Of Love and Learning Online

What would Jane Austen say?


Several of my colleagues told me recently why they like teaching online: a good discussion strand, they say, can be as exciting as a good in-class discussion—and can last longer; students write more than they would if they were simply talking to each other in a classroom; they can deliberate more fully on what they have to say; and reticent or awkward students often blossom online.

Still, I hold to the face-to-face model. I like to see the stop and go of thought in real time—a smile or a grimace, a gesture of frustration, a pause in the choice of a word. Mostly, I like to see my students’ eyes, which reveal their level of attentiveness, and the movement of their mouths when they are speaking.

Having recently taught Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I feel inclined to support my case by referring to the way the hero and heroine in that novel fall in love. As a disheveled and muddy Elizabeth arrives at a neighboring estate to visit her sick sister, Darcy observes to one of his companions: “I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.” Elizabeth, for her part, comes to better appreciate Darcy when he takes her, along with her aunt and uncle, around Pemberley. As her aunt later comments: “There is something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks.”

Still, to give my colleagues their due, a good deal of important information in Pride and Prejudice is relayed not through face-to-face contact but through letters, the Regency version of online communication. The explanatory letter Elizabeth receives from Darcy helps her see more clearly both his character and that of Wickham, whose charming words and manners have deceived her. Here is part of the passage where Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter:

She read and re-read with the closest attention … again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality—deliberated on the probability of each statement—but with little success.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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