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IDEAS

I fear my students will decide they prefer online classes

When this is all over, I don’t think college campuses will snap back to being just as they were.

Empty chairs and tables outside Stanford University's student union one year ago. Will colleges ever regain all of the bustle they've lost in the pandemic?
Empty chairs and tables outside Stanford University's student union one year ago. Will colleges ever regain all of the bustle they've lost in the pandemic?Philip Pacheco/Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Get

Last week, I made my usual trek across the nearly empty grounds of my once-bustling campus. I glimpsed the occasional groundskeeper or student, masked and alone, going about their business. Adjusting my face mask, I opened the door to a darkened and deserted building to teach one of the few in-person classes this semester. Gazing at the 15 or so students, masked and distanced, I realized with a jolt that we have been in the “Blip.”

For those who have resisted the gravitational force of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let me explain. As this epic series of films builds toward its climax, the genocidal Thanos confronts a legion of superheroes in his quest to eliminate half of humankind. Thanos snaps his massive fingers, and suddenly, as we watch in horror, half of the superhumans and mere humans in the world collapse into piles of dust.

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Never fear. The surviving heroes find a way to knock off Thanos and, with a second Snap, undo the dire effects of the first Snap. No less suddenly, the billions who had been turned to dust return to life. The Blip between the Snaps, we discover, lasted five years. But when it’s over, things just return to the way they were. A basketball hits the head of a blipped high school student who suddenly reappears in the middle of a game.

It is tempting to quip about our current Blip, too. Like the time I rambled for several minutes during a Zoom class about the existential notion of absurdity before realizing that my microphone was muted. Pause. And my students said nothing. Or take the student — please — who excused herself for losing track of the class conversation because she was trying to beat her best time on her Peloton.

But the laughs soon ring as hollow as the hall outside my classroom. Looking back over the past year, teachers and students share a dirty secret: Scarcely any real teaching or learning has taken place. Without a Tony Stark to transform us into holograms, we were banished to small boxes on computer screens that would appear and disappear owing to wavering Wi-Fi. With the option of keeping cameras off and taking classes for pass/fail, no doubt more students were napping or playing solitaire than were in pre-Blip times.

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Looking forward, though, hardly offers a brighter vista. My students who are coming to in-person classes do not worry they’ll get hit in the head when the Blip ends. Instead, they worry there will be far fewer heads on campus once it ends. Many of their fellow students have come to prefer online classes. While I suspect that some of those students would rather multitask after signing in for a class, many others have compelling reasons. They live in places that require long commutes, they live with family members who require assistance, or they live with anxieties that make them seek solitude. Or they live in student bubbles and do not crave any more social interaction than they already have.

This is why I suspect our campus will never fully return to its former bustling life. Hallways will no longer be hollow, but they will not be humming. What we glimpse at the end of this tunnel is not light but a kind of twilight. Certain practices will come to unlamented ends. For example, there will be no more reason to hold office hours than to hold a fishing pole over a dried-up lakebed. In fact, many of us, accustomed to working at home, will not even require offices. Departmental meetings will also come to an end. That certain colleagues will bemoan their passing is why many others, I suspect, will instead do backflips.

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Beyond these mundane matters, though, are momentous ones. So momentous — I think my mute button is off — as to be existential. A recent survey of nearly 600 professors by the education group Course Hero reveals that my peers are also burdened by anxieties over what the future holds for us.

For example, is it really true that effective teaching can occur only in real classrooms with real people holding real books? This is a common conceit of my peers, and one that I fully share. But what if we tell ourselves this story in order to disguise our real fear: that we will lose the live and captive audiences we’ve long been accustomed to? Audiences that mostly and unintentionally amuse or confuse but occasionally (and probably also unintentionally) fuse with unexpected insights. It may well be that a generation accustomed to Instagram, Tik Tok, and GroupMe need me and my peers as much as they need a set of walkie-talkies. Especially as too many of us have devoted our lives to speaking to one another on recondite matters at academic conferences — which no doubt will be another victim of the Blip — while speaking at our students on distant matters in our now-empty classrooms.

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What can be said with certainty about campus life after the Blip is that it will not be as it was before. How greatly it will change will be measured by how many students take to their Pelotons during our classes.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book is “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.”