University is different now, it’s legless. Beyond the fact I’ve only ever seen the top quarter of anyone’s body since September, we all have no place to go. I wonder, for those who live on campus, it must feel like you exist in a post-apocalyptic landscape where people shuffle silently distanced from one another, wishing for a more meaningful connection than asking someone to repeat something that was too muffled by their leopard print mask.
My classes are, well, mostly hours of staring into the faces of the TA’s. The lectures, although mostly well done, are littered with comments from the professors about what they would prefer to do if we were in person – you and me both, incorporeal voice I am listening to at 1.5x. I do prefer the asynchronous (tired of hearing that one yet?) lectures to the classes. I can only handle trying to feign interest in a sea of muted mics and monogrammed video screens for so long. The classes, where it isn’t just me and a TA staring at each other as if we were in some kind of strange reality dating show (I’d pitch that. I’d call it: Zoom Groom), do bring a certain element of entertainment. I’ve seen a lot of classmates in bed. Legit; blankets up to their chins, eyes slowly closing, barely perking up when asked a question by the clearly frustrated TA. I’ve seen students backlit by red LEDs with hooded faces, what I like to call “dark web surfers”, who I imagine use the lights for the multicoloured room trend on TikTok.
I naively thought university being online wouldn’t matter, but it comes with a specific set of challenges. One being that “keeners” are now far too obvious with our videos on. Not that we tend to be the older ones in the class, I still call us “Zoomers”. Being a Zoomer that wants a GPA that backs up their life decisions is out there for all to see; we’ve lost the subtlety of being a perfectionist. I often wonder if those with “videos off” worry us Zoomers see them as slackers? I’ll gladly speak for everyone – the only thing you are slacking on is pressing that small “start video” button. Please? We Zoomers don’t want to stare into a sea of grey boxes who we imagine silently judging us for “sitting at the front of the class”.
Another challenge is that these legless VIDEO classes are dominated by a chat box. Well, I don’t type as fast as you, and frankly, half the time, am googling text abbreviations like: SMH, OFC and MHOTY. Honestly WTF? Also, the chat doesn’t have the secondary press feature that allows me to put a thumbs up or “like” something, without that - what’s the point? Everyone just uses a caret (this ^). Figure it out Zoom.
The workload is immense. This coming from someone who, before deciding to go back to school, worked upwards of 70 hours a week. This says something about what the reality is for university first years, most of whom are still trying to figure out how to read a syllabus; although I think the “totally meaningful” discussion boards and “valuable topic” weekly assignments are pretty widespread throughout all levels of class. How else would professors keep us engaged? Here’s a thought. Turn your damn video on! Then maybe I wouldn’t be required to respond, in 75 – 100 words, to another inane thought about literacy in relation to the pandemic. There is no way all those grey boxes I see have bad internet.
I am being too harsh, I know, there are a million reasons why one would want to sit silent and alone on the other side of the bluescreen. But honestly, it’s hard to see you all as humans when so many times I’ve imagined my legs attached to your body. Knowing I am ignorant of what possesses you to sit there behind your greyed-out box watching me as I nod along to the TA, I decided to reach out to a few important people to help me figure out how to put legs on all of you again.
First, I reached out to Brenda Smith-Chant, Associate Professor of Psychology at Trent. As a senior researcher on topics of child development, I thought she would be a perfect candidate to discuss digital strain in education. When asked if she thought the workload had increased with digital classes she responded emphatically with, “this is ABSOLUTELY the case … validated in multiple research studies…about 30% more.” She confirmed much of my own analyses saying, “many of the ‘teaching techniques’ given to instructors …stress the need to engage learners … this structure (e.g., write a discussion post about your reaction to a course reading) adds to the workload for a student …
When asked about video trends in class, Professor Smith-Chant said, “Very few students turn on their cameras.” The topic of forcing students to turn videos on was next. The professor’s opinion was pretty clear:
“I personally would never require a student to turn on their video during class. It feels coercive … if I find seeing myself online intimidating, perhaps they do as well …. I also have a terrible bandwidth problem …. There are many students in similar straights. I generally never ask more of my students than I ask of myself …”
– Professor Smith-Chant
Next, I thought to delve into the enlightened mind of Moira Howes, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trent University who shared a lot of sentiments with Dr. Smith-Chant. On workload Professor Howes said, “On the one hand, I have heard from students … faculty have increased the time they are required to ‘attend’ lectures .... Depending on the extent of this practice and the reasons for it … we would need data to evaluate the situation properly.” I think post pandemic studies will be a billion-dollar industry, better invest now. Professor Howes continued with, “On the other hand, I know faculty who have slightly reduced the number of hours .… Some have also assigned fewer readings and/or large assignments .… But even if student workloads are the same or reduced, students might nonetheless feel like they are doing more work.”
When asked about the trend of student videos being off, Professor Howes expanded on the topic with:
“It’s difficult to adjust to this as a faculty member, as I like to see and hear students as they share their ideas – this is where the joy of teaching resides. But I do not think it is acceptable to require that students turn on video or use their audio to contribute. Privacy in one’s home is important. Students may lack resources for cameras or audio. Their wired or wireless connections may be weak. Or their equipment might break. These are all things I consider as a faculty member …. I also keep my video on during my weekly Zoom sessions in my courses. But I have a mostly quiet home office with good equipment and a strong connection. Some faculty do not have these privileges, and it is important for us to recognize their situation as a just and compassionate institution.” – Professor Howes
I then shifted to find a voice outside of the warm bubble of a post-secondary educational institute. I sought out someone working one-on-one with patients, which led to Darryl Silvestri, Registered Psychotherapist. I figured the voice of a therapist was something that many of us straining through the semester would appreciate.
“The depth of relationship often comes in the small, everyday, unscripted moments … interacting with others via digital meetings reduces interactions … to simply … the task, the goal, the report. Interactions can become purely transactional and less and less relational.”
– Darryl Silvestri, Registered Psychotherapist
Darryl’s opinion on asking people to turn their videos on, although he agreed it would depend on the case, was that it is important “to give people the autonomy of choice on how they are going to connect”. Taking it further, perhaps feeling protective for the students under the current digital education strains, he said “… people leading digital meetings (teachers, professors, team leads, managers, etc.) need to be honest with themselves about what is necessary from the participants.” I would add this applies also to the attendees of the meetings as well (*looks in the mirror*). He continued, “their ego is not the point of the meeting, and they have to check it, so they don't become self-aggrandizing control freaks who need such tepid validation.” Does anyone else hear a resounding “PREACH” from those greyed out boxes?
I finished off by asking all my brilliant interviewees about how we should humanize all of this.
“If students do not like to turn their camera on, I do appreciate having a picture or avatar they share, so I feel like there is a person. If the picture/avatar is smiling—that helps … I try, as much as possible, to connect with people individually, whether they have their video off or on … if I could gift our Trent community with something, it is to understand that the PERCEPTION that online environments are harder, more demanding, and effortful is REAL.”
- Professor Smith-Chant
“Intentionally build into digital meetings opportunities for interpersonal connection ... If I only interact with someone in one specific kind of way, my brain is more likely to reduce them to that part of them …. I need a diversity of experiences … to help remind my brain that this person is more …. It requires real intention on our part to remind ourselves of the other's humanity.”
- Darryl Silvestri, Registered Psychotherapist
Professor Howes was the one to approach it from a very glass half full philosophy citing the positives seen in online classes.
“It’s amazing to witness the new practices we are creating …. We’re waving instead of clapping and introducing people to our companion animals. I’ve seen some hilarious backgrounds …. Humour helps a lot. I also email my classes more. While I don’t want to clog students’ email with notes and updates, I want them to know that I am present to support their learning. But it is good to reflect that students, staff, and faculty each have their own struggles and sources of suffering during this pandemic. Patience and generosity with ourselves and others is a powerful humanizing force.”
- Professor Howes
Perhaps you’ve already “stopped video” on this topic, but for those who have held in there and are eager for me to come to some kind of conclusion I am grateful.
Yes, the pandemic is not over, it will most likely get worse before it gets better. We can, however, look at what we have gained from this immense world shifting event. I am not just talking about dressy sweatpants and the resurgence of solo hobbies, but the idea of creating a bit more balance. Finding a space for work-slash-school and a separate space for life-slash-relationships, within our physical environment – yes - but more importantly within our habits.
The pandemic forced many of us apart (including our team at Arthur), making some of us feel alone. This means intentionality with people is needed more now than ever before. At home and in our personal lives, our boundaries have been blurred. I work where I sleep and relax where I stress. That is hard on all of us.
What I gathered from the interviews conducted I will separate for the applicably subdivided groups.
FOR PROFESSORS: Try and picture those grey boxes as small dorm rooms or apartments where students are trying to get their heads around this, I shudder at the use of the word, “unprecedented” situation. Try building in a few moments of social interaction. Ask a question to someone specific and if no one bites, don’t worry, we are still learning. Most of the time we aren’t certain we should turn mute off.
Professor Smith-Chant offers that “if you are a faculty member, be kind to your learners and appreciate that 30% more work across multiple courses is often overwhelming. Focus on what your goals are: To support learning. Let other things go.”
FOR STUDENTS: University is hard at the best of times, and these are the worst of times in recent memory. No, it doesn’t make it better for me to say that but know, I’m in it too. Take care of yourselves and when you feel up to it, reach out. TIP – Zoom has private chats.
Professor Smith-Chant’s advice “for learners, be kind to your instructors. This is NOT the way most of us want to teach. We are mentors. This is hard for us too.”
So, let’s be intentional. For me, I need to remember those students with their videos off aren’t doing it to annoy me and those professors aren’t trying to bring me down, they are trying to engage me in any way they can. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of a little bit of empathy with what the other person has going on. Try asking the legless student and/or professor how they are doing and, who knows, you might just be able to picture them as a fully formed, human being with legs again.
Well, until I get to see your top half again, I wish you all the best – End Meeting for All.
Please find the full unedited interview referenced here.
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