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In Praise of Classrooms

This year we have learned again to love the classroom—that lowly, unsung structure of walls and desks set aside for the purpose of learning. For learning has always been more than a matter of mental activity. The space where our bodies sit shapes the processes and possibilities taking place in our minds.

This isn’t, of course, a new idea. The power of place has always shaped how we teach: a large lecture hall with seats bolted to the floor will welcome and give rise to a certain kind of course. A seminar room, centered on a single table, brings together a circle of learners around a shared surface. In a room with moveable desks, the desks will likely be moved. Administrators try to book the space of each classroom for the content of the course, but the content that actually develops in the course depends a great deal on the space that administrators book.

So it’s not that we’ve never before thought about the forcefulness of the classroom; it’s just that now we have a newfound appreciation for it. We started this year in a semi-circular space with three concentric rings of desks cut by two aisles meeting in the center like a V. We had seating for sixty students, two screens on either side of the room, whiteboards in the middle, a computer console boasting every imaginable plug, the whole place loaded with technology and ready to go. Our course on “Markets and Morality”—a first-year class combining English and Business that uses literature to explore issues of economics and ethics—met in our university’s Olin Business School. It was a robust setup in all the best possible ways.

All the same, the classroom cultivated intimacy. And for all its glitz and glamor, it was the intimacy that mattered most. The room bent around us, bringing us close to students as we walked and talked up and down the aisles. As students do, these first-years came back to the same seats day after day, and soon friendships formed throughout the room, small groups for discussion and regular disagreements across a wide span of views. The structure of this space meant we knew where to look to make a point. We knew where to go when we needed support, or when we hoped (and found) a student who would see the issue a different way. The class sat close enough to know each other by name, face to face, person to person.

What was true for students was true for us as well. When we teach, we thrive on response—nodding heads, raised hands, levity and laughter (even the polite sort of chuckle offered for our poorest jokes). We could not have taught what we taught in the way we did without a basic sense of trust. The space made possible the bonds of learning that support and extend beyond the content of any course.

When we moved online this March, we threw ourselves into the new mode, trying to use every tool available. We flipped between video clips and Keynote slides, audio podcasts and lecture notes. We broke the digital screen of students into small groups and brought them back together. We tried everything. Some of it worked masterfully; some of it flopped spectacularly.

But what was evident from the start—and only increased over time—was a palpable sense of thinning. The thick relationships that had grown up in our classroom began dissipating. Though everyone’s heads could be arrayed in close up across the screen, the disconnect from the previous environment meant it was surprisingly more difficult to gauge responses. And over time, more and more of those heads disappeared. While students stayed involved, individual screens gradually went dark, another and another each week, the video muted and a mere name flickering across the box. The usual problems naturally arose—faulty technology, failing wifi, fluttering monitors, and muted students—but even when things seemed on track, the environment remained radically altered. There was no classroom to hold us together.

We are not the only ones longing for a classroom these days. As we finished writing this piece, Karen Strassler published her own yearning for the useful utopian fiction that in a classroom “students meet one another as apparent equals.” That is certainly true. But a place designed for education does more than foster equality, or build community, or enable relationships of trust and new forms of discussion. It also encourages a certain kind of posture, a way of paying attention, a shared sense of purpose.

In a recent essay, the philosopher Agnes Callard reflects on this issue by discussing the difference between “talking to ourselves” and “prayer.” The key difference, she writes, comes down to posture. In prayer, there is a sense of a listener, and a listener turns our disordered thoughts into order as we attempt to articulate them to another. “If I want you to access my unproductive and uninformative thoughts,” she writes, “I must elevate them to articulacy. The result is that I elevate myself as well: I become ordered by the order I must give my thoughts so as to present them to you.”

In some way, of course, Zoom offers a listener just as much as a classroom. So what is the difference? The difference, it seems to us, turns on the communal aspect of attentiveness crafted by coming together in a shared space. When the speaker is in the same room with you, maybe even right beside you, the sense of listening—and the importance of speaking—each become elevated. “Ordering thoughts is such hard work,” Callard goes on to say, “it takes effort to rise to the occasion, and being listened to by someone who can really listen is precisely the occasion worth rising to.”

So maybe we could say that it’s the reverence of the classroom experience — reverence for the shared work of learning — that we’re missing most.

Perhaps the same sort of listening can happen online, and perhaps in the coming months we will cultivate it, but from our initial foray into Zoom it has seemed that many of us don’t feel a need, or yet know how, to nurture a similarly “raised” posture of attention in such a suspended space.

This isn’t to say that there are no benefits, no connections, no intimacies, available from this new teaching world. In our course, for example, we often asked students to talk to their parents about the issues we raised. We wanted them to gain an intergenerational perspective. Halfway through the semester, when students suddenly found themselves at home all the time, it became quite natural for them to transition from our class into conversations with parents, siblings, and cousins. We would get emails explaining how they and their parents differed—dinnertime conversations flowing from a late afternoon class. Bringing learning home can happen much more seamlessly when learning happens at home.

But bringing learning home and learning at home are two very different things. How much can the space of a home be transformed into the place of education? And how does one replicate and recreate the lost bonds that formed by sitting side-by-side in class—the bonds that make ideas travel intangible paths in our minds?

In the end, what has struck us most about online learning—with all the high-tech tools it has developed—is how little technology is actually required to teach. A classroom does not need much to do a great deal. It can be loaded with screens and plugs, as ours was, or it can be little more than a storage of desks set in the right direction. Either way, it draws us together. It creates a community. It tells students, by its very structure, that we have gathered together in this place to respond to the calling of learning. It makes room for education by being a space devoted to that activity in particular. And as a result, it lowers the barriers to attention while building the possibilities of listening and learning, of growing together in mind and heart.

Someday we will return to the classroom. In the meantime, the calling of learning continues. Education is a vital endeavor, and we will always do whatever we can with whatever we have. We are grateful to Zoom and every other online platform for making it possible to reach and teach our students during a global pandemic. That is no small feat. But the more weeks we have gone about this task, the more eagerly we long for the simplest setting of all.

A classroom, it turns out, is a most remarkable thing.


Peter Boumgarden is a business professor at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. In his free time, he runs, more slowly every year.

Abram Van Engen is an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. He is a perennially hopeful but annually unexceptional gardener.


Feature image courtesy of Creative Commons

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