On the Virtues of Distance

David Clemens

I run a Great Books Program that offers courses online so that students anywhere can earn a certificate.  Recently I heard Gareth Williams, Chair of Columbia’s famous Lit-Hum core and emailed him for his thoughts on teaching great books online.  He was, not surprisingly, dubious:

As for Core courses online, I myself would be sceptical about the feasibility of such a step, at least from a Columbia perspective: so much here depends on the seminar format of voices heard around the table, and I feel that that format would be very hard indeed to reproduce in anything like its 'real-life' vitality if we tried it online.

I confess to similar doubts, admit that synchronous live dialogue is not reproducible, and acknowledge that the online courses are a marketing tool.  Still, in 2010, perhaps discussion takes a back seat to getting students exposed to challenging texts at all.  I started my program basically to keep frequently-cancelled literature courses alive in my institution (administrative pluses:  lower cost and a draw for disenfranchised literature students across the country).  Yet Professor Williams’s reply started me thinking about other virtues of online courses (I have taken at least a dozen and taught even more).  My defense of the online mode was bolstered by an experience of “voices around the table” while reporting to an informal group of students about the Association for Core Texts and Courses Conference where I heard Dr. Williams.  I could hardly get a word in edgewise with all the interruptions and crosstalk.  Everyone wanted to speak at once; everyone had an opinion; no one had a question; no one cared to listen.  I finally gave up. Neil Postman preached that

for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.

For now, the cost of electronically embracing what Victor Davis Hanson calls the “vanquished civilization of readers” may be the loss of “voices around the table.”  The advantage of online discussions, however, is the opportunity to complete one’s thought.   Students can also take time to frame their words, reflect rather than react, revise, expand, cross reference,  corroborate, and fact-check. My online classes often turn into one-on-one tutorials, epistolary, more time-consuming than the classroom but with a balance of distance and intimacy.  The shy can “speak” as loudly as the bold.  Discipline is limited to enforcing the flaming policy.  No one is watching the clock or tweeting, and students are no longer packed in a box (by the end of the day, my 1940s era classroom is redolent of a high school locker room).  Martin Pawley used to argue that all technology acts as insulation against human contact.  Sometimes that’s not a bad thing.

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