The Best of Human Enterprise will carry on

The spring 2020 semester has come to an end. It was an historic semester for St. John’s College and the world at large. Reflecting on the college’s transition to online classes and the COVID-19 outbreak, outgoing Associate Dean of Graduate Programs David McDonald wrote the following op-ed for the Albuquerque Journal.

Below the article is a recording of one of his online literature tutorials, his final teaching assignment as Associate Dean.

It is somewhat ironic for me to be teaching classes online. The college at which I work, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, has kept to in-person conversational learning even when other schools were venturing into online education. The public health threat of COVID-19 pushed us rapidly into a realm that was new to us.

In many ways, our academic program looks traditional, even retrograde. We have always insisted that face-to-face collaborative discussion is the best way to learn. Our educational equipment is a book, a table, chairs and the occasional blackboard.

No laptops, tablets or projectors will be seen in our classrooms. Primary are the people participating in the discussion and the books that give us a rich way of engaging in the life of the mind. For us, the life of the mind is integral with experience, and a way of coming to terms with it – a way of trying to understand ourselves and the world we live in. At St. John’s, we have been very at home with this approach: low-tech, minimally mediated, embodied.

Due to COVID-19, we had about two weeks to figure out how to bring our entire academic life online.

And here’s where things got surprising: on balance, the online experience went much better than most of us expected. At first, I was simply delighted to see the faces of my students again after we had so suddenly closed down our campus, and members of our community had been scattered across the country and around the world. There was awkwardness as we learned how to have class together in a new way, and with the occasional connection and audio issues, and the students for whom access has proved challenging. But it turns out that conversation, the primary way all of us have been learning and exploring from earliest childhood, translates pretty well into an online context.

Soon enough, we were talking together about central human things and forgetting that we were not in the same room. We discussed Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example: each poem a compressed, finely wrought bundle of ambiguity and complexity.

My role as a teacher is to ask questions, guide the conversation without dogmatizing, and help the students develop their own shared understanding. There is no “correct” way to understand these poems. What we hope for is some amount of durable insight, and a gradual sharpening of our ability to deal with the depth and challenge of being human. Love, aging, death – we all feel their urgency, regardless of who we are.

In a crisis that reveals our vulnerability and brings life into focus, it has felt especially fitting and reassuring to talk about the deeper things. So many are having their livelihoods disrupted, their routines broken and their most nourishing human interactions taken away. Some are suffering grievously with this disease; some are losing their lives.

It’s especially clear now that being human is a serious business, and a difficult one. At such a time, we crave honesty about the most basic matters, so that we might better understand who we are, and approach our challenges with resilience and understanding. Over the past few weeks, Shakespeare’s poems provided that honesty for me and for my students.

But it was not just what we were reading that proved consoling and invigorating. It was also the human connection among us, despite the thousands of miles that separated us. We have discovered something about just how strong human presence is. It is strong enough that distance and suffering will not finally overcome it.

Like human beings themselves, conversation finds a way. And by finding a way, it helps assure us that, despite the losses so many of us are seeing now, the best of the human enterprise will carry on.

David McDonald was also kind enough to share with us a recording of a literature tutorial from May 11. Watch it now.

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