The Speed of Mediocrity? Zoom

As law school closings smacked prawfs and law students in the head, schools scrambled to figure out a way to make school work essentially overnight. Zoom ended up as the most likely, and hence most used, app of the moment. At the moment, it was unclear how long this would last, how serious it would be and what alternatives were available. As some prawf friends questioned how they were going to pull this off, there was only one answer and it was obvious: the best you can.

In an emergency, you make do. Prawfs weren’t prepared for online teaching (or distance learning, as some prefer as it sounds less unseemly), but they’re trying. Josh Blackman has been chronicling his experience, which is somewhat unfair as he’s young, a digital native and finds this more “intuitive” than some of his, ahem, more senior colleagues. But on the whole, he says it’s going well.

I have now been using Zoom for more than three weeks. On the whole, the experience has been more positive than I expected. My students have been remarkably agile and flexible. They have quickly accommodated to the online learning environment, as best as they can. Attendance is roughly the same as it was for in-person classes.  And my general sense is that students are well-prepared for class. The majority of students are not directly affected by COVID-19. Some of them told me they now have more free time to devote to studies, with fewer distractions.

It’s not that there aren’t technical problems, as Josh describes, but they manage to overcome them and his students are understanding, as is he. This is the sort of cooperation one would expect, hope for, under sub-optimal circumstances. Sure, it’s not great, but they’re managing to do the best they can.

But for all the problems, Josh makes a curious prediction.

In time, we will all become more acclimated to Zoom. I suspect this form of distant communication will not dissipate when the current crisis ends. Universities will demand more classes to be taught virtually, even by full-time tenured faculty. Conferences that required expensive travel will be replaced by virtual conferences. And social gatherings will continue online.

This world is our new normal. We are not going back.

Everyone with an ax to grind against the current way of doing things sees the accommodations being demanded or made for the coronavirus pandamic as evidence, if not proof, that changes must be made. Will online education be one paradigm shift that becomes the new normal? It has certain virtues, such as making education substantially less expensive for students who no longer have to live in campus dorms to attend school, but at what price?

Howard Wasserman raises some questions about the efficacy of online teaching.

Josh says “[u]niversities will demand more classes to be taught virtually.” True. But the X-factor is that students hate this. That might be due to the sudden transition or the sense that this is not what they signed up for. But the common refrain that I have heard–and that some of my colleagues have heard–is how inferior this form of instruction is. I hope this gives faculty, like me, an argument to use when “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop.”

There is a dynamic that happens in a classroom, of sight, of sound, of sensation, that will never be captured in online classes. Feedback is lost, whether it’s a facial expression or a chuckle, when talking to a computer screen. Tech glitches, words lost, overtalking, hitting the wrong button or being dropped when someone else sucks up bandwidth all happen, but what’s really lost is the life of a class that happened when you put a bunch of people in the same room and let them interact. The value of human interaction is hard to quantify, as opposed to the cost savings of online symposia, but it’s the difference between actual engagement and the appearance of engagement. Its loss would be devastating.

Yet, this is just a matter of classroom instruction, which is important but maybe not life or death. But will it stay in the classroom or will the accommodation made now, despite its inferiority, begin to creep into the courtroom?

While there may be an emergent need to continue classes when a pandemic strikes mid-semester, is there a similar need to hold oral argument at the Supreme Court? The confluence of two factors push in favor of this accommodation. The first is that people see it happening in one space, the classroom, and without grasping its inferiority, or glossing over its failings, simplistically extrapolate that if it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere.

The second is that they have issues and want them resolved now.

The delay affects a number of cases slated for in-person debate inside the Supreme Court Building, including a trio of lawsuits about disclosing President Donald Trump’s financial records; arguments were originally slated in those cases case for this week.

The roadblock has frustrated activists who say the court must adapt on urgent matters of national interest. The nine justices already hold video conferences for their weekly closed-door conferences — prompting a growing cry to simply hold oral arguments with a videoconferencing service.

It’s understandable that activists are champing at the bit for time-sensitive matters like the disclosure of Trump’s tax returns before the next election to be resolved. But is oral argument before the Supreme Court an adequate substitute for argument in person? Not that activists care when their passions are inflamed.

In an effort to break the logjam, progressive advocacy group Demand Justice is planning a social media ad campaign on Monday that targets about 100,000 people around Washington, DC, arguing the court must hear the president’s financial records cases, collectively referred to as Trump v. Mazars.

To the unduly passionate, the outcome in one case is of such paramount importance that they will let nothing, like the adequacy of oral argument, stand in the way of achieving resolution. But once the Supreme Court goes online for their immediate cause, then why not for other cases, for every case. And the inferiority of the process, the inadequacy of arguing via internet without the dynamic of oral argument in person, will be the price of expediency.

It’s one thing to make accommodations to address emergencies, and perhaps some will prove convincingly that they are just as good, if not better, than the way things were done before. But beware the simplistic rush to mediocrity. Some things are worth waiting for. Some things are worth doing well, even if the unduly passionate care more about speed and ease than getting it right.

21 thoughts on “The Speed of Mediocrity? Zoom

  1. Denverite

    Absolutely agree that short term emergency response requires remote teaching, appellate arguments, and perhaps even trials (but that arena is so much more complex that I’m particularly queasy about that). You are so right that classroom teaching, and any court appearance, or even meeting is only truly effective with face to face, in person interaction. There just is no substitute and we all know it. The nuance of eye movements, body language, tiny movements of facial muscles, etc. is clearly lost at a distance. I taught constitutional law to undergrads for 10 years. The brilliant students will do well under any conditions. Picking up from body language or an eye roll that a less endowed student needs some help and a question directed at them which requires to engage with the discussion helped many of these less than top tier students get a strong grip on the material and raised more than a few into a higher tier of accomplishment. It is amazing what a bit of eye contact can do. Likewise, with appellate argument, that tiny glance or raised eyebrow from the bench and the ability to have eye contact or respond with a gesture is critical. We all know these things, but you are right to fear that because it is expensive the face to face may be overwhelmed by the easy when the current crisis ends. If so, it won’t be the first time that tech has corroded a Chesterton fence. There is a reason why we do it face to face.

      1. Richard Kopf


        For now, don’t worry about digital trials being allowed, at least in federal court. The likelihood of that is about the same as the likelihood of holding a voice vote in the House of Representatives using Zoom with no one actually in attendance but in fact barred from the chamber. But now that I think about it . . .

        All the best.


        1. SHG Post author

          But if the vote was taken by zoom, then that would make impassioned speeches in the chambers performative and cynical. Who would be so craven?

          1. L. Phillips

            Wait! Are you two saying that using Zoom we the people could send our legislative elite back home to stare into little screens and rent out the Capitol building for something useful like outdated exhibit storage for the Smithsonian?

      2. Ray Lee

        Since I know you love personal experience stories, I’ve done a few video MSPB hearings. Disasters! Listing the deficiencies would take more words than you permit in comments.

        But then, I don’t even like the Judge having a computer on her desk during a jury trial because they don’t follow the case as it proceeds, instead checking the live transcript on the screen in order to rule on objections.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ve suffered judges watching the computer screens as well, but I always assumed mine were watching porn given their rulings on objections.

          1. Ray Lee

            Federal Court = smarter judges. The big desktop screen has the transcript. The porn is on the tablet below the lip of the bench.

  2. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Much as I like Josh, I wish he wouldn’t describe his students as “agile.” Makes it sounds like he’d be hunting them like gazelles if not for Zoom.

    What the effect of the Most Dangerous Game would be on, say, Justice Alito, I leave to the collective unconscious.

    1. Scott Jacobs

      Makes it sounds like he’d be hunting them like gazelles if not for Zoom.

      You don’t know his life.

  3. Sgt. Schultz

    Has Geidner ever tried a case? Has he ever argued an appeal? Having lost his job as a pseudo-pundit on Buzzfeed, he’s now got a job with the activists and is spewing for the left wing idiocracy (like the Demand Justice nutjobs). Nobody outside their echo chamber doesn’t realize they’re dangerous ignorant.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are a lot of baby lawyers (particularly PDs) who will argue that he’s right because they can’t disagree with their tribe and are too blind and foolish to realize what they will lose if they get what they want. Until it’s too late.

  4. Rengit

    I’m with Professor Wasswerman. I took my bar exam program online: canned videos by law professors with a lot of experience recording videos online. There was a portion of it where we could ask questions live, and for something that was supposed to be more “seminar-like” or “classroom-like” than the canned videos, it was easily the worst part of the program. From a student point of view, anyway; maybe law professors like it because they can easily ignore questions. And for adjunct or visiting faculty who teach a class or two on the side for only one semester a year, while continuing their regular legal practice, being able to lecture from your office downtown without having to pick up your things and move to the law school I assume would be a dream. But I absolutely wouldn’t want to be taught like that, I’d even prefer prerecorded lectures to classes on Zoom or wherever else, and we’ve been able to do video lectures very easily since home VHS became the norm by the latter half of the 80s.

  5. Black Bellamy

    You know the Jedi Council got shit done for hundreds of years and they were perfectly fine with a holographic quorum. I mean yeah they mostly wound up dead but not because of any structural defects in their deliberative mechanism.

  6. Scott Jacobs

    Some of them told me they now have more free time to devote to studies, with fewer distractions.

    And all of them telling him that are lying. They are all playing Animal Crossing with the computer’s mic muted and thier video off.

  7. Mark Sinton

    Josh Blackman’s prediction is wrong for another reason: not every subject can be taught on-line. How am I suppose to teach chemistry without in-person hands-on labs where students learn the art and science of chemicals? It just isn’t the same and never will be.

    I understand why we’ve gone on-line in this situation, but there’s no way that what I’m having my chemistry students do on-line is in any way, shape, or form a real chemistry class. That’s unfortunate, but that’s what it is. Saying anything different is just dumb.

      1. Mark Sinton

        Not having read his article, I’m sure you are correct. I was really responding to the general idea that every subject can be taught on-line. I apologize for not making myself clear.

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