IHS President in Forbes: Can Professors ‘Only Connect’ in the Age of Zoom?

For professors accustomed to teaching humanities classes in-person, the COVID-19 crisis has been deeply unsettling. Fall semester classes will likely be partially or completely online. Will professors who teach complex classes in philosophy, economics, English, history, and law be able to connect with their students and foster meaningful classroom discussion over Zoom?

In her Forbes column, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, explored how professors can best adapt to platforms like Zoom and to remote teaching overall. She spoke with J.P. Messina, professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, and Catherine Pakaluk, professor of economics at Catholic University of America, who both taught remotely this spring after campuses shut down.

Professor Pakaluk told Dr. Chamlee-Wright that she had to “work twice as hard […] to get students to participate online.” She noted the irony. “The student on the other side of my Zoom screen is ‘locked in,’ and you have all the tools available to you to reach [them] except the one that humans thrive on most: presence.”

Dr. Chamlee-Wright writes,

These insights reminded me of William Cronon’s well-known essay “Only Connect,” which spells out, with elegant simplicity, what it means to become a liberally educated person. “[B]eing an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” The ability to listen well, to speak with and learn from anyone, to see through the eyes of others, and to put one’s curiosity in motion to solve complex puzzles is, Cronon observes, all about connecting.

Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright

So how can professors connect with students over Zoom? “Know what you want students to get out of your class and do what it takes,” Professor Messina advised. Professor Pakaluk encourages professors to ask more questions than they would in person.

“I have seen that with practice and experience we’re all starting to learn the best ‘institutional’ arrangements for online education,” Professor Pakaluk told Dr. Chamlee-Wright. “Some will be familiar, some will be new. But the human spirit still yearns for the encounter with great ideas, so we have deep confidence we can do this.”

Read the full column in Forbes or additional pieces by Dr. Chamlee-Wright and the Institute for Humane Studies at TheIHS.org.

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