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Postmodern education: Zoom University and the issue of presence

Hold in your head the image of a canvas with a depiction of the real world inside a painted frame that looks incredibly real, inside an actual frame that looks incredibly real, because it is. Kinda like Dos niñas riéndose (Two Laughing Girls), the trompe l’œil painting above by Perré Borel del Caso (1880). Remember that nothing besides the outer frame itself is anything more than a representation—the laughing girls are oils on a stretched canvas reflecting light, and so is the inner frame despite its attempt to deceive the eye. 

This is what remote learning is. Let me explain. 

But before I do that, hi, hello, I hope you’re all doing your best in the midst of a constant stream of daily tragedies, although I couldn’t blame you if you weren’t. Staggering numbers of innocent worlds are lost every day among millions more who have lost employment, healthcare, home, and family; every facet of a typical day two months ago has been rendered a dreamy past life, and we have no idea how soon we’ll experience it again. 

The invisible adversary causing all the harm is not us, but it lives within and around us so maliciously that we (correctly) prefer a previously unthinkable dystopia of isolation and physical distance to any warm and comforting community embrace we could give each other. For many of the people reading this, the uncommon community of curious experts that the project of a university sustains has been disruptively dispersed, and all of the old frames for behavior that went along with it. 

New frames and rituals are pieced together to replace them, but frequently washing hands and looking at rectangular simulacra of your previously physical peers is as much a deception of the eye as a golden, painted frame. 

Welcome to Zoom University, an experience of the world twice removed. 

Postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers had a lot to say about education and how it should change, and I can’t stop thinking about how urgent their sometimes vicious critiques have become. Nearly universal, imposed remote learning is an incredibly interesting case to apply poststructuralist thought, much of which I want to draw from Jacque Derrida, the French thinker best known for deconstruction and différance

For Derrida, the first layer of removal that remote learning presents is the practice of education itself, which Gert Biesta draws from Derrida and Ulmer to describe as, “the act of representing the world outside of the classroom,” similar to what a painting does but with texts instead of colors. For the poststructuralists like Derrida,  taking a course in business or biology or anthropology is not a faithful transmission of the world that these disciplines chop up into categories and quantify into equations, or even of making them present, but the process of representing them. 

Progressive educators from Dewey onward have urged a move away from mere representation in texts toward presentation itself, trying to bring ‘real life’ into the classroom and create an experience which you cannot have without it necessarily being educational. Derrida’s issue with both of these paradigms is their orientation around a platonic foundation of the origin or presence of the world that we can make a presentation of or seek to represent. The orientation toward presence in most models for education has dominated since Plato, but Derrida’s problem with maintaining it as the foreground for learning is that it is inextricably tied, “to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center,” which he and most other post-structuralists and antifoundationalists critique as no longer salient. 

Biesta describes this origin as, “a fundamental ground, a fixed center, an Archimedean point, which serves both as an absolute beginning and as a center from which everything originating from it can be mastered and controlled.” This is the kind of foundation in Western canon that everyone from Nietzsche to Heiddeger to Freud uncompromisingly question as a source for meaningful orientation. The presence of the real world in the classroom is an illusion, and access to the presence of the real world (a knowledge of things as they really are in themselves) is impossible. No method of representation or presentation of the world in a lecture is an actual experience of the world in the Platonic sense, no matter how much it is desired and claimed in Western canon. And the experience of the classroom through Zoom and away from another kind of presence at Duke is the second removal—our experience of the world twice removed. 

Although he was definitely not the first to do it, Derrida’s work consists overwhelmingly of questioning the Western desire for fixed metaphysical presence, and in his own way through deconstruction and explanation using différance, two concepts that have their complexities I won’t spend any time trying to explain here. The main contribution I think is interesting to our current situation is that teaching and pedagogic efforts in general are not an experience of the world ‘as it is’ but a constructed (painted?) set of scripts that try to emulate it. And the second layer of removal that remote learning presents is the abstraction of even those constructions, the absence of even representation of the presence that most traditional education tries to get to. You’ve all heard someone say “school is not the real world,” but remote learning is not even real school. 

The historically contingent rituals of discretely ordered classes, not eating during lecture, dressing professionally, separating spaces for work and rest, and holding exams in the absence of referential texts which we always have access to outside the exam are rendered meaningless with the removal of this second layer. 

The world of school ‘as it is’ is no longer, and the indirect, secondary learning of time management, advanced executive function, social navigation, and professional development it creates is decimated, if not done away with completely. We’re simulating these and other facets as best we can, but it’s an exhausting charade of a charade. 

Derrida and the other poststructuralists were never a concerted bunch when it came to what the new pedagogy should look like, but one common principle was that it should always question the ‘construction of the scene of teaching’ and remain skeptical of the educational process even in the act of teaching. 

Explaining to chemistry students that obviously balls and sticks aren’t an actual experience of the real world of atoms and molecules, and neither are any of the simplified equations (looking at you ideal gas law), in the process of teaching them to use these, would exemplify some of Derrida’s ideals. 

And even though most professors would faithfully teach the previous statements, they uncritically keep up the ruse of the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog system of naming molecules for no reason other than that it is the community-validated, historically precedent model. A healthy and repeatedly stated skepticism of this and every other category we use to represent the world as we think it is would constitute the new pedagogy, noting explicitly and knowingly the muddying effects of translating reality into text. (Please, I’m begging you IUPAC, come up with a better naming system). 

And in some ways, the secondary characteristics of remote learning have deconstructed elements of our pedagogy. The opt-out pass/fail system, dropped final exams, reduced workloads, extended deadlines, and lectures recorded to watch when it’s convenient are all revelatory actions for how arbitrary these structures were to begin with. 

Experiencing an education that is a painted frame within the real one of our homes and crumbling new dystopia is pointing out just how much of the gilded golden lines could have easily been painted a couple inches to the left because there are no truly fixed points. We could forget all this as soon as the right treatment is found and we’re all vaccinated against COVID-19 annually. Or we could rally around the real work of repainting the image itself, and its frame, to be a more just depiction of the world ‘as it is’. 

Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity junior. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays. 

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