In preparation for the fall, wherever it may be

William Ren

In my experience so far, online learning has kind of sucked. But given that we’re stuck with some form of it next year, it’s useful to consider exactly why I feel this way. For me, it’s not really about the differences in online education. Most of my classes have transitioned fairly well, and given that professors only had a couple of weeks to plan them this time around, I’m optimistic that classes will be better in the future. 

For me, and I think for many others, it’s all about the intangibles. Or should I say, the tangibles? As I’ve heard again and again, it’s about the conversations that I’m missing after class, or bumping into a friend whom I haven’t seen around recently, or the late-night study session made in good company and with even greater laughs. In short, the social life is what makes my time at Williams so valuable, and it’s the thing that makes me cry at night when I realize all I’m missing. Just kidding — when it comes to finals, I don’t have time for tears. 

But if it’s the social life I’m missing, I need to acknowledge that I will continue to miss it in some form or another, regardless of whether campus reopens this fall. Even if Williams allows students back next semester, it will surely be very different, and the safety of others must always be on our minds. In such a world, it’s hard to see how many of the social activities I engage in can continue, and it’s a sobering thought to think that even the best case looks somewhat bleak. 

But here’s the thing: the only social life that I can miss right now is the one that I’ve experienced exclusively thus far –– a social life based in physical proximity. In fact, perhaps it seems ridiculous to suggest that a social life can even exist otherwise. After all, the term “social” has been defined by meeting with people in a physical space at a designated time, in hanging out with your suite or entry, in the perennial statement-question, “Hey, let’s get a meal sometime.” (We know it doesn’t happen, but it’s good we can pretend.) So many (all?) of our social activities prior require the standard of physical presence — from sports, to rehearsal, to watching a movie side-by-side with a group of friends. 

If you see where I’m going, here comes the practical question: can I conceive of a “social life” that isn’t bound to physical proximity? The answer is hard, because right now, it seems like that’s impossible. How can I possibly replicate bumping into someone by accident, or even harder, making friends through sustained interactions over time? This seems particularly difficult given that it’s so much harder to meet new people in the first place. Just thinking about it can be depressing, because it’s easy to fall into the hole of being sad about what I can’t have. 

The only way of conceiving of “social life” so far is thinking about it in terms of the physical activities it’s been measured by. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that physicality is the only way this measurement might be done. 

Of course, I can always be more motivated to stay in touch with friends. Schedule phone calls, be proactive with texts, keep the chain link emails moving, you know the deal. But it goes beyond that. Perhaps there are ways I can purposefully program social interaction with the groups I’m in, even if their original functions are rendered moot. Maybe there are ways that Williams can possibly simulate random passing interactions, or a way to effectively continue conversations after class. What if a chat room could function as a virtual Paresky, and could it be possible to program virtual “commutes” to class? 

Some of these ideas could be batshit insane, I know, but they’re ideas worth thinking about, because they represent the tangibles that I sorely miss. And who knows, maybe there are good ideas that will be completely new and unthinkable, because social interaction online might not always have a physically interactive analog. Online learning hasn’t been great so far, but it’s also been acutely rushed, and implemented in a way that always puts it in comparison with the physical. It’s possible I need to give it more of a chance, to think not just about what I ’m missing, but how to supplement that and make things better. 

And of course, maybe it just can’t be done. Maybe a social life has to be physical. Maybe the finals that I should be working on simply are not in their nature to be finished. But I need to make sure this is the case through trying first, and not confusing initial failure with future impossibility. Change is always going to be difficult, and sudden shifts like these can make it easy to think that the new will never live up to the old. Because regardless if it can, at first it won’t, since it’s insanely hard to give up established and valued ways of living. 

Nevertheless, this change is one I’m forced to grapple with, and I do not want to be held back by thinking about what I could have had. Online learning will continue to be our reality, and while it might not be the one I prefer right now, I need to think hard about whether it’s something I want to instinctively reject. Right now, I am unsure of my plans for the future, but I know that if I choose to enroll in the fall, I will strive to be open-minded, generous in judgment and innovative in ways that will enrich meaningful living. As spring ends, I prepare for the fall, wherever that fall may be. 

William Ren ’21 is a philosophy major from Syosset, N.Y.