The Classroom in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is a very long read that takes a few paragraphs to get to the point. It’s a point other people are making all over the internet, so feel free to click away if you aren’t here for 2500 words of art history, aesthetic theory, self-reflection and educational critique with no pictures. If that’s your jam, though, enjoy! Sometimes length gives us space. Sometimes a long-read is not a chore but a chance to stop, settle, breathe, be thoughtful.

Things have been quiet on the blog because I’ve been busy running a totally-socially distanced academic program in a residential college in Australia, and I’ve also been doing a yoga teacher training course online. Every few years, I like to try to return to being a learner, to remember what it feels like. And of course I regularly like to expand my teaching skills. During one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, it’s been good to have something to make me exercise, learn and meditate on a regular basis — but it’s been information-in for the last 5 weeks rather than reflection-out. We are on our mid-sem break this week, so you get a post from me before I go back to learner-mode!

I’ve been away from ‘the classroom’ since March this year. In this post, I use ‘the classroom’ to stand for the experience of the communal, on-campus learning experience. ‘The classroom’ might be a learning commons, lecture theatre, wet lab, or tutorial room; but it might also be the grass outside the Social Science building, the café near the bookshop, or the corridor behind the print centre.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve been away from teaching or learning, from academics or students. I’ve been experiencing digital education from both sides recently. I’ve been working with students, teaching, learning, receiving and passing on information. I’ve been experiencing new skills and interacting with colleagues, teachers and students. I’ve been accessing books, looking at pictures, listening to music. I’ve been able to access a course based in California in the USA–something I could never have afforded to do if I’d had to be there for face-to-face learning. Like the Digital Education course I did at the University of Edinburgh, it has been a fantastically designed, active and inspiring online course. We are doing innovative, caring, high-quality digital education in my team at our college, I hope. I’ve been helping to run a couple of fun online mini-conferences for colleagues too (I’m planning to write about this soon).

Plus, it was just Walter Benjamin’s anniversary of death. The brilliant German Jewish philosopher died while trying to escape the Nazi regime, and his essay on the ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935) is an essay I have been working with for over a decade in my academic research. So all these things were existing in my head at the same time, and this is how they came together.

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Creating and experiencing learning online has made me reflect a lot about what I miss about ‘the classroom’, as well as ‘the art gallery’, ‘the library’ and ‘the concert hall’. Things like the peripheral stimulation of taking in information out of the corner of your eye and just out of earshot. The hubbub of campus life, the clatter of other people’s typing at Shut Up and Write , the rustle of pages turning in a library, is a huge part of the energy and joy of my research, teaching and working life. I miss engaging all five senses: what does campus smell like? how does the coffee taste? what is the texture of this stone building? I miss the energy flows of shared experiences: the excitement of the new academic year, the focus of exam time, the quiet of the middle of the summer holidays.

All of this is shared, of course, with my experience of missing out on being in places of art: theatres, concert halls, jazz clubs, art galleries, churches. All of these are places I would normally go regularly, and enjoy both for the art itself, and the experience of being there: I miss getting tickets to a show, catching up with a friend, grabbing an interval drink, clapping loudly with hundreds of other people as the curtain closes. ( I’m going with art because Benjamin goes with art, anything else we experience communally would also count.)

In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin grapples with the then-new technologies of mass reproductions of photography and film. The unique work of art, the original painting or theatre production, can now be reproduced multiple times and distributed globally. The reproduction is more easily accessible than the original, he argues, and it might even be better — an enlarged photograph or a slow-motion film capture can allow us to get closer than we would in ‘real life’. The reproduction is also removed from ‘ritual’ aspects, it’s cultural context. You see a photograph of a statue of Venus, for example. You can see it anywhere, and you see it just as a visual object, not in a temple and something you would worship and that would be part of a whole culture of festivals and belief as it would have been for the original audiences. The difference between an original work and the reproduction, Benjamin says, is that the reproduction loses the ‘aura’ of the original, that thing that ‘points beyond the realm of art’ to culture, belief, society, the divine etc.

There are ‘ritual’ aspects to ‘the classroom’, as well as architectural aspects. Intentionally going to a specific place of learning, experiencing the learning at the same time as others, and participating in well-understood modes of action and reaction is not the same as logging on at home. The community and the buildings connect to things that ‘point beyond the realm of learning’, like our belief in knowledge, society, and curiosity about the world. If we want to build community, if students want to come together, if we want to build spaces of learning and rituals for learning… we need to build those intentionally beyond just videoing our content.

Most university ‘classrooms’ draw on campuses that are decades or centuries old, and build on rituals that are centuries and millennia old. (A modern library is not totally like the Great Library of Alexandria, but it had the chance to consistently innovate on that model over a couple of thousand years, rather than trying to rebuild a campus in our spare room in a couple of weeks.) Reproducing the building also often loses the communal and ritual aspects of the campus: the gathering of people across the seasons for a common cause in purpose-built learning rooms.

Benjamin suggests that the development of mass reproduction led to a change in the way that ‘the masses’ react to the artwork (Benjamin uses a Marxist lens to analyse cultural and artistic phenomena). With the reproduced art works, ‘there was no way for the masses to organise and control themselves in their reception’. When students all directly experience an atomised reproduction of a teacher speaking, rather than being in a room together on campus having a conversation, there may be a loss of community or togetherness.

Benjamin similarly explores the relationship of the actor to their audience when they are in a film. The actor in a film has no relationship to the audience, they only have a relationship to the camera. The ‘market’ of the audience are totally beyond their reach, which Pirandello claims leads to ‘that oppression, that new anxiety’ of the actor in front of a movie camera. I expect this feeling is familiar to any teacher moving from ‘the classroom’ to online teaching. You are not relating to your students, to your audience. You are relating to a camera, to a laptop… through the internet, through their network connection, through their laptop… and finally to the student. These levels of disconnect cause a feeling of oppression in many teachers. Reflecting on this 85 years after Benjamin wrote the essay, I would also guess that this anxiety was more common in the early days of film, but there are still actors who are more comfortable at being film stars than theatre stars and vice versa! Classroom teachers have been theatre actors, and are finding that online video teaching is a very different experience.

Thus, while students continue to have direct access to you, you have much less direct access to them, and they have less access to each other, as a group. Rather than a rich, free-flowing, 360° experience facilitated by non-verbal communication and well-established norms… you have a constrained, glitchy 2D grid of tiny squares, forcibly muted, and with grainy video or no video. How, in such a setting, do students ‘organise themselves’? How do they come to consensus, or learn from each other, or riff off ideas? (I think the current answer might be group chat, i.e. text, but chat is still atomising and full of opportunities for misunderstanding and affront. You have to be so much more careful in chat than in speech, though gifs, emoji and punctuation are helping us slowly bridge those gaps.)

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The other issue with the digitally reproduced classroom is that there is just too much of it. Students are exhausted by Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, and so are teachers and administrators. The audio-visual online learning-world proliferates, there is more and more of it, streams and channels of potential learning pouring into our heads until we are overwhelmed. What’s more, it is possible to teach badly online with far fewer staff than it takes to teach badly onsite. (Teaching well online is expensive and resource intensive, but this post is reflecting on the rushed scramble to put our face-to-face teaching online during a global pandemic with frequently conflicting advice and rules from governments and universities.) We are able, as a global community, to create far more ‘learning’ than students can consume.

Benjamin calls this overwhelming volume of reproduced works, ‘the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilisation in the process of production — in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets’. The crash in higher education workforces, the slump in student numbers, the overwhelm of the students and teachers who are still at universities… all of these are exacerbated by an imperialist capitalist system using the exponential capacity of digital reproduction at the expense of society and people.

Benjamin does not dismiss photographs and films — reproduction ’emancipates’ art, it makes it accessible and can allow new kinds of experience and insight. This would also be true for teaching. In particular, the reproduced art is better than the singular experience when we use techniques that aren’t available to us live. Benjamin uses the examples of slow-motion, camera angles and close-ups. In this age of digital reproduction, we also have the benefit of interactive social media and video-conferencing tools — we can have a live chat, a poll, an international on-screen panel discussion, and more, within the Zoom class… what can we do online that we can’t do face-to-face? who can we reach? how do we keep teaching as social and communal, and not make it just the endless production of ‘learning content’?

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So, what can we do? Where do we go from here? It’s not so much that I think Benjamin is right, so much as I think his ideas are useful for working out what we think, how we will act. Here are some ways I find thinking with Benjamin’s essay is useful to us (to me) in our current situation.

Firstly, I suggest that we use Benjamin’s insights from the early days of film and photography (mechanical reproduction of art) to help us negotiate these early days of video and visual education (digital reproduction of teaching). Understanding how these forms are different from the previous norms can help us adapt and improve what we do.

Secondly, I suggest that we use Benjamin’s analysis to help us identify what continues to be valuable about the ‘aura’ of ‘the classroom’, and what is not. Just as we can go to Ancient Greek temples and medieval churches and experience them without participating in their rituals or beliefs, perhaps there are historic and aesthetic aspects of ‘the classroom’ that do not belong in our current communities… and parts that very much do.

Thirdly, I suggest that Benjamin’s lens helps us to reframe the teacher-student ‘direct access to information’ model –> into a student-student-teacher-student ‘collective learning’ model, and then see how video can only contribute a certain amount to learning in that way. This encourages us to move beyond thinking that ‘the classroom’ = ‘a Zoom meeting’, and helps us to reclaim some of the other best bits of learning together at university-level.

Finally, I suggest that Benjamin’s essay challenges us to explore what inequalities are exacerbated or reduced through a learning experienced through digital reproduction. Video lectures are exhausting, hard to hear, and require expensive equipment and internet connections to access. But they reduce the risk of catching a deadly disease, and enable students to study from home whether home is down the road, in rural Victoria or across the world.

There are no perfect answers, but many thoughtful answers. It often feels like we don’t have time to be thoughtful: living through an extended emergency does not give us much room for thinking. I find the work of philosophers like Benjamin, who created their work in times of drawn-out crisis, extremely helpful to ‘think with’ in times like these. Taking Benjamin’s essay out one more time, and writing this blog post, has been extremely helpful to me, it’s given me time to think. I hope that in reading it, you too had a chance to ‘think with’ the post, and that you too had a chance to be thoughtful.

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If you want to read more:

All citations in this post come from Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (2007 [1968]), pp. 217-252.

Benjamin wrote his essay in 1935 between the two world wars, with Fascism in Italy and Germany already well established, but before the Great Purge in Soviet Russia. (Mussolini’s coup was in 1922, Hitler’s dictatorship began in 1933, the Moscow Trials began in 1936–each of these marked a definitive turning point in how these regimes were understood by outsiders.) As a German Jewish Marxist, and founding member of the Frankfurt School, living in exile in France and then fleeing Occupied France ahead of the German invasion, his opposition to fascism was based in direct lived experience. His commitment to the communal and the social, and his analysis using class and economic methods all come from his Marxist lens. This helps explain some aspects of the political points that Benjamin recommends in his essay.

I’ve only written in passing about Benjamin before on the blog, but I think that post is complimentary to this one! I’m not the only person doing this thinking, I was somewhat influenced by this 2007 journal article, and once I’d finished the post I did a quick search and found this timely 2020 article too.

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