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Online college classes are disturbingly quiet

This is a bad time for students to stay silent. But that’s happening in my tedious remote lessons.

Kyalynn Moore-Wilson, a freshman, sat at a desk in her dorm room as she participated in a Zoom meeting for an Introduction to Psychology course at the University of New Mexico on Aug. 17.
Kyalynn Moore-Wilson, a freshman, sat at a desk in her dorm room as she participated in a Zoom meeting for an Introduction to Psychology course at the University of New Mexico on Aug. 17.Sam Wasson/Getty

“Hello? Can anyone hear me? Is this thing on?” I hear versions of this a lot these days, from the frustrated professors teaching my college classes over Zoom who just can’t seem to get anyone to answer a question anymore. And it isn’t just because of technical glitches, annoying as those are.

For the most part, the distance learning system is working. My teachers have admirably adapted themselves to the new technology and our virtual classroom attendance is at its normal, pre-pandemic levels. Readings are assigned, essays graded, and lectures delivered. My 80-year-old history professor figured out how to share his screen, eventually.

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But something is different now: Nobody is talking. Interminably long pauses drag on as professors wait for feedback that never comes and students recite brief, tepid responses to just make the awkwardness go away.

Across the nation, colleges and instructors are making different choices about how to educate from afar, with some offering live classes online and others merely posting recorded lectures for the taking.

But from where I’m sitting (the couch, usually), it almost makes no difference. Even during our live online sessions, some of my professors — usually those in their 60s or 70s — grumble openly that they feel like they’re lecturing into the abyss, shouting into a Zoom room that does not respond. Or as I heard a resigned Bible professor put it, quoting the Psalms: “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”

It wasn’t always this way. As a senior, I’ve attended my fair share of college classes, and I’ll grant you that college students aren’t known for being the greatest of classroom talkers. I’ve certainly seen many a cringeworthy mismatch between apathetic students — distracted by computer screens and weekend plans — and exasperated professors who have to pull teeth to elicit the paltriest of discussions.

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But on a good, pre-pandemic day, if you paired the right mix of intellectually curious students with an appropriately provocative set of readings and an attentive, Socratically inclined professor, magical things could happen. Time and time again, I saw students put down their iPads, rifle through books — honest-to-goodness books, I say! — and raise their hands in seminar discussions about justice in Plato’s Republic, democracy in Latin America, and the upending of traditional gender roles in Shakespearean dramas. Questions, challenges, wit, and unsolicited opinions of all kinds flying through the room, electronic devices cast aside and forgotten. I created lasting friendships out of these discussions, and these moments are what I’ve loved most about college.

Fast forward to this semester. I took a history class this week that had 20 percent of the participants on Zoom displaying black screens in lieu of showing their faces (contra university policy). As for the rest, I stared at rows of worn, distracted eyes through their little boxes, before turning to my own camera and realizing, with a start, that I looked exactly the same. The screens are up, the books are put away, and the once-excited hands are at rest. Professors try (some more than others) to jump-start discussions and leave time for questions, but the results are usually uninspiring. We are silent.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Staring into a computer screen hour after hour makes me tired, restless, and deeply uninterested in participating in discussions that I would have dived into if we were in a physical classroom. Sitting on my couch and absorbing information through my headphones, the learning process feels cold and rather lonely. Now, instead of raising my hand or flipping through a book, I hold my tongue and check my email.

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It’s impossible to measure the cost of this silence: the unasked questions that would have put canonized works on the defensive, the unchallenged assumptions that now insulate us from criticism, and the unarticulated voices that would have compelled me to listen to perspectives far beyond my own. Breakout rooms and interactive polls stimulate short-term interest and offer periodic breaks from the quiet, but they don’t generate the level of discourse that makes learning truly transformational. I miss the magic of the classroom, where a thoughtful question or random epiphany could shock everyone into engaged attention.

With an election coming up and a country deeply divided, we need to be talking to each other more than ever. Isolated and separated, with limited human interaction and more time spent on polarizing social media, now is the absolute worst time for professors to dominate discussions and for students to go unheard. If we don’t show up, ask questions, and hone our critical thinking skills together, the success of the academic year, if not the future of the country, may be at risk. Can anyone hear me?

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Michael Weiner is a senior majoring in political science at Yeshiva University.