germano1_JOHN THYSAFP via Getty Images_zoom university John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

The Magic of the Syllabus

Using the pandemic to reimagine the goals of teaching might be the unexpected upside of a miserable situation. Today’s university environment may also reveal something essential that had previously been hidden – namely, the mechanism by which learning happens, and the need for imaginative and inspiring pedagogy.

NEW YORK – During the 2007-08 financial crisis, many experienced what literary scholars call a “crisis of representation.” Globally, more than $15 trillion seemed to evaporate, and people wondered, “Wait a second, what is money? How could all of this value just disappear? If this thing that represented that other thing can vanish, was there ever anything there in the first place?”

Those of us who teach at universities are currently going through something similar because of COVID-19. Losing most of the physical markers of academic life – no classrooms or offices, and students instead beamed into our homes via Zoom – has forced us to question what a university is and what higher education means.

In 2020, the answer is not obvious – and not only because the pandemic-induced economic crisis will probably cause a host of small colleges, especially in the United States, to vanish like so much money. Virtual teaching, like online business, socializing, or prayer, is nothing like the real thing. Subtract dorm life, parties, physical classrooms, and office hours in actual offices from the higher-education experience, and what remains is quite sterile.

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