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Mainstream, VOL LX No 20, New Delhi, May 7, 2022

Teachings in/of Covid-times | Sreedeep

Friday 6 May 2022

by Sreedeep *

All that we have gone through is rather unheard of, or unfelt by several generations. What we have gone through is unpredictably unsocial—as the nature of the virus mandated social-distancing, which was drastically imposed by many states in the most draconian manner. In a manner that was rather absurd that did not care for the state of its citizens to plan or prepare. Such awkward times arrive once in a century or once in several centuries. Many of us lost our near and dear ones—our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, or our lovers. Many lost their lives and livelihood. After all that is lost, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. And hopefully, we are at that juncture.

In the post-covid world—if at all we have arrived at that stage—it is important to remind ourselves that we have gone through really obnoxious and unprecedented times in the last couple of years. At times, we have struggled through that phase collectively. And at times, we have struggled all alone—house-arrested for months, not knowing what to do, or how to escape the exceedingly depressive scenario, where movement is curtailed, while deaths turn into a statistical curve. We still do not have the exact statistics regarding how many may have had near-death experiences due to loss of livelihood, or the abject poverty and severe hunger. Not to forget the inhuman sight of the long-walks by millions of workers employed in the unorganized sectors on the highways and the railway tracks in the scorching heat desperately wanting to return home. Many of them could not make it to the much-desired destination. But each mile they covered will go down the history as a narrative of immense hardship and helplessness while we could only watch it on our 4K-flat-screens in our air-conditioned rooms. And many of us have happily forgotten it, by now.

As teachers, never in our wildest dreams, we could think that the crisis will be so severe and so prolonged. As teachers, never we could imagine that we will have to teach online for two consecutive years. A form of teaching which was mediated by internet-connectivity and screens. Never we could be happy with a proposition that a first-years-students would not even get to know what it means to be in a university-classroom, or to be in the university-campus. Being in a classroom, participating in a classroom, interacting in a classroom, exchanging in a classroom—all these taken-for-granted and obvious pedagogic-exercises would appear utopian, that too with a possibility of not returning to the prior-mode, ever after. Simply put, we all missed being in the class all. The sheer sensation of returning to the classroom after two years, was unexplainable.

Why so much of noise and fuss about online-teaching? It is because of the materiality and physicality of face-to-face interaction. Somehow, that had disappeared in the online-mode. No ‘bandwidth’, no ‘virtual’ and no ‘technological’ can substitute physical presence. To be able to see the students while one stands and speaks, has no resemblance with speaking to a screen. Much of the inspiration and energy behind teaching is drawn from the physical presence of students in a classroom. A teacher’s ability to see students react, response, interact and participate as s/he speak—adds to the teaching-rhythm. Not just spoken words, but sight is a crucial component of teaching. Without sight, it is impossible to gauge whether or not students are able to comprehend what is being communicated. Like touch is sacrosanct to intimacy, sight is an essential component of classroom communication; and distance is detrimental to it. Needless to say, that the penetration of digital dissemination is still in its nascent stages in India. Digital connectivity and smartphone or laptop-screen-access is limited to certain privileged classes. The unlimited nature of digital access that we are used to take for granted—is beyond the reach of more than half the population in this country.

Most online classes entail a question that reflects the obvious uncertainty of online-teaching-mode. The constant reiteration of the question “am I audible”—not just points out the dependence on technology’s ability to make one visible and audible, but it also points towards a doubt that invisibility gives birth to. As a teacher, one is never sure about one’s ability to drive home a point while speaking to a blank screen or to a screen that is full of stamp-sized student-faces—all unknown. Bouncing an idea and judging its receptibility becomes very difficult, if not impossible, particularly while teaching something theoretical to a class with a sizable number of students. As a teacher, you are always unsure about when to repeat and what to repeat, if necessary. You remain unsure about physical state of the students—who could well be logged-in, but could be engaged in some other activity altogether. Devoid of eye-contact, it becomes a mechanical and a mundane job. It took some covid-imposed time and some covid-imposed distance to realize that teaching demands proximity. Hopefully, the educational institutions won’t have to go through the darkness and coldness of compulsory online-teaching, ever again.

* (Author: Sreedeep is a Sociologist with Shiv Nadar University)

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