Given that I am now on my fourth degree, this is perhaps a topic in which my observations have some validity. Here are a few, in no particular order:
- Online conferences are fine, not great, but fine.
Let’s talk first about the positives. Online attendance is vastly more practical and – has the potential to be – more accessible than what occurred before. How so? Well, that should be obvious. Before Christmas I spoke at a conference in London. I received the invitation far in advance of getting my exam timetable, and of course it so happened that my exam fell almost immediately after the end of this conference. Cue having to book a flight from London to Edinburgh, miss half of the last day of talks, and the general inconvenience of plane travel (not to mention its impact on the environment) all because I had to zigzag my way across the United Kingdom. This only gets worse when you consider international conferences. Not only does the move online have the potential to help the individual scholar, but it could significantly benefit the balance of universities in general: there is no equality in the division of transport across the country, and that has real impact on the potential for inviting speakers and cross-institutional projects, in addition to conferences. Just off the top of my head, St Andrews – which doesn’t even have a train station – could do very well out of this new arrangement. This isn’t even to mention what opportunities more online provision brings scholars with mobility issues, while there might also be something to say for zoom calls to be a slightly less intimidating venue than the lecture room for people to ask and answer questions.
I say this with caution, as I actually have not found this to be the case. Granted, I personally am someone who frequently asks questions in the lecture hall, but what I have found is that zoom calls are significantly less personal, and, unable to get the measure of the room, I am less inclined to ask questions. I’ll try to explain this more clearly through an example. Taking advantage of the opportunity to learn some new topics, I attended a few conferences run by a institute focused on the Silk Road. I was one of only a handful of attendees, and I had things to say, but being an outsider, no longer part of a crowd collective with the other attendees, I kept to myself, not even venturing to turn on the camera or microphone. Those who commanded authority through titles and being speakers led the discussion completely, and those with a more casual interest were perhaps disinclined, like me, to venture their opinions across the formless internet. Maybe I am the exception here, but I think it is important to bear in mind that an online platform is not an inherently more comfortable environment.
Similarly, it is not self-evidently more accessible either. Oh how we laughed when Labour staked their electoral hopes on the provision of free broadband across the country, but here we are a matter of months later and we’re seeing the practical effects that a lack of access to the internet can have on a child’s education. The same is true at all ages. Okay, so it is unlikely that a doctoral student in Britain will lack internet access, but it isn’t impossible, and internet access is a finite resource in big households with kids, partners and passing smartphones all vying for the precious bandwidth. Add to that those academics who have long made a virtue out of not being technologically literate – yeah, you know the ones – and we’re losing a lot of the voices that, for better or worse, are part of the general academic conversation. These voices shouldn’t be forgotten when we talk about the issue of accessibility in the brave new world.
2. You can learn anything…but you won’t.
As suggested already by my Silk Road attendance, the new online environment offers untold opportunity for self-improvement. Want to catch up on your Shakespeare? The Globe is uploading performances. Fancy perusing the National Gallery? Check out the livestream and save yourself the train ticket (Benjamin’s theory of artistic aura be damned!). The main way this affects academia is through the new tendency people have of – get this – recording their lectures. This was a development already underway at most universities, but now there’s some actual impetus to make this par for the course. Thank God. Was there ever anything but snobbery at the heart of some people’s refusal to allow their lectures to be recorded – some sense of, indeed, that pseudo-religious Benjaminian-aura filtering through that absolutely demanded in-person attendance to be perceived? I think we can put that quietly to bed. I love me an in-person lecture, but let’s face it, the mind does wander. Who hasn’t zoned out for a minute or so – I need to plan that essay, do we have any bread in the house, is it 18:00 that I’m meeting so-and-so – only to suddenly realise you missed the one piece of information you came there for. Everyone does it, just some people are better at framing the inevitable ‘can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all about the things‘ question at the Q&A than others. I can only imagine how much worse this tendency would be if I had actual responsibilities to play upon the mind.
Not only this, but even when we have our ‘Perfect Scholar’ hats on it is useful to go back and review a presentation. Who knows what might reveal itself on a second listen, particularly if in the intervening time you have done some extra-reading of your own. This would be particularly helpful at conferences, places where an extraordinary amount of speakers seem to wing a twenty or thirty-minute talk without notes, so that all you are left with afterwards are your own scribbled musings, a half-remembered powerpoint slide, and an e-mail with a meagre summary based on the speaker’s own distanced recall of what they said on-stage. Yes, this has happened to me – is it that obvious?
However, there is a corollary to the seeming advantage of a fuller archive: you won’t get through it. Better minds than I can no doubt provide a full picture of the manifold ways that the possibilities of the internet as knowledge database par excellence have done to a generational psyche, but I think among academic-types I can make a few observations of my own. Impostor Syndrome, for example, is hardly going to dissipate when you suddenly discover a thousand new lectures to watch (or, more likely, to add to the great pile of unread articles you have in your
anxiety work folder). I need only remember the case of a mate of mine who, doing a PhD on a single author, elected to read through every single book, chapter and article on the topic that had been published in the last three hundred years – get this – in chronological order (!) before they felt able to sit down and write their own opinions. It’s an extreme, but it’s not, let’s be honest, an attitude we don’t recognise in ourselves. Add to this the tendency among all of us to procrastinate like nothing on earth (no? just me?) and I think we recognise the dangers that a sudden influx of seemingly relevant but not really material could bring. There is something to be said for the more substantial and, crucially, peer-reviewed article, over the paper put forward often as a work in progress.
3. Teaching could now become compatible with life.
It is, alas, no longer the 15th century. The average academic does not live in a lovely stone-building at the corner of the college, resplendent in an oak chair with walls lined by mahogany bookshelves and a fireplace in the office to catch glasses of brandy and the occasional student essay. Despite the reputation, academics do actually live in the real world and consequently have to exist within the financial constraints and employment opportunities that that world proffers. You might have had a lovely time studying in Stirling, for instance – you have a great working relationship with your colleagues, a strong network of friends and, who knows, even some relationship and familial responsibilities – but if the only post up for grabs is in Exeter then you get on your bike and hop to it, you hear. Either that or enjoy a commute like nothing on earth. This is the position that many young academics find themselves in, subsidised by wages which are not exactly what you would call extravagant. The possibility of teaching remotely is undeniably an attractive proposition in such circumstances. Say it softly, but it may even enable some degree of medium to long-term planning in our lives, no longer framed by the Damoclean sword of sudden relocation brought by teaching contracts subject always to yearly review. A brave new world, indeed.
The response to this isn’t so much a direct contradiction as it is a fundamental restructuring of how teaching at a university and the purpose of the institution itself is conceived. Because to throw the charge that online teaching is somehow not as good as in-person teaching is to essentially give the lie to the distance-learning courses universities have been hawking to the highest bidder for the last few years, while at the same time it is certainly true that were online-learning to replace in large part that of in-person classes the university experience would lose something vital. This is not only about course content – indeed, that may be the least affected aspect.
When you apply to posts and programmes, you don’t simply call in the support of the names on a CV that are the most prestigious. You call in those teachers and employees who knew you best, who shared your passions and understood your thinking. Similarly, when you consider your university education and the lessons you learned, it isn’t simply a list of the modules you took. These are platitudes, but they are also true, and it isn’t clear to me that these elements of the course are easily transferable to the online format. Perhaps this is just a sign of my own nostalgia and nascent generational outmoded-ness, but I would fear that the anonymity that can already attend to the student in a packed lecture hall is only going to be exacerbated by the anonymity of the computer screen.
There you have it. A few rambling thoughts. I doubt that these are particularly original to anyone who has given the situation much thought, and have even less faith that even if we all are aware of the problems and issues that attend to the new normal, we’d be able to coordinate an effective response to them. One thing the pandemic has highlighted is the lack of solidarity among universities in the UK, as each responded in their own way before the official lockdown was introduced; so if I could offer any suggestion for the future it would be to overcome those institutional divisions and work along more common lines. If the playing field is somewhat flattened, as I suggested in my first point, then this might be more possible coming out of this pandemic than it was going in. I suppose we will just have to see.
Stay home, protect the NHS, and access temporarily open databases while you still can.