April 9, 2020

DERY | The Silence of the Cams: Lectures on Zoom Just Aren’t the Same

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The night before April 6, when online instruction resumed this semester, my friends and I held our first Zoom reunion. But, now provided a new toolbox just a mouse-click away, any initial chatter soon devolved into a free-for-all, do-it-yourself Zoom tutorial. In the course of an hour, we split into various breakout rooms, overrided each-others’ screen shares, and began cluttering up numerous private and public meeting chats — all driven by the power struggle to become the omnipotent host. Three weeks of quarantine transformed a friendly, spontaneous Zoom meeting into a virtual Lord of the Flies.

Among the collateral damage in this Zoom fray were our virtual backgrounds, which, by the end of the hour, had long been changed from our monotone bedroom walls. Instead, one of my friends — who at the time forgot but now regretfully remembers — logged off that night with a tasteful close-up of a scorpion (that he still insists is a spider) as his background. The idea didn’t seem so amusing the following day, however, when he joined his morning lecture only to realize his background was never reset. That split-second on the spotlight display, surrounded by a scorpion background on all sides, was supposedly witnessed by another student and none other than the professor himself. The Monday morning experience has ensured that he will remain muted with disabled video the rest of the semester unless otherwise absolutely necessary. Only the meeting chat seems to be enough of a low-stakes means of participation. The same friend, who just a semester ago sprinted from the Ag Quad to C.K.B. to unlock the door for his roommate 10 minutes before a prelim, has met his match: The Zoom spotlight.

And though it may be true that many of us Zoomers have yet to experience our first virtual slip-up, the fear of inevitable miscues has made us more cautious than ever about classroom participation. I’m not necessarily talking about forgetting to reset a virtual background, or even accidentally enabling video in the middle of a lecture. When Zoom brings each student who dares unmute their mic or enable their webcam from the isolation of their bedrooms to center stage, the classroom pressure increases immensely.

First and foremost, as online students, we don’t enjoy the same comfort of participating among the rows of classmates that we did in a lecture hall. Nowadays, answering a question means revealing your identity to the entire class. Asking a question means lingering in this quasi-spotlight for even longer. In the few seconds after my professor asks a question to the Zoom lecture, I try to fight the worry that I will falter on the spotlight cam, but instead concede to the low-stakes refuge that is remaining unmuted without video. My introvertedness doesn’t stand a chance against the prospect of 30-plus kids peering into my bedroom whenever I hit “Unmute” and “Show Video.” Sheltered by this Zoom anonymity, we join lectures without really being there.

Though a convenience for some, for me, it largely suffocates the flow of the in-person lesson. And that’s a sad sight to see. Classroom dialogue used to be so much easier, more spontaneous. Yet on Zoom, I find myself saving my questions for office hours. We’ve been forced to trade in a natural lesson flow for the ability to attend lectures in pajamas.

I’d like to think I’m overthinking it (I can already picture the snarky comments confirming this intuition), but the fact that lectures once interspersed with questions are now deserts of awkward silence indicates that I’m not the only one. In my few Zoom lectures since the start of remote learning, only one or two people spoke besides the professor. And no one else showed video. In discussion sections, I heard a few more voices that I’d grown accustomed to listening to in person — still, less than half the class showed video. Out of the three breakout rooms I’ve been part of, no one’s said a word.

I miss the actual classroom the most during times when I am one in a sea of unidentifiable usernames, all muted with disabled video. Turning to work with a classmate seems like a lost privilege when no one’s willing to break the ice and unmute themselves in a breakout room. And I’d definitely choose whispering a question to a friend sitting beside me rather than having to use the meeting chat, which has become an excuse of sorts to not unmute, a shortcut to retain partial anonymity. When the online classroom is this cautious and awkward, every lecture feels filled with first-day jitters.

Whether we’re challenged by bugs in our connectivity or in our virtual backgrounds, I can only hope we will eventually reconstruct the classrooms we left behind a few weeks ago. But I really hope that we will be more appreciative than ever of wobbly lecture hall desks and humming air conditioners when we return to campus — anything it takes to leave the “Unmute” button behind.

 

Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.