Teaching Behind the Mask

Yesterday, I taught two classes face-to-face. One was the senior capstone course and the other was a grad seminar in “Pedagogies of Reading.” It was the first time I had been in front of actual students in a year and a half. We were all masked and vaccinated, but not socially distanced. Four students attended virtually through my iPad. One was in San Jose, one was self-isolating, and two were sick.

I asked the students how they felt about being back in a classroom. In both classes there were a handful who were happy to be back, a handful who were uncomfortable, and the rest were unsure. To tell the truth, I would put myself in the uncomfortable group. As a result, I lectured far more than I normally would. I just kept talking.

Performing Identity

In some ways, the trouble with teaching on Zoom or now behind masks is the adjustments we have to make in performing our identities and in reading the performances of others. On Zoom we have students and teachers peering into each others’ homes and private lives. We can counter this by turning into a black square or displaying a fake context signifying comedic irony or a desire to be anyplace but where we are. On Zoom we pixelate and freeze and our voices turn robotic and metallic or echo across vast virtual canyons. We got used to this, but it was like being in a foreign country while also being in our own kitchen, communicating with strangers we used to know.

Now behind masks we are present to each other, but our expressions are hidden. We have to learn to read each other’s eyes. Teaching yesterday made me realize how much I depend on the faces in front of me to know what to do. Do they understand what I just said? Did they get the concept? Did they get the joke? Do I need another example?

There are cultures where the women are always veiled. I am sure they learn to read the eyes. We will learn too. But for now, it is strange.

Making Strange

However, perhaps there is some benefit in this strangeness. Victor Shklovsky, in “Art as Technique,” argues that

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as they have never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (720)*

For Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to “make strange” the habitual, the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, so that we can see it again. The pandemic is not art, but its effect has been similar. It has made teaching strange. And once made strange, we can see more clearly how it works, and how to make it better. I think we have learned a lot from it, and will learn more before it is over.

*In Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. Emphasis in the original.