Professor, who do you profess to now?
I always wanted to be a professor in English. When the pandemic hit and lockdown began, I ended up being a professor in pandemic. That's not a designation. That's a disaster. I live a few blocks away from the university where I teach, here in Dhaka. I used to walk to and from the university. Since the lockdown, I realised how prophetic James J Novak was when he claimed in Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water—"Bangladesh is a small country of long distance." The university seems so far away, now that I never walk in its direction. I hardly relate to such terms as department, discipline and disciples. I still teach, though. I teach outside the box, from and in a box. I teach online. I often wonder whether this is teaching on the line.
The myth that teachers teach the way they were taught has a grain of truth in it. All good teachers are influenced by the great teachers they have had, and when good teachers become great teachers themselves, they're the transformed versions of their influences. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has changed this truism about teaching. Teaching shifted in a jiffy from on-site to online. Some skeptics speculate that teaching online is a turn of the screw, for no teacher was ever taught in a pandemic to teach online during a pandemic. Deep down, some teachers regret that the pandemic has turned them into charlatans, despite solid expertise and experience in teaching. They feel utterly under-prepared to cope with the greatest experiment of teaching in human history—disinterested because of philosophical, ethical and intellectual resistance to teaching online.
I believe that a teacher belongs to a classroom exactly the way a pilot belongs to a cockpit. Because of the pandemic, teachers are misplaced and have lost classrooms. An ideal classroom bristles with ideas and interaction, mentored by a teacher, popularly known as a professor. Given the origin of the word from Greek, propheteia, it has something to do with prophesying or clairvoyance. To a professor, the students are pupils, which mean eyeballs in English. A professor is visually impaired without students. Physically he is not, but philosophically he is. The metaphor of students as eyes implies that a professor's vision revolves around students and that students are within the scope of his vision. So, the connection between professors and pupils is not virtual. It's visceral. With online teaching, none of these assumptions about teachers and students hold up. Teaching online is philosophically puzzling.
Teaching online might be ethically iffy, too. Despite the ubiquity of technology, a technological approach to teaching is elitist, not egalitarian. No technology comes to us gratis. Technology is a service, and it serves only those who can afford it. When it comes to the purchasing of the gadgets and grids, nations across the world are in a race between Ferraris and bicycles. Why do about 97.10 percent of people in Denmark have access to the internet, whereas only about 1.31 percent of people have access to the internet in Eritrea as of 2020, as the International Telecommunications Union claims? In Bangladesh, about 62.70 percent of people have access to the internet in 2020. Now match this with the information that as of 2018, about 16 percent of people in Bangladesh had smart phone penetration. Teaching online presupposes both access to the internet and smartphones, which in Bangladesh most people don't have. Teaching online renews and reinforces the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Some students who are dislodged by the pandemic to the remotest areas of the country are victims. That gnaws at some teachers, who have to (but don't want to!) teach online.
Besides this philosophical and ethical resistance to teaching online, many teachers find online teaching intellectually insipid. Education is not training, not a skill-specific crash course. Education is ecological. It's a life-long process that strives to prepare humans for an ethical, informed and compassionate engagement with the physical and human environment, where various forces—both natural and artificial—intersect and interact. Education inculcates vision and wisdom to foster peace and prosperity. Education is more about interaction and inspiration than instruction. Formal education transpires in a tight-knit community of teachers and students in a physical space, which evolves from the shade of trees to the warrens of bricks and mortar. Online instruction flips that dynamic of teaching. Consequently, some teachers find online teaching dry, boring and unappealing. According to an Educause survey in 2017, a whopping 91 percent of teachers in the US preferred not to teach online. This finding echoes teachers' sentiments across contexts about online teaching. None of us spent years in grad school to teach online, did we? We have some technical training in technology. We hardly have any pedagogical training involving technology.
We're making do, nonetheless. So, teaching and technology—and in my case, Google—are inseparably embedded. Had I not taught on Google Classroom, I perhaps wouldn't have had a residual gut resistance to teaching online. Back in 2008, I perused the essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid," by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic. In that essay, Carr amassed an astonishing amount of information to imply that technology is apparently detrimental to knowledge and learning. He acknowledges that the internet is "an incredibly rich store of information" to facilitate research and learning. He confesses as well that the more he stays on the Web, the more he struggles to stay focused, for the internet chips away his "capacity for concentration and contemplation." I was not immediately too sure whether Carr was confessing to the wrong crime or he was blaming the wrong culprit. Around the same time, when I read Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll, I discovered some of Carr's concerns about technology-mediated education confirmed with further evidence and explanations. Technology for education is not altogether a godsend.
Technology has made the whole business of education visual, as if education is all about showing and seeing. But how do we make such attributes as intuition, experience, observation, imagination and sense of judgment—the core pillars of an ideal education—visible? Besides, online pedagogy is a one-size-fits-all approach. Different disciplines approach teaching differently, hands-on training versus lecturing, for example. Different students have different learning styles and aptitudes, too. An ideal pedagogical approach is never preconceived; it's flexible and adaptive. Online teaching is hardly responsive to these nuances of teaching. Perhaps the biggest concern about online education is that it feeds the perception that education is easy and instant and that teachers can teach whether students are engaged or not. Education has always been difficult and time-consuming. As Oscar Wilde in his essay The Critic as an Artist claims, "Nothing worth knowing can be taught." As teachers, we can't teach, per se; what we do and what we can do is to create an environment where learning can take place. By mere teaching, we can't create that environment. Gesture, proximity, distance, eye contact, facial expression and vocal intonation critically participate in creating that environment. These properties of teaching are missing altogether in online teaching.
Despite these shortcomings of online teaching, I would like to continue teaching online for some time. It's a fortunate accident to re-imagine teaching for a more powerful and enduring education. Online education turns us again into what we have been for centuries, guru. The word guru combines two Arabic words: guah (power) and ruah (soul). A guru empowers the souls of his students by shifting the focus of education from physical to metaphysical as well as from body to soul. Now that we're distanced from our students and are only virtually connected, we need to reinvent ourselves to engage and empower our students. We can't see them to provide them with a vision; we can't touch them to transform them; and we can't reach them to teach them. Teachers are transcendent. If they are not, they are imposters. And the system that sustains them is flawed. It needs overhauling, so online teaching gains ground as a potential option.
However promising that option is, it dislodges classroom and teachers-students interaction. As such, some skeptics might ask, "Professor, who do you profess to now?" When asked this, we should stay silent like a saint. We don't know whether we still need to define teaching and learning beyond such terms as teachers and students. They no longer are who they were!
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.