A Letter to St. John’s: Kelly Custer on GI Online Learning

Thank you to Kelly Custer for allowing me to share his thoughts. Mr. Custer is a Graduate Institute student at the Annapolis campus. He is also a teacher for D.C. Public Schools.

I would like to start by saying I cannot begin to fathom the overwhelming stress from the many difficult decisions and intensified responsibilities you must all be experiencing as leaders of an academic institution during the unprecedented time we all now share from the confines of our homes. It is no small feat of leadership to guide the St. John’s community, comprised of many Luddites and the technologically cautious, to the form of learning we all now participate through Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Having now participated in our adapted program for a number of weeks as a GI, I have had time to reflect. Like all of our experiences, the intensity of feeling, emotion, and thought dull with time. It is because of this, and because even when we return to St. John’s at some point next school year, the question of online learning will surely heighten, that I am offering these reflections as I think the question is so important and could have drastic implications for the graduate institute.

When both my life as a teacher and a student transformed from days rich in the lives of others to a solitary seat in front of my computer screen, I decided to read Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology as it seemed timelier than ever. Several weeks out, and in the throes of virtual teaching and learning, I find myself struck by the German noun Wesen. The sense the word carries, of essence, of what endures, brought me to the question of what is the essence, what has endured, of the GI program through the shift to distance learning? I would hazard that the answer to this question, of what has endured through distance learning and made it successful thus far is precisely the reason online learning should never be considered beyond a crisis such as COVID-19.

I cannot speak to what has endured through all this without providing a little of my experience at St. John’s in the GI. When I first came to St. John’s I had high expectations. Those expectations have been so thoroughly exceeded that I find myself at a loss to express what being a part of the community has meant to me. I expected the richness of the texts we read and the good discussions; what I did not expect was the community of friendship and love of learning that goes beyond the seminar table and is found on the lower fields during Reasonball, The Temple during basketball, the countless discussions, intense debate, and levity of laughter sitting around a table with Guinness at Galway, and the emotionally charged toasts at the boathouse. Such experiences are too many to enumerate, but they all share the real presence of others, the sharing of space, of discourse and activity that becomes incarnate in all those present. Each day at St. John’s is bittersweet. When I am there, with those around me, I am so thoroughly present that I have no time to reflect on what is occurring. Always, driving home, I am struck by the beauty of the time spent but also that it marks one less day I will have at St. John’s in the company of those I am so grateful to know and share time with. And then, there is that phenomenon after an awe-inspiring tutorial, seminar, or preceptorial, where the conversation binds all those sitting together in the wonder of the question pursued and transfixes itself to a glow carried on the face long after the discussion has ended.

What I have just so poorly attempted to articulate is an experience held by many of those in the GI. It is exactly that real presence with one another that we have all shared that is carrying all of through distance learning; it is what is keeping us all committed because we have authentically experienced the program essence of the program. Without that experience distance learning would be empty. I know I am not alone in feeling that. It is because of the unquantifiable experience of St. John’s that it could not happen without the real community of being with one another. That is what has endured. I do not believe that essence would manifest in any form of distance learning independent of it being carried by those who all share in its experience sitting around the table together, in person, experiencing what can only be known in the richness of being together.

I know that the question of online learning will loom larger than ever even when we are allowed to resume learning as usual at St. John’s; and I do believe that there are some opportunities to extend learning using online platforms. Perhaps, offering preceptorials online for alumni no longer living in the area; offering community seminars online; maybe even extending some hybrid of a study group and community seminar led by current GIs or alumni of the program. There are certainly options to explore. But what this experience has taught me, and I think, many GI students is blending online learning into the GI should not be an option. If it is the experience I have described that is allowing the program to endure, then without that experience, any attempt to have the GI online would be to lose its essence.

Thank you again for your leadership during this time. I am very much looking forward to again being able to see you all on campus.


Kelly Custer

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