By Robert Reich
Rumor has it that I’ll be teaching remotely again this spring because of the Omicron variant. No official word from Berkeley yet, but the variant seems to be crashing through campuses all over the nation, even where almost everyone is vaccinated. Many universities are already closing classroom doors, as they did in March 2020.
I’m glad universities are being careful. But I’ve got to tell you: I hate the idea of going back to teaching remotely. Teaching students through the lens of my laptop is like teaching a wall.
The class I most enjoy teaching at Berkeley has over 800 undergraduates. I love being there in person — watching my students as I speak: their eyes, their faces, their body language; noting the moments when they sit up straighter in their chairs because they’re engaged and curious, witnessing times when their eyes light up because they’ve figured out something important. I don’t really lecture at them (although it’s described as a “lecture” in the course listings). I speak to them, and see and feel their reactions.
A class this large takes on a life and personality of its own. The class as a whole gives me a huge amount of information about what they’re confused by, intrigued by, want more information about, or want more context for. Their unspoken reactions guide me — telling me what to say and do next. I’ve been teaching for forty years, so by now this iterative process is automatic, subconscious, immediate. My students don’t realize that minute-by-minute they’re telling me how and what to teach them. We’re in a tacit but dynamic dialogue — all 800 of them and me.
I don’t teach from behind a lectern. I walk around a large stage, scanning their faces. Sometimes I’ll come down into the aisles and pose a question to them. A few brave souls will raise their hands, and we’ll spend a minute or two in a back-and-forth socratic-type discussion — the purpose of which isn’t to “catch” them but to demonstrate or reveal something to all the others in the lecture hall. After a few weeks, I might roam the aisles and call on students who haven’t raised their hands — a “cold call,” it’s termed. But by then everyone knows that my intent isn’t to embarrass or corner any particular student; it’s to engage everyone in a process of critical thinking.
I make it a point not to give them my opinions or values. I want them to test their own opinions and values. I want them to reconsider, think more deeply, get provoked when facts and logic don’t confirm their points of view, be open to changing their opinions or values. I play “devil’s advocate,” taking the sides of arguments they least expect me to take. I tell them that the best way to learn is to talk with people who disagree with them. That way, they have to re-examine their assumptions, test them, defend them, or change them. I suggest they get onto the habit of doing this, in their dorms or over lunches and dinners.
But when I’m teaching remotely — staring at the lens in the top of my laptop computer — none of this dynamic occurs. I assume they’re watching me on their own laptops, but I get no feedback from them because I can’t see their faces or read their body language. I can’t descend into the aisles and talk to them. There’s no tacit dialogue. I simply lecture. I do everything in my power to make the lecture interesting for them, challenging, sometimes humorous. I want to keep their attention. But I can’t help but worry about how much they’re actually learning.
I shouldn’t complain. I have it easy. Remote teaching is far, far more difficult for high school teachers. I have no idea how an elementary school teacher manages. Children have a hard enough time focusing and maintaining attention in real classrooms.
Besides, I tell myself: if the Omicron variant continues to spread, those of us who are getting up there in years probably shouldn’t take any unnecessary risks.
Still, if I can’t get back into the classroom next semester, I’m going to sorely miss the presence of my wonderful, lively, joyful, brilliant students.