In praise of spontaneity.

28 09 2010

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it first at UD’s place on Sunday:

You have to pick, and it’s not an abstract choice. College costs a lot. I teach at BC, where a year’s tuition, fees, room, and board currently add up to $52,624. What are the students paying for? What can’t they get online for free? In my end of the academy, the humanities, it comes down to one thing, in essence: the other people in the room, teachers, and fellow students. We can debate whether that’s worth the price tag, and we can debate the relative value of lectures and seminars (I think the best mix in the humanities is some of the former and a lot of the latter), but you’re paying for the exclusive company of fellow thinkers who made it through the screening processes of admissions and faculty hiring. That’s it. You can get everything else online, and you can of course do the reading on your own.

Your money buys you the opportunity to pay attention to the other people on campus and to have them pay attention to you — close, sustained, active, fully engaged attention, undistracted by beeps, chimes, tweets, klaxons, ring tones, ads, explosions, continuous news feeds, or other mind-jamming noise. You qualify for admission, you pay your money, and you get four years — maybe the last four years you’ll ever get — to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.

It’s a nice sentiment, and I certainly agree with it. I also agree with the overall cause that sparked these two paragraphs: banning laptops in the classroom. The distraction is not worth whatever benefits they might bring.

But read those two paragraphs again and consider another popular subject in the blogs I read: online education. You can have community online. Just look at Facebook. Last night I spent twenty minutes just reading the #Phillies Twitter feed as they won their fourth straight division title and I hadn’t felt so connected to my old home media market in years.* You can create a virtual scholarly community online. You might even be able to do it in real time. The problem is that such a community, assuming enough really smart people were willing to pay through the nose to get access to it rather than a real college – and that’s a big assumption – is that such a community would be utterly lacking in spontaneity.

My favorite teaching moments have all come when students stop talking through me and start talking directly to each other. Learning through engagement, I guess you’d call it. While I don’t condone violence, I remember one of those moments in my first class on slavery when one student threw an empty Coke can at another. Teaching the history of food produces tons of these moments as people get very animated about what they like to eat and are forced to think on their feet when I ask them why. None of these moments are ever going to happen if students are at home taking college classes in their pajamas. In fact, none of these moments are ever going to happen if you’re glued to your laptop in class either.

So what are you paying for when you pay for college? To me it’s the same dynamic as when you all go to the football game on Saturday afternoon. You pay so that everyone (including the professor if they’re lucky) can learn together at the same time. Turn college into a video game and rigor isn’t the only thing that disappears.

* The top tweet of the evening was, “Homer’s tribute to baseball salutes the Phillies and their fans! Any town that can boo Mike Schmidt and Santa Claus is okay by me.” How true. How true.


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