Online learning has its pitfalls, its challenges, and its benefits. My younger sister, for instance, is grateful for the online semester because she now has the opportunity to take all of her “weeder” courses at UCLA online with open notes. Generally it’s been a bit of a struggle for me. I miss connecting with classmates and professors and all that comes with it. The hustle and bustle of pushing past someone to get to your seat, the smell of coffee wafting through the classroom, even the over eager freshmen answering every question the professor asks are all small details I never thought I’d miss. I’d give anything to go back, so it’s been an ongoing process to find silver linings throughout all of this.
The one incredible thing about an online semester is that it, by its very nature, connects everyone to a global community. Professor Desiree Fields, who teaches my technological geography class, took full advantage of that fact this year. Several of our readings have come from scholars all across the world and almost every week we got to speak to at least one of them. Berkeley already has renowned faculty and a reputation that brings in people thrilled to talk to the students here. During in person classes, it just wasn’t always possible because they’d be in New York or China or elsewhere. Now, with the online semester, we’re able to connect with just about anyone from any corner of the world: all we have to do is ask!
My favorite guest speakers came just a couple weeks ago when we were discussing the idea of carceral geographies (prison geographies). This is a field that has a lot of contention and a lot of personal stake attached to it. Joining us in the classroom were Dr. Chris Gilliard and Dr. Brian J Jefferson, both of whom had written groundbreaking work on the topic. Simply through reading their work, I was astonished and had my world view challenged. When they came in to talk to us, it didn’t end up being a lecture from them, as I had thought it would be. Instead, it was a dialogue between all of us students, my professor, and the two scholars. We engaged with each other, challenging the ways in which we all thought and pushing towards a greater understanding. We talked about the consequences of prison surveillance and how urban spaces are more readily surveilled, which pushes former criminals to rural spaces. They asked us questions about California and Prop 25, which recently was on the state ballot. It was nothing short of astonishing.
Now, it’s not like guest speakers are anything new at UC Berkeley. Berkeley professors often bring in their colleagues or industry folks to talk about their work. But never before had I seen it be so consistent or reach such a global level. Engaging with scholars outside your geographic area used to be a huge ordeal but now it’s as easy as them clicking on a link and popping in. It’s a lesson that should be taken beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. We have these online tools at our disposal that make it so easy to engage in dialogue to push forward academic thought. I’m thrilled that I have been able to be apart of this and hope that this engagement will continue beyond the forced online realm and into the future.