Luis Peña | Contributing Reporter
Photos | Luis Peña
My experience studying online from Mexico? Unimportant. Those 4 am peanut butter jellies? Blessed. Prof forgot once again to send the Zoom link? Anime time. No chance to play with Gohan? I play with Mika (see Figures 1, 2, and 3; she deserves so many more figures though). Drinking wine also really helped me grasp those supply and demand curves (and write this article). I love people here and I love people there. The point is: no big deal for me.
H-o-w-ever, I do not fail to notice the grand difference marked between Zoom University and the Dover campus; even though I can see my classmates’ and professors’ faces on their little Zoom rectangles, only Dover seems worthy of being described as a “face-to-face” space. Aware that I have not been logging in to a faceless interface, I wonder: what greater value emerges when we see each other, “face to face,” on campus territory?
One hypothesis of mine is that Yale-NUS College needs to display an agglomeration of racialized faces to reproduce the discourse of diversity from which it profits (particularly its “In Asia, for the world” thing). In other words, being in close physical proximity enables the College to pride itself in hosting students and faculty that are together yet different, where difference is coded visually through our faces.
Indeed, Michael Sagna ‘23 previously argued that the statistical measures for diversity that Yale-NUS has used misrepresent and tokenize its student population. Thus, when “diversity” is invoked in reference to nationality or to other ambiguous, undeclared features, I believe that the collective yearning for face-to-face education in our context carries within itself the desire to maintain a racializing discourse that is at the base of our university’s identity.
However, I do not imply that this process is unsubvertible, or that Zoom University necessarily escapes it. Rather, I am briefly suggesting that we keep investigating how the desires, emotions, and ideas circulated on and about Yale-NUS are formed by and form broader socio-political discourses. In fact, we should not lose sight of the functions that our bodies perform considering how political and economic reconfigurations of the past year have influenced and moved them in novel ways.
Another hypothesis of mine is that the yearning for face-to-face education carries an unstable promise for better and more intimate learning experiences. Even though I value the communication and shared experiences sometimes enabled by in-person education, I call this promise “unstable” because it is continuously threatened by the impersonality and apathy that our educational system often carries.
That is, in-person education might, to variable degrees, enhance learning by illuminating nuances through the body language and tones that Zoom rectangles faintly communicate. However, it will neither, for instance, immediately erase the toll that it takes on neurodiverse students and faculty navigating insufficiently internalized learning accommodations, nor definitely prevent our academic gaze from reducing our embodied experiences to unempathetic discussions and impersonal deliverables.
Thus, my worry is that the return to in-person education values our bodies only insofar as information-value can be extracted from them in the name of educational efficiency (and the broader socioeconomic processes it maintains). In other words, while Yale-NUS has an enviable student-to-faculty ratio, the proximity of our faces means little if we do not prioritize the wellbeing of our bodies.
Moreover, I fear that we might have too poor a relationship with our bodies that we must retreat to our faces. You might call it a stretch, but if “face-to-face” interactions involve much more than just the face, why do we not call them, for instance, “body-to-body” interactions? Could it be because we have become used to value each other’s bodies only insofar as they provide us “useful” information, and consequently, focus on the face?
In fact, this question might even take us back to the issue of racialization I addressed before. M’charek and Schramm, for instance, postulate that the ways we perceive and engage with “faces” are informed by centuries of body topologization by “the gaze of scientists and their European audiences.” Further, they argue that this topologization has facilitated the development of policing and disciplining techniques at the service of white supremacist states.
Thus, I believe we should problematize the act of seeking “useful” information on the face and the kinds of information we seek in the classroom. For if we inadvertently follow this reductionist tradition, I believe that Yale-NUS can neither claim to offer a relevantly embodied (never mind decolonial) learning experience, nor can we say that we honor the shared experience of our bodies.
However, I am not claiming that social and academic life at Yale-NUS is inescapable as such (and I am certainly hoping to hear experiences of the opposite!). In fact, such a claim would betray the emphatic attention that so many of my peers give to cultivating each other’s wellbeing. For instance, there are many efforts to promote safe spaces on campus, such as the events organized by Kingfishers For Consent, Survivor Support Committee, and the G Spot.
Moreover, I remember that, during a Philosophy and Political Thought seminar in 2019, Neil Mehta, Associate Professor of Philosophy, persistently encouraged us to pursue our academic work with the confidence that we will repeatedly incur failure, but more importantly, that we can always learn from and overcome them. In fact, every seminar, we grew used to accepting and respecting each other’s failures and pausing to share our thoughts and feelings regarding the work we had been doing.
Hence, I (want to) believe that we can move away from perceiving each other’s bodies merely as information sources. After all, there is so much that is invisible to the academic gaze. Instead, I hope that we shift to a heart-to-heart education, through which we hold space to acknowledge and explore the diverse and contradictory stories, desires, needs, hopes, and fears that our bodies carry, both during and outside academic work.