Ideasroom

Why we need real life teachers

What is lost when teaching goes online, when the screen is everything? Alison Jones wonders about the risks of disembodied education

Teaching is much more than the effect one mind can have on the minds of others. The teacher’s physical presence does much of the communicating. As a teaching professor, I raise and lower my voice, I pause, gesture, laugh, pace around, sweat and blush. I look directly at my students, sometimes seriously, sometimes playfully. I dress in a certain way and wear good shoes. These are practices of teaching. 

It is probably not fashionable to mention the teacher’s body, especially in a world forever changed by the #MeToo movement. But we must, because it has become central in the current crisis: how do we teach without touching, breathing on, or being near our students and having them near one another? 

The restrictions of lockdown made remote, online teaching standard practice. Some worry that forced into retreat behind a screen, the teacher’s body, in its breathing, fleshy, corporeal, present form, is under threat of permanent disappearance. This vanishing into the virtual realm is not new; the virus has just made the process more noticeable. 

Online teaching has undeniable benefits from the teacher’s point of view. Blogs, vlogs, and podcasts can be plucked from the internet to fill out a lecture. Video recording lectures allows for retakes, the erasure of false starts or unfortunate errors, and a near-perfect performance every time. Teaching online liberates us from many of the inconveniences of the real world; running a Zoom class from home for example, allows us to avoid traffic queues and the cost of parking. 

Online programmes also allow us to spy on our students and monitor their industriousness.  (“I see Jamie only logged on twice during the whole course, both times after midnight, and he didn’t contribute to the student online chat.”) Our computers check each student’s work for plagiarism, and even provide standardised comments to insert into essays. 

But it’s not all easy. Technical glitches and unstable connections dog live interactions, and we may have to bribe our kids to stay quiet in the next room. For larger courses taught in ‘packets’ of pre-recorded lectures online, small photographs of each student – tiny, face-on, static – tell us little about our audience, and can’t hope to communicate a feeling of engagement with them, even though we are affecting their lives quite significantly. 

It also destroys any opportunity for spontaneity, for serendipity, for the random accidents that are the lifeblood of the teacher-student relationship. One of the many joys of university teaching is that we can digress, add an insight that occurred to us that morning or minute, follow a thought raised by a student or scan their faces for a response and replot our course accordingly. There is that moment of delight when your students are switched on to learning, because you taught them well. These pleasures are inevitably under threat when the teacher’s body cannot be present.     

Fictional texts such as Pygmalion (1941), To Sir, with Love (1960), Educating Rita (1991) explore the link between teaching, learning and desire. And academic books such as The Teacher’s Breasts (1994), The Erotics of Instruction (1997), Teaching Positions (1997), Pedagogical Pleasures (1999), and Taught Bodies (2000), reveal good teaching as an exciting and seductive performance, always tinged with risk. The best teaching moments come when our students are turned on to the pleasures of learning. 

Some will be pleased the possibilities of such excitement have been dampened down, that the attractive, ugly, warm, loud, quiet, nervous, confident, angry, funny, material body of the professor is now safely and cleanly behind a (computer) screen. We all know the stories of dangerous professors.

I remember my most memorable, and often most stimulating, university teachers in the 1980s: the drunks, the sexual predators, the egoists, the ravers (mostly men, I have to add). Since then, the power of the professor to decide on his (or her) own pedagogical practices has declined. 

No longer can he simply turn up at the appointed lecture time and dust off old notes, or rave about his latest idea, shouting questions or engaging at random with his audience, charming or inspiring them, or boring them to sleep. Requirements are that courses be predetermined in their content and all lecture material be available online. Students barely need to come on to campus, and since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, they need not come at all.  

Yet there is reason to worry that the body we used in the performance of inspiring or boring our students has been so diminished. Now, we professors are reduced to a form of teaching that is little more than teaching’s mechanics: finding (and sometimes producing) teaching material for ‘best outcomes’. 

In our sanitised and ordered work, outcomes and solutions now far outweigh any dubious interest in the frisson of being well taught, or the thrill of great pedagogy. A post-Covid-19 social orientation to clean, risk-free solutions is the perfect breeding ground for the tech takeover and the burial of the embodied teacher.

The term ‘solutionism’ has been used recently to refer to the ubiquitous ideology that, in its simplest form, holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is apply digital plasters to, well, any problem, whether environmental damage or risky virus particles swirling among human beings. 

In educational settings, solutionist tech can deal with any number of immediate tertiary-teaching problems, from overcrowded lecture theatres, to cheating, parking problems, incompetent teachers, and recalcitrant students. 

To the extent that everything can be sorted, processed and regulated through a screen, the real body is becoming obsolete. The cost is the thrill of the debate, the spontaneous coffee group, the light-bulb moment, the crowded conference room where arguments erupt, the eye contact that encourages and excites, the agility of the good teacher to follow a creative line of enquiry. 

The cost, it seems, is the beating heart of university life.

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