Do Zoom classes confirm our worst fears about human nature?

Some students have abused privacy allowances and marking latitude – but others’ ongoing engagement has been heartening, says Robert Zaretsky

June 23, 2021
The shadows of anonymous people walking in one direction down stairs are seen on a wall in London as a metaphor for some students abusing privacy allowances
Source: Getty

The pandemic has pushed professors and students to pause over practical questions, and also philosophical ones. What is at stake is not only how to teach or take classes – particularly in the humanities – but also the existential matter of why we teach or take classes at all. 

A guy named Gyges, I believe, might have the answer.

Ancient writers loved to riff on this partly historical, partly mythical figure. The 5th century BC historian Herodotus presented him as a bodyguard to the Lydian king Candaules, who, under the cover of darkness, kills the king, takes the queen and founds a dynasty. A century later, Plato transformed him into a Lydian shepherd who, upon entering a cave, stumbles across a skeleton wearing a gold ring. Taking the bauble, he finds that it makes its wearer invisible. Thus armed (or fingered), this version of Gyges also kills the king, takes the queen and founds a dynasty.

In The Republic, one of the dialogue’s interlocutors, Glaucon, desperately seeks a reason to believe Socrates’ claim that if we know the Good, we are compelled to act upon it. He worries that if we were freed of legal and social constraints, we would all act like Gyges, regardless of justice.

During spring semester at my university, a perfect storm of events created a laboratory of sorts to test the positions of both Socrates and Glaucon. Already besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, our state was then battered in February by the Arctic blast that plunged Texans into days, weeks and in some cases months of freezing darkness. In response to the crisis, our administration reinstated the online and grading policies that had been in effect during 2020.

There were two important upshots to these policies. First, students could opt for a “pass” as long as their grade was higher than an F; in effect, they could receive credit for a D minus in one or more classes without torpedoing their GPA. Second, those students who were enrolled in online classes were allowed, for reasons of privacy, to keep their cameras off during class.

While one of my classes was online – the “modality” for nearly all classes at the University of Houston – I succeeded in teaching the other on campus. Not coincidentally, it was devoted to the literature of plagues. Twice a week, I parked up and walked past mostly empty garages and mostly darkened buildings, occasionally glimpsing masked, furtive students alone or in pairs. Upon reaching the classroom, 15 or so would be waiting for me.

As we were all masked and I could not read their expressions, I soon gave up on my usual lame pleasantries. Instead, we turned to our writers – ranging from Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius and Michel de Montaigne to Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley and Albert Camus – and discussed how their works helped them (and perhaps us) work through the plagues they had themselves confronted.

The moment class ended, I would sprint to my car and speed home, usually arriving in the nick of time to teach my online class. But I could not read the expressions of these students, either – not because they were masked but because nearly all of them rarely if ever turned on their cameras – or even their mikes. Our discussions of the tragic history and literature of French Algeria almost always withered into monologues.

Here is where Gyges becomes visible. At times, my frustration with the Zoom class led me to pop questions to those invisible students – who, I assumed, were at least present. But there was often no reply. I later discovered that those black rectangles on my screen obscured students who were variously at work, on exercise bikes, in bed – or on Google trying to find answers to my questions.

Unsurprisingly, the papers they handed in were unsatisfactory, but since the administration urged faculty to show compassion, I assigned D minuses rather than Fs. But it made me wonder: was Glaucon right?

After all, these invisible 21st-century Gyges failed to do justice to the books and writers I tried to expose them to, yet they were effectively rewarded for it. Did this not reveal the raw and rapacious character of human nature? Or, at the very least, the fundamentally transactional nature of social interaction?

Yet my experience with my on-campus class gave me another answer, one that would perhaps have pleased Socrates. While these students had the option of Zoom, they instead chose to be visible (if masked). A half-dozen or so, in particular, made another choice. Most of them were college seniors who were already on their way to grad school or a job. And yet they carefully read and deeply thought about the books to the extent that our discussions made me reread and rethink works I thought I knew. Rather than transactional, they were instead aspirational students, convinced that thinking about these words and worlds was both justified and, quite simply, good.

Did this make them “better” people? Of course not. But the aspirational students do remind us of a value that risks becoming invisible in our era. Namely, that what the Greeks called eudaemonia, or happiness, is found not just in a flourishing investment activity, but also in flourishing intellectual activity.

Robert Zaretsky is a historian and professor in the Honors College, University of Houston. His new book, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in Times of Plague, will be published next year.

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