Online college courses are eerily silent

But something is different now: no one is speaking. Endlessly long pauses drag on as professors wait for comments that never come and students recite short, lukewarm responses just to take the embarrassment away.

Across the country, colleges and instructors are making different choices on how to educate remotely, with some offering live classes online and others simply posting recorded lectures for the taking.

But from where I’m sitting (the sofa, more often than not) it makes almost no difference. Even during our live online sessions, some of my teachers – usually those in their 60s or 70s – openly grumble that they feel like they’re lecturing into the abyss, screaming into an unresponsive Zoom room. Or as I heard it, quoting the Psalms set Professor Bible: “Resigned My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, at night, but I find no rest. “

It hasn’t always been that way. As a senior, I’ve attended my fair share of classes in college, and I grant you that students aren’t known to be the greatest speakers in the classroom. I’ve certainly seen a lot of frightening mismatches between apathetic students – distracted by computer screens and weekend projects – and exasperated professors who have to pull their teeth out to spark the most derisive discussions.

But on a good pre-pandemic day, if you pair the right mix of intellectually curious students with a set of appropriately provocative readings and a caring, socratic-inclined teacher, magical things could happen. Time and time again I have seen students put down their iPads, rummaging through books – honest books, I say! – and raise their hands in the discussions of seminars on justice in the Republic of Plato, democracy in Latin America and the upheaval of traditional gender roles in Shakespearean dramas. Questions, challenges, minds and unsolicited opinions of all kinds flying through the room, electronic devices put aside and forgotten. I made lasting friendships from these discussions, and these moments are what I loved the most about college.

Fast forward to this semester. I took a history class this week where 20% of Zoom participants had black screens instead of their faces (contrary to college policy). For the rest, I stared at rows of worn, distracted eyes through their little boxes, before turning to my own camera and realizing, with a start, that I looked exactly the same. Screens are up, books are put away, and once excited hands are at rest. Teachers try (some more than others) to rekindle discussions and leave time for questions, but the results are generally irrelevant. We are silent.

It’s not hard to see why. Staring at a computer screen hour after hour makes me tired, restless, and deeply indifferent to participating in discussions that I would have been immersed in had we been in a physical classroom. Sitting on my couch and absorbing information through my headphones, the learning process is cold and rather lonely. Now, instead of raising my hand or leafing through a book, I hold my tongue and check my emails.

It is impossible to measure the cost of this silence: the unasked questions that would have put canonized works on the defensive, the unchallenged assumptions that now isolate us from criticism, and the unarticulated voices that would have forced me to listen to perspectives. way beyond mine. . Chat rooms and interactive polls stimulate short-term interest and offer periodic quiet breaks, but they don’t generate the level of talk that makes learning truly transformational. I miss the magic of the classroom, where one thoughtful question or random revelation could shock everyone and grab attention.

With elections approaching and a country deeply divided, we need to talk to each other more than ever. Isolated and separate, with limited human interaction and more time spent polarizing social media, now is the worst time for faculty to dominate discussions and for students to go unheard. If we do not introduce ourselves, ask questions and hone our critical thinking together, the success of the academic year, and even the future of the country, may be in jeopardy. Can anyone hear me?

Michael Weiner graduated in political science from Yeshiva University.

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