During COVID, millions of people retreated to the ‘online’ realm to explore various cultural activities that were otherwise barred on account of COVID closures and social distancing. Instead of going to the art museum, for example, they attended webinars and lectures on Zoom. A very tiny portion of this total population of online migrants (which was most people) are what we can call conversational readers – people who read books with others in conversation, what many call ‘book clubs.’
Now not all book clubs are alike. Book clubs choose all sorts of books to read, and – it they are not library groups – they tend to be private groups. But Zoom was a welcome alternative to book groups everywhere and of all stripes. Symposium Great Books Institute is a kind of book club too – a special one, that makes it possible to read the really hard book, the classic, in rousing conversations that stay on track and get the job done. One of the persistent challenges of books clubs is the watered-down content, member attrition, distracted conversations and even never finishing the book. Symposium’s value-added has been to work to overcome these problems for readers.
One of Symposium’s groups – our lunchtime Shakespeare Sonnets seminar – met at the Hotel Emma in San Antonio in January of 2020 – but was saved from total demolition when COVID hit, because of Zoom. But now that COVID has receded members still find it worthwhile to join. As one long-time participant said, in our online (off-Facebook) forum:
“This is a great group! I’ve been with this group since BEFORE the pandemic (when we actually met IN PERSON in San Antonio). COVID sent us scurrying to the Zoom world, but no matter because with ZOOM we now have members from all over North America – bringing great perspectives and viewpoints. Even though this is my second time through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the group leaders Jeff and Eric along with the Edmondson and Wells edition, ensure a deeper appreciation the second time through. Re-reading the Sonnets is like enjoying music – don’t you listen to your favorite pieces over and over? Very enjoyable – don’t miss it!”
What is most telling about this testimonial is that as COVID recedes in cities across North America (at least for the time being?), online learning could still be the first choice of serious lifelong learners everywhere.
To show you why, I need to first clear up two things.
First, the specter of “zoom fatigue”. I don’t think I can ‘clear it up’, so much as raise a question about it. As complaints about “Zoom fatigue’ rolled in during the height of COVID lockdowns, why is it that we did not hear complaints about binge-watching TV fatigue, or video-game fatigue? So many Americans – even readers – have a steady diet of watching many hours TV shows and movies each week, not to mention playing multi-player video games (whose age reaches well into the 30 and 40s.) I emphasize “readers” – because you can still be a lover of books, and yet enjoy watching many hours of very interesting TV shows.
So why is this? What is the real specter here? Could it be that “Zoom fatigue” is not the real culprit, but something else, like the quality of time spent, or the quality of the activity, or the intrinsic ‘interest’ that allows a deeper level of personal engagement?
Second, to show you what I mean by saying that online learning could still be a priority for lifelong learners everywhere, even as COVD recedes, we need to get some clarity on the term ”online learning” and reach an agreement, so we have our minds on the same thing.
The most popular kind of online learning involves programs of prerecorded videos, with little or no personal support. I’ve taken a few of these courses myself, to develop different skills, and they can be useful, at least to some extent. Other programs included lectures or webinars. You can get a lot of valuable information, but the most valuable – and vital – information can only come through personal engagement with other individuals, because only in this way can you get the support you need with specific problems you face. This personal engagement doesn’t have to be ‘on location’ or physical – it can be over the phone or by means of videoconferencing. Programs that offer this level of personal support tend to run in the thousands of dollars.
At Symposium Great Books Institute, “online learning” is a completely different beast. Not only do we provide personal support for learning, but our programs do not run in the thousands of dollars.
As long as we can agree on this, then we can move forward in the argument.
Our most special interest at Symposium is not just the great books, but recovering – or rediscovering – the genuine leisure needed to get the most out of these books over a whole life. I often say that none of the great books were written for a single reading. They are built for life, for a life of multiple re-readings. You may know that the word “school” has Greek origin “skholei”, which means leisure. We want to restore the full meaning of the skhole that is drowned and even lost in terminal degree programs.
Read a book like Don Quixote, or Plato’s Republic, at the age of 18, then at the age of 34, and again at 56 and again 82 – and each time you read it, we can say without the shadow of a doubt you will get so much more out of each reading than before. If you are coming to the books for the first time at the age of 60 – so few people ever read these books anymore in schools, so you would not be alone – we don’t ever think you are somehow ‘too late’, for the sort of experience you bring to the table at your age puts you in a place to profit from these books uniquely in way an 18 year old cannot. Not all books work this way. The great books do. And this is why we exist as a nonprofit organization. Because the greatest books were not built for 11th grade English class, or Sophomore Literature 201. They were made to place in your very hands at the age of 34 or 62, at whatever later age and stage of life, long after we leave the halls of academy.
Thus we think of our courses less as a “course” – which is a impersonal, prepackaged, even somewhat of am academic falsification – but rather reading and conversation pathways, allowing for just a little more openness that might be required in the life of serious learning.
To this end, then, we have a program of Slow Reading here at Symposium Great Books Institute. Slow Reading, or unhurried reading, is our contribution to the world of serious learning outside academy. You will find Slow Reading nowhere else, at least for now. As one reader in our Aristotle slow reading pathway said, there’s nowhere else she can read Aristotle as slowly and deeply as we do, no college, no other adult reading program. Be that as it may, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more opportunities like this in the future elsewhere. Because…it works.
The “online” medium, in fact, using Zoom, helped a few of us here discover Slow Reading – but we discovered it about 5 years years before COVID struck. (We were reading Plato’s Laws at the time, of all things.) We discovered that if we reduce the amount of seminar time from 2 hours, to 1 and reduce the amount of reading -concentrate on 3 pages instead of 20-50 pages, we could form a standing commitment that was easy to meet, but also get into the book in a far deeper way than ever before. During that hour, we worked hard, but walked away from the table feeling refreshed and ready for more the next week. We worked our way all the way to the end of Plato’s Laws. Without the videoconferencing medium, we might never have reached this discovery together.
When you are an undergraduate or even a graduate student, for the most part, you live in or near the physical campus. Getting to a one hour and fifteen minute class, say, is not a huge sacrifice in time. It might take 15 minutes to walk or drive to class. Not a big deal.
This most basic condition of geographic location changes radically after graduation. I contend that learning after terminal degree programs can and should therefore change to meet this basic geographic condition of diaspora. We live scattered across cities, some of them are very large cities, all over the region. Say we hold a one hour and fifteen minute seminar on Plato’s Apology. For those living nearby a the brick-and-mortar venue, meeting for a one or two hour seminar does not require a huge expenditure of time. But for everyone else in the region, it might take a hour to arrive, and a hour to get home, depending on traffic. Most people would have to plan for 2 or 3 extra hours out of their evening, all for a one hour conversation. You have to make an evening it.
Now if we are holding a special event, making an evening of it might be a lovely thing.
But over 12 weeks? or 24 Weeks? 48? It starts to become a burden.
Yet 12, 24 even 48 weeks + is what we really need to unlock the great joy and pleasure of learning through the great books and conversations. We have this time, because we are not working with the constraints of a terminal degree program. What’s the hurry? And yet, it’s very difficult to make even this time commitment, because of the time it requires just to get to the place and return home.
Special events are wonderful things, and I’m all for them. But it seems to me, on the basis of what we actually see and experience, what we really need as adult learners, in order to get at this great and fulfilling joy, is a standing commitment, not so much special events. Special events can be a real delight, but the standing commitment is what will change you.
This is why Zoom – or whatever other medium we might avail ourselves – makes the standing commitment of Slow Reading a practical possibility. You get all the benefit of a standing commitment to deep reading and conversation, without having to ‘make a whole evening of it’. You get to do other things with your time before and after.
In fact, for those of us who live scattered across a certain city or across North America, slow reading replicates more closely than the alternative, the experience of walking to class 10 minutes away.
I can’t speak for other forms of online learning, but this is why I say that online learning of a higher quality can still be the choice to support serious readers everywhere.
So what is “online learning”, then, for us?
Here is what online learning for me, at any rate, actually is. It’s not “Zoom” but…
It is…my well-worn copy of Aristotle, dog-eared and underlined, and well-loved and puzzled over.
It is…opening that powerful and timeless book to a few pages in the text, knowing we get to dig into it, and not skirt over it.
It is…getting comfortable in my library, getting my own coffee, and then saying hello to Miryam, to Dawn, to Denise, to Rick and Allison, to Reynaldo, to Jason, to Eric, to Jeff, to Andy, to Eddie, to Deborah, to Amy and so many other thoughtful and beautiful people, who live – imagine that! – across the country. How are they doing? How is the weather? (Always interesting to hear how the weather is across North America.)
It is…listening to these thoughtful people, with different perspectives and questions, putting them in ways I’ve never thought about before.
It is…discovering that I am not alone in my love of learning, or my struggles to understand.
It is…looking out the window, daydreaming a little, thinking about life.
It is…my notebook journal, my pen, jotting down some notes
It is…following the thoughts of an author who lived over a thousand years ago, but whose ideas touch my soul, stir my mind, and from time to time, moves my heart.
It is…feeling after an hour of hard work together, a feeling of satisfaction, of having talked about important things for a time, with friends across the country. No shouting, no talking heads, no vulgar social media trolling.
It is…the bracing assurance that I have a standing commitment each week, despite what the news brings, to make a little more progress along the path of a great book.
It is…the possibilities I never considered before, and would never have arrived at had it not been for the conversation.
It is…the way I can go deeply into the text with friends like never before, but can still have time to go to lunch with my wife down at the Pearl after if it is the daytime, or go snuggle with my 4 year old in the evening to help him go to bed.
“Online learning” for me is in truth so many of these very concrete ‘non-online’ things, things of heart and mind, that actually that makes the experience choice-worthy, not only during COVID, but before it, and…long after COVID has receded into distant memory.