Music for chameleons or humans during pandemics

Surely nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but who would have expected Covid-19 pandemics one year ago? More significantly for teachers, who would have expected a massive use of virtual platforms for contactless teaching? The first lockdown and the first “transfer” from real to virtual has been (to me, and I’m stressed that this post relates to my personal experience) a real shock. In March (again, my case) I remember students checking their phones during my last “in person” class, interrupting me to claim: “This will be our last class here for a while, it seems, they’re shutting down schools and university as well”. It was as surprising at least as the Spanish Inquisition (until then, almost nobody was really taking seriously Covid) and brought some accents of drama into the room; parting was strange, as well as my incapacity of answering to the practical question “what will we do next week?”. The rest is history, almost everybody teaching at the University or in schools moved online and had to re-adapt everything to the space of her laptop-screen, the whole being framed by a more or less personal space, offered to the view of students for the first time (such a shame in my case, for, in order to show as little as possible of my room, I chose a strange angle and eventually have no massive and impressive lines of bookshelves to show off). Be this as it may, this is not a post on Zoom’s or other tools’ aesthetics. There are YouTube tutorials for this, I guess.

The point I want to raise is so evident that it might appear flat; but it was not so to me until we entered the second lockdown and went back to a new, massive and continuous (up to the current day) use of Zoom. How much of us do we bring in class whilst teaching? What exactly do we transmit to students together with our attempts at explaining God’s simplicity and the complex story of his attributes, when external conditions are of no help (e.g. poor concentration deriving from flat-sharing, or too much privacy: cams shut down, how do you know students are still there, poorly or completely not interested by the story of the divine attributes?). The first question is broad of course. We bring a lot of us into the classroom. Our experience, from which we draw examples and images that can help out clarifying difficult abstract concepts. And the same applies to Zoom, but in a slightly different way (see the previously mentioned focus difficulty). But let’s go back to the divine attributes. Whilst preparing my power-point presentation n. 1000 etc. for the undergraduate survey-class on medieval philosophy, I was once choosing images to explain the absolute distance between creator and creatures. I put there the image of the Porphyrian tree, to show how God cannot be there at all. At a certain point I thought, well, God is a total alien, that is the idea. A completely different being. I was looking for an image to fix this, for none can think without images, right? And David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust popped up in my mind, the cover of Life on Mars? Was there anyone like him before him? Of course not. So, I put it there, it made me smile, I finished to prepare it and eventually taught the class. It worked out well, so well that we ended up listening to the song together. It sounds cheesy I know, but the point is again another. What enters the screen? How do we reach each other? Focus is not self-evident these days. 

Some weeks before using David Bowie for Aquinas, whilst teaching the same class, a smart student was smiling so much at the screen that I thought he was doing something else, so I asked him what the reason of his exaggerated smile was. He told me that he was smiling at me, because I was there striving to explain Maimonides (again, on divine attributes) in a moment in which nothing made much sense (a lot of my students had Covid-19, many lost their temporary jobs and ended up in financial troubles). I did not know what to reply immediately, just said something like: “Talking about Maimonides is our normality, mine and yours, think about it. Why are we here otherwise?” I could have done better indeed but found not better thing to say right there. And that student, Simon, is very smart. I doubled efforts, tried to reach out to them as much as possible each time, tried to be clearer and clearer. I am of course not as cheesy as to arrive to the point of making claims like: “Music is the answer, we listened together to Life on Mars? and this is the best you can do on Zoom”. I have colleagues who used to play music regularly during their classes when there was still no pandemic. But I realized how everything was much more difficult and that I was completely sharing Simon’s difficulty (Simon is the smiling student above): finding motivation to prepare classes and to enjoy my work. Being home in rigid lockdown for almost three months today, you basically go from your laptop to your laptop, either preparing courses or teaching them, to people who are as tired as you. Focusing is difficult. I decided to repeat the music experiment in the class on Port-Royal thinkers. How to explain Jansenism and Pascal’s background? We listened to Jansenist Sainte-Colombe’s music (e. g., Le tombeau des regrets) and I told the story of his pupil Marin Marais, who learned from him virtuous technique and then chose the world, becoming Versailles’ official composer. This was immediately understood and triggered a lot of commentaries that went from Pascal to the Logic or Art of Thinking passing through observations on Montaigne. What actually brings you better to the Port-Royalists’ spirit than a Leçon des ténèbres? Given the time-challenge (how long will they remain focused, once the meeting is launched?) and the necessity to transmit some content, I think the music experiment worked. In the end, aren’t we all using YouTube when we sit in front of the computer? The medium is the same. And during pandemics, we all are at pains with attention problems. So, maybe, this explains the massive usage of paintings in my power-points (never used so much of my poor competences of history of art before) or the references to literature and books, even the last entering my (invisible to them) library. I used to refer to books or show paintings even before the pandemic of course. What is different now is that they are more needed than ever to create bridges from one desktop to others.

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