The classroom sublime—In search of “the magic beyond the MOOCs”

AmTechSubI’m in the middle of reading David E. Nye’s historical treatment of a philosophical and cultural construct as it has evolved over time and place, and it’s got me thinking about online learning and the classroom in a slightly different way. American Technological Sublime (1994, MIT Press) fashions a history of this idea, the sublime, as it has been made manifest in material, mechanical, and industrial form in U.S. history: from the race to open ever longer and faster railroads in the mid-1800s, to the construction of increasingly monolithic bridges and skyscrapers toward the end of the 19th century, through the popular fascination with atomic bombs and space vehicles in the middle of the 20th, Nye argues that a particular chemistry of wonder, awe, and terror has beheld the American popular imagination with regard to technology over the years.

“The sublime”, an aesthetic concept articulated in works such as Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry in the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) and Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), is (writes Nye) a state of “[being struck] dumb with amazement” before a natural object or phenomenon of awesome proportions; it is a state, as well, that only “grows in significance with repetition.” That is, the longer you stand in the presence of such a phenomenon, the more you are affected by its power. Nye’s particular contribution here, it seems (though I’m only 100 pages through the 300+ page book), is to argue that, in the particular historical, social, and geographic contexts of the United States, the sublime is as relevant to the designed and built works of humankind as it is to the natural world. He writes, “The technological sublime is an integral part of contemporary consciousness, and its emergence and exfoliation into several distinct forms during the past two centuries is inscribed within public life. In a physical world that is increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men [sic] with transcendent significance” (p. xiii).

This is all interesting enough, but what does this category of aesthetic and cultural experience have to do with online and classroom learning, and to learning in all of the hybrid physical/virtual configurations that characterize university classrooms of the 2010s?

First, in a general sense, I think, the sublime–and the technological sublime in particular–may be productive concepts for exploring people’s fascination with computer and internet mediation in the representation, negotiation, and creation of knowledge. It’s easy to see how every new learning technology seems to displace the last in its ability to represent truth: learning with iPads is somehow more real than learning on ‘traditional’ computer terminals, which themselves have it all over the printed book. How different is this fascination with digital innovation and newness from the wonder, awe, and even terror that beheld people as they watched steam engines “annihilate” spatial and temporal distance, or factories as they organized labor and material at scales and speeds previously unimagined?

Published in 1994, Nye’s book does not address the sublime potential of networked computers to behold entire populations with their reconfigurations of basic categories of social and cultural experience. Yet, as we witness hordes of educators and political commentators extol the virtues of Massive Open Online Courses and YouTube-powered “flipped classrooms” as solutions for all that ails classroom learning (even as these same MOOCs come under critique for promising vastly more than they can deliver), I feel as if there is an element of the sublime speaking. How can one not be held in awe or terror at the sight of a single class with 10,000 students distributed throughout the world? Or at the sight of a teacher from a prestigious university who addresses us, for the first time, through the medium of the screen, as a peer?

More to the point, however, I’m playing with the idea of the sublime as a concept that might help us gain traction with persistent, and usually vaguely stated, questions about what makes learning in classrooms different from learning online. (The ability to draw a distinction between “online” vs. “in classrooms” is of course another problem altogether, but I’m interested in “the classroom” as a central, shared meeting point for student bodies and attention, in relative synchrony.) Often, contrasts are drawn to “online learning” not through specification of the dynamics of “classroom learning” itself, but to generic appeals to the importance of the “campus experience”—that is, the sum total of the informal learning, life experiences, and enrichment activities that students pursue outside of formal instruction time. This focus can be seen, for example, in a Mashable article from about a year ago (“Can Virtual Classrooms Recreate a Traditional College Experience?“, 1/25/2013) that states “college is where students build their social and professional networks, ones they will rely upon throughout the rest of their lives;” the article then quotes Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng as it continues: online education “is not a replacement for the real classroom experience, ‘which is extremely valuable beyond knowledge sharing for reasons of social interaction, one-on-one learning and more.”

Here at Yale, Academic Director of Online Education Craig Wright, as well as President Peter Salovey himself, have taken pains to emphasize that a primary goal in the school’s forays into MOOCs and other online initiatives is the improvement of the “classroom experience” (e.g., “WRIGHT: The state of online education“, Yale Daily News, 12/2/2013), though articles such as this one do not elaborate on exactly what that experience is. Writing in somewhat more detail about their vision for the future of online learning at MIT (“The Magic Behind the MOOCs“, MIT Faculty Newsletter, May/June 2013), Office of Digital Learning directors Sanjay Sarma and Isaac Chuang describe “the magic of in-person education” as it relates to the contrast between “the transmission of codified content, or instruction, and the much deeper, immersive experience that we refer to as education”. One valuable function of MOOCs and other online mechanisms that focus on “first-order”, “surface”, or “novice” types of learning, they contend, is to free up face-to-face classroom time for “second-order”, “deep”, or “expert” learning that, ideally, takes place as part of the residential, in-person model of learning. Sarma and Chuang are, of course, laudatory of their campus’ signature shared MOOC platform. But, still, they do not shy away from its limitations, and write, “The edX platform, which has simulations, advanced assessment, and discussion forums, is becoming more capable every month, but there is essential magic in residential in-person education that is difficult to articulate, let alone replicate online.”

I wonder if this “essential magic” may in fact speak in the language of the sublime. In his book, Nye introduces the concept through travelers’ narratives of encounters with the Grand Canyon, and interprets, “The millions who travel [there] visit it in order to sense a magnificence that cannot be described or grasped through descriptions or images but must be experienced directly” (p. 9). In the case of the visitor catching sight of its vastness and depth for the first time, he says, “all internal reflection is suspended” as (s)he attempts to gain an ability to understand its color, shapes, and scale. Yet, for a time at least, “it offers so many intriguing views and so many vantage points that it can never be seen in its entirety.” The experience of the sublime, it is clear, is of profound importance for the formation of the viewer/experiencer’s subjectivity: reason must be temporarily suspended in the face of a phenomenon of awesome proportions. As time passes, however, reconciling with (talking about, reasoning about, making sense of) this transcendent experience becomes its own affirmation of existence.

I don’t mean to suggest that students learning together in the physical classroom is an experience akin to discovering the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls in their full grandeur and beauty, or that it’s like seeing a steam train or space shuttle streak across land or sky, with one’s bare eyes, for the first time. The sublime, as I understand it, is not a category of experience that can be generalized and applied wholesale to everyday, habitual events and behaviors. But I do find compelling the notion that, as Nye writes of the experience of those who witnessed the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May, 1980, “no medium [can] capture the totality of the event.” The irreducibility of the sublime experience to mediatized representations—including words and images, .mp3s and .flvs—may be mirrored in that “magic” of the classroom that is tangible to those who experience it in the flesh, while remaining elusive to digital capture and transmission.

Analogizing classroom learning to the (technological) sublime may not answer all our questions about the differences between online and classroom learning. But what it might do, I hope, is to make new kinds of questions possible. Questions that occur to me, as I work my way though Nye’s book, begin something like this:

  1. How do we characterize the totality of the cognitive, emotional, and embodied experience of students when they are in the classroom, at out-of-class learning sites, and/or in front of various kinds of screens as they engage in learning activities?
  2. How do students’ bodies as well as their minds interact with fellow learners and their teachers, simultaneously? 
  3. What means can educators employ to encourage learners in all kinds of settings to reflect on, discuss, and represent the totality of their educational experiences—far beyond the ‘content’ for which they are being held accountable by any given institution?

And perhaps there are more that occur to you.

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