The guinea pigs of Zoom University, the students, get poked and prodded with teaching tactics class after class every day. All professors want is for us to unmute and, for the love god, just learn. Students experience the entire spectrum of creative distance-learning teaching methods. Professors test just one experiment: their own.
Many undergraduates are now seasoned Zoomers who understand what it takes to make a classroom work because we have experienced what doesn’t. Professors, however, only know what engages a digital classroom in the context of their own courses. But, it has never been easier for professors to be guinea pigs themselves and see things from a student’s perspective. All it takes is a Zoom link and willing professors who can jump into a colleague’s classroom to witness for themselves what kind of strategy — or lack thereof — leads to a five-minute breakout room of excruciating silence and what makes students wish it lasted 10 minutes longer.
The pandemic produced an educational conundrum that we may all be familiar with by now: Students report a heavier academic workload than ever, while many faculty say they have lowered classroom expectations. Why the dissonance? Maybe faculty have adjusted assignments, but they underestimate the amount of time students spend on asynchronous work. Maybe students overestimate how much we study because we are unhappy with online learning (and this isn’t even approaching the current logistical and personal roadblocks to completing the work). Maybe students used to get by in discussion by participating based on peer comments without actually doing a reading. Enter discussion boards and pre-class modules that leave a digital stamp if we submit them past the deadline. Neglecting the reading is no longer a possibility. As Prof. Jody Greene, literature, of University of California, Santa Cruz puts it, “It’s not that there is ‘more work.’ It’s that the expectations are becoming transparent and there is more ‘accountability’ — by accident.”
Like students, professors are not immune to Zoom fatigue. Many teach several classes a day on top of faculty meetings. But maybe if professors experience a school day from a student’s point of view — feel what it’s like to have someone press a button to toss us into a different group over and over, hear how other professors introduce a class to the day’s topics and announce expectations — we could resolve the workload paradox. An engineering professor can hop into a history teacher’s lecture and glean how to keep students’ attention by breaking up a presentation with participation. The history professor could learn from the engineering class about innovations for non-verbal participation that aren’t a Zoom chat box.
I have had professors convince me with their impassioned monologues that by turning my camera on I am doing a service to my peers’ learning and my own. I have also had others convince me that if I wish to go one hour and 15 minutes without being perceived, that’s fine. I have had days when I wished for anything but a breakout room and days I felt giddy at the end of class because I got to meet someone new, and, for a second, was a real student again. “I guess at first I hated break out rooms, but now I kind of look forward to them because I get to meet other people in the class and talk about the class and our passions, so it just makes being there more tolerable because most people are amazing,” said Samantha Feliz ’22.
That our cameras, microphones and Zoom tools can be sources of both anxiety and excitement are proof that how we feel about them comes down to the tone a professor establishes at the start of class. How to successfully set a tone conducive to participation is not something students can teach professors. It is, however, something that they can teach each other by taking a virtual seat in another professor’s classroom.
Zoom is hard, for professors and students, so we participate in the experiment willingly. We understand as a collective body of academics that our reality is not ideal for anyone. Still, we are endlessly adaptable creatures. We can live with any tragedy, continue as students who do homework and take exams and sometimes live oddly good days when so much is wrong. This should come as no surprise. We came to learn, and we will continue to make do with whatever tools we have at our disposal.
When so many spaces serve as reminders of the pandemic, the classroom remains perhaps the most normal part of life. Some days, dispensing the motions of Zoom and just talking to classmates from our respective bedrooms about the fruit fly life cycle or what the reading made us consider about language and love is the most precious bit of normalcy we still have. It is on all of us, the students and professors, to protect the classroom at all costs. When everything is so complicated, Zoom doesn’t have to be.
Paris Ghazi is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. La Vie en Prose runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.