Back to Court; Back to School

 by Michael C. Dorf

Building on a SCOTUSblog symposium, my latest Verdict column reflects on the lessons that the Supreme Court might glean from its telephonic oral arguments when it resumes in-person oral arguments. As I note in the column, the recent surge in COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the Delta variant and the relaxation of masking and social distancing creates some uncertainty about when in-person SCOTUS arguments will resume, but one hopes the answer is not never.

Likewise for classes at primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions, including the one at which I teach. Cornell is requiring full vaccination of everyone on-campus, but given the potential for breakthrough infections and the vulnerability of the immunocompromised, I am somewhat uncertain about whether some or all of my students will be on Zoom for some period in the coming semester, which begins in less than three weeks. Surely teachers and administrators at kindergartens, day care centers, and elementary schools with under-12 and thus unvaccinated populations are scrambling even more--their scrambles made worse in places like Florida, in which the Governor appears to be a wholly-owned-subsidiary of the coronavirus (although, as a resident of NYS, I can't exactly throw stones about any other state's governor.) 

For now, in a forward-looking spirit, I want to offer a short reflection on what I as a teacher learned during the pandemic, in the same spirit as my column. In the column, I expressly analogize SCOTUS oral arguments to teaching in various ways. Here I'll focus directly on teaching.

In 2020, there was a brief transition period for me during which I experimented with different Zoom setups. I tried using a podium but found that the ensuing distance from the screen created vision difficulties for which my reading glasses were not prepared. Then I tried projecting the image from my laptop onto a large tv, but there was a slight lag that threw me off. Eventually I settled on sitting at my desk and got used to it pretty quickly. Once I got used to sitting rather than standing to teach, the experience came to feel natural--so much so that I'm a bit concerned about whether I'll be comfortable standing to teach when we're back in person.

My comfort was not simply a matter of physical positioning. Over the course of my classes, I felt as engaged as ever in my teaching. In some ways, Zoom was preferable. With student names displayed under their pictures, there was no need to awkwardly consult a seating chart or try to remember everyone's names. Likewise, I did not need to keep track of the order in which hands were raised. I didn't exactly enjoy the pandemic, and I realized that the students were experiencing much greater ill effects from the social isolation than I was (because I shared my home with family), but I thought that at least the classroom experience was not diminished.

I was wrong. My one very very clear takeaway from the last year-plus of remote teaching is that screens have an asymmetric effect on speakers and listeners. Although student performance on my exams seemed roughly comparable to what I saw in normal years, student evaluations and more subtle signals indicated that students were substantially less engaged via Zoom than in person. As the teacher, I was necessarily engaged in just about every second, but students in their dorm rooms or childhood bedrooms were not.

That conclusion ought not to have surprised me. Attending meetings and conferences via Zoom, I have had the same experience. If I'm speaking on a panel, it feels pretty similar to speaking live in person, because my mind is fully engaged in roughly the same way. But when I'm simply an audience member--or worse, attending a webinar in which my camera and microphone are off the whole time--the tendency to tune out and the temptation to check email while ostensibly also paying attention are simply too great to resist all the time.

As I said, the result oughtn't to have surprised me, because I thought I had learned this same lesson many years ago. Very early in my teaching career, I attended an Association of American Law Schools workshop for new law teachers. One of the panelists was Harold Koh, who said that it's useful as a teacher to turn yourself into a student periodically, so you don't lose touch with the student experience. I have tried to follow that excellent advice by periodically enrolling in courses in subjects in which I'm a novice. One year I tried to learn guitar. Another year I took an economics class. Yet another year I took an acting class.

The acting class was taught in the evenings, because we acting students had day jobs (as did the instructor, who was the drama teacher at a nearby high school). It was mostly taught through exercises, but the teacher would sometimes give mini-lectures on acting technique or theory in between the exercises. I distinctly remember sitting in the class during one such mini-lecture and having the following sequence of thoughts: Wait, what? He just said something about using related experiences to conjure emotions, but what did he say before that? Damn. My mind seems to have wandered for about ten seconds, which was all it took for me to become completely lost.

Later that night, I had a further thought: Aha! I need to remember this when I'm the teacher. My saying something does not guarantee that everyone hears it. At any given moment, a few students' minds are probably wandering. So it's important to go slowly, repeat key points, and be patient when students seem not to have followed some line of thought they ought to have followed if they were paying full attention.

I have tried--not always fully successfully--to be sensitive in my teaching to the inevitability that students' minds sometimes wander. And yet, even as I was receiving constant reminders from my own experience as an audience member that attention can be a special problem on Zoom, somehow when I was teaching via Zoom all of that knowledge vanished. I felt this is going surprisingly well. It wasn't. It wasn't going terribly, but it wasn't going as well as I thought.

What to do in response? One can receive immediate feedback on the efficacy of teaching through formal means like polling and quizzes or informal means: do they laugh at my jokes? Do they raise their hands? Etc. But I think that teachers are always vulnerable to over-estimating the extent to which students are paying attention. The lesson I learned--or rather re-learned--during my Zoom teaching is don't fully trust your sense of how the class is going.

That lesson seems broadly applicable to in-person teaching too. After all, my acting class was in person. Minds wander. Some faculty I know and respect forbid their students from bringing computers to class precisely to limit tempting distractions. I don't do that, although I do admonish my students to use their computers for the sole purposes of taking notes and occasionally accessing class-relevant information that they don't have with them in the form of a physical book or printout.

Finally, I think there is probably a life lesson here as well: Try to avoid the egotistical assumption that everything you (I) say will hold the attention of others. And thus don't be surprised or upset when you need to repeat something. Again, don't be surprised or upset when you need to repeat something. See what I did there?