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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The wasted year and its consequences

Last week, in the midst of the colossal blizzard that uprooted millions of daily routines, I found myself in my bedroom, curtains closed, hunched over a cup of coffee on my desk and anxiously waiting for my Zoom class to commence. Similar to what I imagine many professors did who live in the cities, my professor smartly decided to move class to Zoom due to the horrible weather conditions. 

As a senior, I always find Zoom classes such a strange phenomenon to engage with today; the nostalgia of my sophomore year in 2020-2021, going to LDC and trying to find multiple close tables to sit with your friends, the fear that your roommate may walk by the camera following a shower, the conversation of “asynchronous classes,” “green-dots” to get into the Rec (even though everyone just took a picture of the same dot), etc…, it hits me like a bullet train. Moreover, Zoom classes today remind me how awkward life was like sophomore year; never having actually met any of your professors, nor fellow classmates, just chugging along … occasionally seeing that person you may have been friendly with freshman year but having no clue if it is actually her with the mask on, etc. It was all so strange and blurry. 

Yet, last week’s class was particularly disturbing to me. I felt an intense inability to take notes, to focus on what the professor was saying, what the students found of interest, or to offer my own insight. I spent more time rapidly checking my email, wandering off into the sublimity of the snow or observing myself in the confined window than lending a shred of attention toward the material. As the class wound down to a frantic race to not be the last person left on the Zoom link, I logged off and reflected for a brief moment about what just happened. And then the question, alas, pierced me: Was this every Zoom class I experienced my sophomore year? Did I learn anything my sophomore year, or was it an academic and intellectual void in my life?

As I calmed myself down, I sincerely thought of every class I had taken my sophomore year and the material or knowledge I could muster; similar to that five minute spiel you give to your aunt on Thanksgiving after coming home from Fall Term. After thinking about my Spring Term classes, I came to the conclusion that I had retained material from my classes. Yet, it was a constrained knowledge of the material I could recall; a puzzle in which the frame was established, but the picture was incoherent. In truth, the knowledge I have from then is one that reflects the readings assigned to me, and, the more difficult the reading was, the less I am able to elaborate on it or even assemble a string of one to two sentences.   

What ultimately suffered, for me, was the relationship that is created between professors and students, an aura where one comes with the assigned material read (hopefully) and the knowledge of professors and students to parse things out, connect ideas, etc. College students, at least, humanities majors, (including myself) are ultimately limited creatures. We come to a text with little to no historical context to ground the work, no knowledge of the historiography or relevant scholarship, no idea concerning the author’s intent and a corrupted ability to immediately get lost in the text and give up. What makes a college education so important, and why the oft-spouted notion that a humanities education could be garnered with a particular reading list is a myth, is the interactions between well-thought and well-intentioned professors and students. Educators are there not to enrich themselves and their scholarship but to provoke students and their wild assortment of vast, childish assumptions about how the world works; how history positions us, how the government acts and how the economy is conceived, with the hope that they become educated: “led out” of ignorance. 

What Zoom class does to this dynamic, and what it did for the better half of a year, is that it absolutely severs the humanity inherent to education. A professor continues their lecture while students zone out and look around the room, online shop, play 45-second games, etc. Then, the professor cues students to join breakout rooms, where the students awkwardly chat for one minute before silence, with the fear that the professor may magically intrude. What Zoom class does to this dynamic is that it takes away the collaborative aspects of a seminar-style class and dictates class to be an exchange of information from the professor to the students. (Almost like “Fantastic Planet” (1973) if you have seen it.)

Professors, in their grand variety of techniques and class designs, become reduced to utilizing the same strategies ofMoodle posts, breakout rooms and  lecturing more than collaborating The enriching conversations you have with professors after class are wiped away as students eagerly escape class, having endured the infamous “Zoom fatigue.” Students become merely isolated boxes detached from their bodies, awkwardly gazing around their rooms, rather than idiosyncratic beings whose dispositions and energies determine the pace, style and rigidity of the class discourse. The more I tried to remember what Zoomlife was like in 2020, the more I grew frustrated at the lack of attention I was able to mount. I have fonder and more solidified memories of pouring tea, turning off my camera to chat with my roommates and fidgeting with the coins on my desk than tuning into the discussion of my professors and peers. 

Now this is not meant to be an argument awash in statistics and large-scale insights from professionals, nor is this an argument that Zoom should never be called into service again by a professor dealing with a snowstorm; rather, this essay concerns observations from a student who has noticed differences in himself and possibly those of fellow students in the way they learn. This essay wants to draw attention to how Zoom classes, if exercised for a year or in perpetuum, fall to the same level of ignorance as those who believe a liberal arts education can be summed up in a single book. Since perhaps the Second World War nearly 100 years ago, nothing has been as disruptive to the nature of classroom learning, from kindergarten to college, as asynchronous learning. This carries massive consequences that may hide underneath the surfaces of simply having to now do Moodle posts and Zoom office hours.

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