Plato’s critique of writing in his dialogue Phaedrus is my admittedly unlikely starting point for a how-to guide about how to teach online. This dialogue on rhetoric that has become a foundational text for 20th-century literary theory — for deconstruction—warning readers from presuming the truth, objectivity and authenticity of the written text, opens ways to thinking and enacting online teaching.
If you’re going to teach well online, you need to start with full awareness of the two-edged sword of what remote teaching entails.
In a 2011 article, “Humanities 2.0: E-Learning in the Digital World,” Suzanne Guerlac writes, with a nod-plus to Plato via Bernard Stiegler, that, in online teaching, we need equally to be wary of the very technology that makes possible e-learning —which, too many have trumpeted, is the solution to providing education efficiently and cheaply to all—as a pharmakon (φάρμακον) (116). Pharmakon is a Greek word whose somewhat self-contradictory meanings— “drug, remedy, philter, poison” — are, in Phaedrus, evoked to demonstrate and criticize the power of rhetoric, the art (τέχνη, technē) of speaking.
Socrates refers to the speech by the famed orator Lysias — which, Phaedrus says, as the dialogue starts, he has been caught up listening to all morning — as the pharmakon for his going out of the city (tēs emēs exodou to pharmakon, τῆς ἐμῆς ἐξόδου τὸ φάρμακον, 230d). Like some magic object, Lysias’ piece of writing is the charm to take Socrates away from his accustomed space — though, as the dialogue proceeds, being distant from familiar surroundings does not necessarily mean that Socrates acts altogether out of character.
That speech of Lysias, with its unethical premise that the better lover is the one who does not love their object of desire, initially gets hold of Socrates and takes him quite out of himself. But then Socrates wakes up and reveals himself altogether aware of the unethical premises — the abuses of eros, of love— proposed. Turning the tables, he delivers a companion speech to Lysias’ that captivates his audience (i.e., Phaedrus) before offering up something entirely different, another speech, known as the palinode, about madness, love and the soul, which Socrates likens to the “joined nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer” (symphytōi dynamo hypopterou zeugous te kai hēniochou, συμφύτῳ δυνάμει ὑποπτέρου ζεύγους τε καὶ ἡνιόχου, 246a3). The cure for the poisonous/harmful effects of Lysias’ logos-as-pharmakon are other logoi: The drug is its own remedy when the rhetorical art is properly deployed (by Socrates; by Plato). What rhetoric makes is both the poison and the cure to make things better.
Read “technology” for the technē of rhetoric in Phaedrus and you will find the contradiction at the heart of remote learning. We like, we are dependent on, we are grateful for the tools that technology provides. We do not like that we are dependent on and feel so grateful for what technology offers and more than ever in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is more from Plato about the pharmakon:
They do not recollect from within themselves. It’s a pharmakon not for memory but for remembering you’ve found. And regarding students you are providing wisdom’s glory but not its reality.
ouk endothen autous hyph’ hautōn anamimnēiskomenous: oukoun mnēmēs alla hypomneseōs pharmakon hēures. sophias de tois mathētais doxan, ouk alētheian porizeis, οὐκ ἔνδοθεν αὐτοὺς ὑφ᾽ αὑτῶν ἀναμιμνῃσκομένους: οὔκουν μνήμης ἀλλὰ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον ηὗρες. σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν, οὐκ ἀλήθειαν πορίζεις (275a)
Phaedrus’ central point about writing and the written text as as aid to "remembering" (hypomnēsis) but not stoking actual memorizing and memory (mnēmē) such that something is “written on the soul” describes how the internet has altered student learning. For what is the facility with which we look for something on Google nothing other than a testament as to how technology is an aid, a mere prop and support, to recalling what something is, but without promoting actually memorizing and learning it and, even worse, weakening memorizing skills in the process?
Plato’s pharmakon in mind, we must acknowledge that online interactions — and so online courses — are virtual, are not real. We must get back to the classroom. There is no substitute for the real thing, the real classroom. Nonetheless, in this time in which we are living, we know that online interactions are become the norm in so much of our life. To meet students where they are at, we must, in the language of many a university’s website about learning in the age of Covid-19, keep teaching. As for what that means, stay tuned.