Diary: Christopher Benfey on Learning Remotely

“Lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches,” and I’m feeling a little dazed myself as I guide eighteen students in my intro class through William Carlos Williams’s poem about the road to the contagious hospital. It’s our first day of online classes. The students wrestle with what the contagious hospital has to do with the transition the poem has just made from muddy fields and dried weeds to the first signs of spring, to the majestic lines: “They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter.” I mention that Williams was a doctor, and that the poem was written during the 1918 flu pandemic. The student exchange takes off in a new direction, as they reflect on their own feelings about spring as they shelter in place. “What do the jagged enjambments add to our sense of the poem?” I ask, referring to the line endings that knock nouns from their adjectives. We shift again.

We’re carrying on this exchange (our “forum”) on an online platform called Moodle, a name I associate—from my early days of trying to get the hang of it—with the progression from a bad mood to a muddle. Moodle, like Blackboard, is one of the many software products colleges have adopted to facilitate (and, conspiracy theorists whisper, eventually to replace) classroom teaching. Because Mount Holyoke College, where I teach, has many students in far-flung time zones with differing access to the Internet, we have been asked to teach “asynchronous” classes rather than the everyone-log-in-at-the-same-time Zoom sessions we hear about in the news.

The day before our lives changed, I had held my class on the American essay in Mount Holyoke’s Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, a cabinet of curiosities housed in a barn, assembled by a rich silk manufacturer and collector of pretty much everything, that first opened in 1932. I wanted to nudge my students away from thinking about poems and essays as primarily expressions of the self. I wanted them to think about objects, and the ways that ideas can adhere to specific things. “Certain people, whose minds are prone to mystery,” Proust writes in Time Regained, “believe that objects retain something of the eyes which have looked at them.”   

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We visited the museum on the Wednesday before spring break. My students had been told on Monday that if they left campus during break, the college, wary of contagion, could not promise that they would be allowed to return. On Tuesday they were ordered, instead, to pack up their belongings and leave campus by the weekend. All courses, we learned, would be moved online. On Wednesday, we were wandering among the arrowheads and opium pipes, the stuffed owls and ship figureheads, of the Skinner Museum. One day, we were emphatically in three dimensions. The next day, I was learning how to record videos of myself giving mini-lectures on Zoom, and trying to master the intricacies of Moodle.

As we enter April, I’m not just adjusting to this new world. I’m actually enjoying it, and for two reasons not usually associated with the Internet. First, despite all the talk in our training sessions (our Webinars, God help us) about how we can achieve “engagement” and “community” in the “virtual classroom,” bringing everyone closer through technology, I find that what I treasure, instead, is the sense of distance. I like the concept of “remote” learning. I want to know how my student quarantined in a hospital in Hanoi feels about Williams’s poem. The road to the contagious hospital, for her, has covered a shocking distance, both in miles and in cultural difference, from South Hadley, Massachusetts, to Vietnam. At every stage of the journey—through airports and medical checkpoints and ambulances—she has had reminders of the way the pandemic, like the Internet, both bridges distances and opens them wide open. She tells the class, in one of our forums, that she was particularly drawn to the porcelain tea sets in the Skinner Museum, made by English potters trying (in vain) to imitate Chinese prototypes. I want students to feel such distances, acknowledge them fully, not try to erase them.

We’re also told that the Internet is all about speed, immediacy. But another thing I like about our Moodle forums is how they slow things down. Students read the previous posts when they are ready, when, for example, they’re not asleep. They carefully frame their replies. They provide images if appropriate: an early American side-saddle, a stuffed screech owl. The conversation spools on, at all hours, with students weighing in at 2 AM in China, and meets us whenever we pick up the thread. The extra time, the extra distance: both help us make the kind of difficult transition Williams describes in his poem. Students and teacher enter this new world, “uncertain of all / save that they enter.” We all try valiantly, amid the pandemic, amid the pandemonium, as Williams has it, to “grip down and begin to awaken.”

Christopher Benfey is a literary critic, teacher, poet, and scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. His most recent book, If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, will be out this summer in paperback.

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Images: Details from porcelain at the Skinner Art Museum, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts: early nineteenth-century Chinese teapot, early nineteenth-century American teacup