During the summer of 2020, I took Professor Austin Sarat’s remote “Democracy and Catastrophe” course. Over the three months, as my quarantine beard grew, all kinds of notable people joined our class Zoom, from journalists and congresspeople to a senator and even a very sleepy Pete Buttigieg. The class succeeded because it turned the necessities of remote learning into strengths. We would never have been able to bring these individuals to our small rural campus, but Zoom made it possible, even convenient. Zoom, in short, offers just as many opportunities as limitations.
With a fully in-person semester about to wrap up, many of us are eager to permanently cast away Zoom alongside the other bad memories of the pandemic. But let’s not be so hasty.
Like any precision tool, Zoom struggles when we rely on it exclusively, but thrives in specific roles. If we use it properly, we could fundamentally reshape the liberal arts education. If we made Zoom a permanent part of the post-pandemic Amherst toolkit, we could both enrich the Amherst experience and improve our school’s accessibility. Specifically, I believe that, in addition to offering the usual in-person classes, Amherst should always offer a small number of exclusively remote courses.
Zoom opens the door to new experiences. Amherst already offers students the option to study abroad. Why not let students study remotely if they have a good reason to do so? For example, imagine that Maria has just received a dream offer to work part time at a California physics lab for the fall. In the past, Maria would have had to sacrifice either her semester at Amherst or a great opportunity. Zoom would give her the opportunity to do both, letting her part-time work and her education supplement each other.
There are any number of other reasons a student might prefer to take a semester remotely. Perhaps a parent is seriously ill, or the student’s family simply cannot afford the $8,000 Amherst charges for room and board that semester. Under those circumstances, a “study at home” semester might be a student’s best option.
I don’t believe that the majority of students would or should take a remote semester, but remote learning offers other benefits that would appeal to all students. Amherst could, for example, recruit instructors whose lives would otherwise never allow them to teach on campus. Imagine how transformative and fascinating it could be to take a class from Senator Chris Coons ’85 or Albert II ’81, Prince of Monaco. While we must be careful to keep the majority of instructors in person, remote classes could create some truly incredible opportunities.
Zoom has an important role to play for in-person classes. In previous years, if you had the flu, you would have to choose between dragging yourself to class and possibly infecting your classmates, or missing an important lecture. With Zoom, a friend of yours can pop open a laptop to let you listen to class as you lie in bed and pop a Tylenol.
Finally, Zoom is the best tool for demolishing the ivory tower that divides Amherst campus from the rest of the world. If we opened a few of our remote courses to public observation, thousands of people around the world could watch our signature seminars live. Perhaps the viewers could even contribute to the class via live polls. With this system, Amherst could both “give light to the world” and remain accountable to the opinions of outsiders. Public Zoom classes have already made a big impact, and Amherst should continue to build on the model.
Some might argue that remote learning compromises the personalized experience that makes Amherst special. But I’m not advocating sending everyone home like we did in March 2020. I’m arguing for a more, rather than less, personalized experience. If you hate everything to do with Zoom, you can stick to an in-person experience. But I think for many students, remote learning should remain an important side dish in the all-you-can-eat buffet of a liberal arts education. We must not let our nostalgia for a pre-pandemic campus blind us to the world that is Zooming forward.