Logistical planning for the upcoming academic year (nearly upon us) at America’s law schools is unquestionably challenging given the evolving effect of, and public-health guidance relating to, the COVID-19 Delta variant. At the University of Illinois College of Law (and I suspect at most of the nation’s other law schools) we still fully expect that our instruction this year will be overwhelmingly in person just as it was before the pandemic, even as we also expect (in light of recent CDC guidance and our university’s reaction to it) the likelihood that students and faculty will need to wear masks in the building, at least for the early part of the fall.
To be sure, having to teach and learn through masks is suboptimal. From the instructor’s perspective (and I speak from personal experience), talking (and breathing) through a mask for classes that last more than an hour can be tiring. And interpreting the students’ comments and questions through their masks can also be challenging for the person at the podium as well as for the other students, to say nothing of the fact that both instructor and students ordinarily benefit from being able to see and read facial expressions that make it easier to appreciate nuances in meaning. It’s much harder for an instructor to know, for example, if students are comprehending the key points of a discussion (or even appreciating the occasional attempts at humor) when no one can see the lower two-thirds of everyone else’s faces.
But as imperfect as having to wear masks during instruction is, my own view (having taught both in person and via Zoom during the last school year) is that it is still much better, at least with respect to the institutional mission of law schools, than remote instruction:
First, when students are in the classroom in person, sitting nearby each other and just yards away from the teacher, they are more engaged. I have heard many law colleagues at Illinois and elsewhere confirm my own sense that when I taught in person last year, the students who came into the building were more focused and generally learned more than those who (often for good reasons and sometimes perhaps out of habit) decided they needed to stay at home and attend by Zoom. To be sure, those who trekked into the building for classes may have been an unrepresentative group of particularly devoted students, but the superior experience I think the classroom attendees received goes beyond selection bias. When students come into the building, they feel more committed to the learning enterprise; if their job is to learn, they are literally at the worksite, and tend for that reason to concentrate more tightly on the task at hand. And this is to say nothing of the additional distractions that many home classrooms offer—it is obviously easier to slip away from a Zoom session at home to go do something fun elsewhere in your apartment or house than it is to leave and reenter a classroom full of students. And the fact that other students are in the learning workplace at the same time also makes for a more committed attitude. It’s not so much that misery loves company such that students can commiserate with each other easier in person (at least I hope it’s not so much that!), but instead it is (I think) that students feel more of a duty to each other to be part of the group learning environment (on which any form of Socratic instruction depends) when they are physically near one another.
Perhaps more important than all this, in-person attendance by students allows for much more unplanned but invaluable student-student and student-faculty interaction (albeit masked) before and after class, both specifically about topics and materials pertinent to the class session and also about law (and life as a lawyer) more generally. When I was a student myself, I found hallway discussions with other students about legal and professional matters to be at least as instructive as what I heard from the professors themselves in class. And this was true even when I wasn’t a formal participant in some of these interesting (and sometimes animated) conversations, but rather a close bystander leaning in to follow the back and forth. I suppose this kind of pre- and post-class-session dialogue can happen via Zoom, but it would require much more planning and forethought. Impromptu but very important debates and analytic post-mortems seem much more likely to occur when people are physically in the same room.
Being in the building (even with masks) will benefit not just the students in their job of learning the law but also the faculty in their job of discovering and exploring new ways to think about the law. Research and scholarly writing seem like lonely tasks that can be done as easily and efficiently from home as from the law school building. And in some ways and at some times, solitude does promote productivity in writing. But even in a world of email and other technological ways of connecting to others from afar we should not underestimate the creative importance of ad hoc, seemingly offhand doorway and lunchroom conversations between faculty concerning scholarly ideas and projects. Sending an email asking if a colleague can think of research-material leads or analogies from other areas of law with respect to an issue a professor has been mulling over is much less natural, and for that reason much less likely to happen, than mentioning such things to a colleague in the hallway.
So while I’m as unhappy and disappointed by the way the Delta variant is complicating our planning for the 2021-22 academic year (and while I’m also aware that changing public-health imperatives can upset everyone’s current planning even more), I’m still very much looking forward to the start of the fall semester, and very hopeful that—thanks to vaccines that the overwhelming majority of faculty and students have chosen to receive—that we will have a very positive, if not quite normal, intellectual and cultural experience.