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Disembodied Voices


Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds: for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths.





Last week, I taught both my NYU class and my private workshop remotely, from my desk in Ulster County, New York which, for the moment, has no cases of the coronavirus. In consideration of two members of my immediate family who are at risk, I decided not to increase their risk by inadvertently bringing the virus home. And though the Trailways bus company is responsibly following all CDC and NY State Dept. of Health protocols, they are not dis-infecting, nor is Port Authority or the New York City subways. Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency on Saturday. Perhaps all protocols will now change.

I have resisted teaching online for many years, and after this experience, I have not changed my mind. The wonderful, warm dynamic of the classroom was gone. So, too, the delicious paper overload as manuscripts are passed out, everyone standing up and chatting and moving around the classroom until everything is distributed. I missed the voices of my students most of all, their gestures, their body language, their funky outfits and over-filled briefases and backpacks, their recyclable water bottles on the desks, their laughter as I spilled yet more paper onto the floor as a thoughtful comment from one of them excited me.

I do think we are like dolphins and bats and whales, all of whom require physical proximity to echolocate communication. My echolocation apparatus was nearly entirely dismantled last week as we exchanged disembodied email communications for hours and then days.

So, too, with my private students. I have six in my advanced group at the moment, and as we all convened on a conference call, I was disoriented for a few minutes. Who was speaking? Who was not speaking? This was odd as I have worked with all of them for a while. I was expected to "chair" the discussion, of course, and because I was a bit late joining the call, I was even more disoriented. Finally, the only way I could anchor myself was to visualize them sitting around the conference table where we usually meet. Oh, so there is Max and Ed and Jenny and Judy and Sherry and Eric, I said to myself. And as I placed them visually at the table, I was able to connect the bodily "them" to their voices. Though the conversation went on for nearly two hours, I never felt entirely comfortable.

I can't wait to "see" my students again and to engage with them in the dynamic classroom. If we are forced to communicate remotely for the rest of the term because of THE VIRUS, I'll have to improve my listening skills, and find a way to echolocate, as blind people do every day.

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