It looks as though my courses are going online in the Fall, a prospect I contemplate with ambivalence because for the last several years I’ve been trying to emphasize education as an embodied and situated process, one that depends on concrete factors such as hard copies and particular environments.
A physical copy of a book has a different kind of presence in the world than its digital counterpart. You can mark it up, dog ear the pages, write notes on the blanks, reflect on the publisher’s use of cover art, spill coffee on it, or– according to legend– use the paper to roll cigarettes like Mikhail Bakhtin during the Russian Revolution.
One of the seductions of narrative is its immersiveness. I forget almost everything in the near-pure moment of reading in what is ultimately a form of prompted imagining. But that act is a subtly variegated experience weaving ideation with the rhythm of my body inhabiting time and space. We are still creatures when we read– throbbing softly with the motion of our blood, respiring– so the solitude of study never completely separates us from others of our kind (the person in the next room, the bird on the fire escape, even the simulated body of the character in the story).
The virtual world allows this way of being though perhaps it does so with less intensity and more sporadically. The shiny, facile, dopamine-enhancing landscape of the internet plucks at our attention so persistently that we struggle to find a proper depth. It also fails to address our consciousness fully, in every register. The realm of the digital is impervious to the senses of smell and touch. Scentless, lacking texture, it places us at a sensuous distance from contemplation’s intellectual object. I can open a book and press it to my face to inhale its odor and feel the grain of the paper. I can hear my thumb scrape on the page.
Anyway. The pandemic is forcing a transition many of us are reluctant to embrace. Because every disaster is an opportunity– especially for opportunists– education is in for a sea-change.