I wrote this for the Times Higher a few weeks ago:
A student who emails me after missing a class will sometimes say: “Did I miss anything?” Or, more pointedly: “Did I miss anything important?” Or, more casually: “Did I miss much?” It’s hard to know how to answer these questions, with their unmissable suggestion that there is lots of missable stuff that happens in my classes. How, I wonder, should I respond?
I suppose, as an English lecturer, I could run them through the main points of the discussion we had about the set text for that week. But if the class were reducible to some “too long; didn’t read” résumé, then why ever come at all? Why bother to meet once a week, for a few hours, in grey-painted rooms with tiered seating, or tables and chairs arranged in a hollow square?
In humanities subjects it can be hard to quantify what you’ve missed by not being in class. You don’t get to use expensive lab equipment, or practise on patients, or do field work, or come away with pages of indispensable notes about contract law. Instead you get to draw on what seem to be everyday aptitudes: thinking, reading, looking, listening, speaking, writing. It’s easy to persuade yourself that this can be done at your own convenience.
One answer to this is that the humanities hone and refine these vital human skills which we can all do, but could always do better. That class you missed, I want to say, was teaching you how to listen and how to talk. You may think you can do those things already. But to properly converse, to thread words together in a way that responds sensitively and tactfully to the presence of others, is a rare skill, as hard to master as playing a musical instrument. And just as a musician must practise scales, so a human must practise conversing. Nor can this be done alongside some other activity, such as scrolling down your phone – any more than you’d expect a concert pianist to be daydreaming at the keyboard.
That class was teaching you how to be wholly present in a room. It was a tiny corrective to the endless noise of modern life, and that state of distracted overstimulation we can all too easily reach when our mobile devices are constantly pinging with alerts and updates. It was a brief holiday from that touchless other world, online, which eats up our lives and regurgitates them as a waking dream. It was a small island of shared attention, where the minds of relative strangers meet once a week, sharing the same air and the same egalitarian ideal that together we will understand something better.
That class – I want to say, warming to my theme and risking pretentiousness now – was a piece of immersive, extempore, collaborative, site-specific art. If you missed it, there is no catch-up service. And just like going to a gig rather than watching a band on YouTube, it carried the risk of investing your time in something unpredictable and incalculable. You might even have been a bit bored. There are worse fates. Boredom, wrote Walter Benjamin, is “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience”. Boredom is the occasional price we pay for being in a state of suspended possibility, on the other side of which we might find more creative ways of being human.
That class was teaching you that there is a correlation between hours spent doing stuff and stuff getting done. The word student derives from the Latin studium, meaning “eagerness, painstaking application”. A good student takes pains. German has a nice word for such persistence: sitzfleisch. It means “sitting flesh”: putting your arse on the chair. To have sitzfleisch means being able to stay in the same place for long enough to be truly productive, even if you are not always certain what the end product might be. Someone with sitzfleisch knows that, if they keep putting their arse on the chair, something useful will happen, and if they don’t, nothing will.
Above all, that class you missed was a collective avowal of some basic tenets of the humanities. First, that humans are social beings, who respond most intensely to other humans, not avatars or algorithms. Second, that we are meaning-making animals, and those meanings are so rich and layered that we must unravel them carefully together. And third, that to be fully human is to be a mind and a body, and communication works best when we use them both. In these days of lecture capture, virtual learning environments and email back-and-forth, that class spoke up for the endangered art of just being in the room.
I’m too big a wuss to say any of this, of course. I know that there may be things going on in that student’s life that make such pained attentiveness, even turning up at all, hard. And when they ask “Did I miss anything?” they only betray an anxiety that they have mislaid some vital piece of information, the absence of which might cause them to fail. Maybe they don’t need another nag from some old grump stuck in twentieth-century analogue mode. Sorry you couldn’t make it, I type. I attach the seminar handout and lecture slides, throw in a few pointers. “See you next week!” I write breezily, and click send.