; but rather what is wrong in general with convening a university over a screen. In effect, all universities have become digital universities. I have not had an in-person class or conference in over a year. In fact, I don’t know how my students or colleagues are doing, not really. How can I speak for others who are thriving by external measures when I have not seen them? What can I infer about their internal states from their jittery appearance in Zoom boxes, with backgrounds carefully tailored to display impressive libraries, expensive artwork, or travel pictures from an increasingly distant era?
Perhaps, indeed, this is the problem. There is no Zoom window into the soul. In early February a court case in Texas was to be conducted over Zoom but was disrupted by a lawyer who was unable to turn off the filter that made him look like a cat. But does Zoom ever allows us to take off our other filters? We dutifully record our classes and upload them to the cloud, but in doing this our classes become performances made strictly for the record. I sometimes feel like a radio commentator playing music and telling jokes to an audience that is silent.
In the rare instances when it works, Zoom connects us mind-to-mind, which is to say, it narrows our ability to comprehend minds at work in bodies that also include passions and weaknesses and mystery. What does it mean to study history while standing outside of it? Or to study anthropology without meeting anthropoi? Can man’s political nature be examined without a live, in-person polis? Zoom has taken us out of the humanities game, so to speak, while giving us great spots in the observation stands. We are in danger of becoming fans of culture, without being ourselves culture.
A year ago the coronavirus offered us a choice: cease city life or die. We chose to cease city life, but with what then appeared to us as a way out: technological city life, largely through Zoom. This allowed us a simulacrum of city life and allowed us to create a kind of imperfect teaching environment in imitation of the original. But it was missing the human component, the social interactions that constitute us as more than minds, as human beings in full.
Read the whole article at Mosaic.