For the love of all that is good, please turn on your camera
Updated: Oct 13
I've just given a 45 minute writing workshop to graduate students on Citational Politics: Writing for Liberation to a bunch of black squares. My classes are the same way. I've been doing a lot of work in the past 18 months for silent, invisible black squares. The black squares are so ubiquitous, that if someone uses an avatar, a cartoon image, a picture of themselves at prom a decade a go, or a duckface selfie instead of a blank square, I begin to think it's my friend, like Tom Hanks and the volleyball in Castaway.
Even while a lot of public and private universities are back in the classroom, vaccinated, masked and ready to learn, at my institution, we seem to have settled into a resigned status quo where most people are not back, but they also can't with Zoom anymore. I'm teaching HyFlex courses in which 1 or 3 or 5 students come to class, and the vast majority opt to "attend" in Zoom.
It's been a long pandemic and we're tired. Zoom fatigue is real. The campus is not a welcoming place yet, because students have almost nowhere to study or hang out or eat. Students require compassion. It is incumbent on faculty and academic administrators to adjust, yield, and reconcile to the trash heap our outdated and hierarchical conceptualizations of what learning is.
In my syllabi for the last three semesters, I say this:
Zoom can be soul crushing. We talk into the void, and for all we know our classmates turned on mute and walked away. We can’t hear or see each other the way we can in the classroom. So, when you must be online (instead of in the classroom), I propose we liven up Zoom. We have complicated lives. I have a dog and two sons, a husband, and a mother in law, and at any given moment one or more of them might be walking around, sneezing, grumbling, etc. You have complicated lives, too. I want to both be respectful of your space and time and not make any assumptions that you feel comfortable sharing the sounds or sights of where you sit with the whole class. However, if you mute your sound or video all the time, we won’t even know you’re there- a little photo or avatar is not the same as you! And we would like to get to know you! I don’t lecture—we discuss. So, please “show up” to class as your whole self. It is your energy that will make this semester a success. Unmute. If things get noisy- the doorbell rings, the baby cries, somebody is arguing in the background, mute for a bit. Then unmute again. Sometimes, you may be exhausted by Zoom, and you don’t want to be on camera because it gives you migraines, or it’s just too tiring—that’s ok, but try to be on next week! If someone says a joke, laugh! I guarantee you, you’ll feel better- we all will- and we can almost feel like we’re in a regular classroom. If things are too noisy to unmute, keep video on and use jazz hands or emojis or the chat to respond, it will be almost like we’re together.
I always have one or two brave souls who come to class with their camera on, but the vast majority are muted, silent, invisible. Another one or two make beauty out of the chat feature, posting thoughtful and substantive comments and questions and provocations. But lately, I can't even get most of my students to comment in the chat reliably or regularly, let alone speak. I call on some of them to ask a question and they seem to have left, I get no reply. Faced with this reality, I blame the pandemic, then I blame myself: have I done enough to foster community? Have I been compassionate enough? Flexible enough? Have I acknowledged their, and our, collective trauma? Yes. In fact, as I am pathologically wont to do, I've rewritten my syllabi completely each semester of this pandemic (and of my career) to better reflect current realities and latest data on teaching and learning: no tests, no quizzes, no rigid deadlines, tons of flexibility, compassion, acknowledgement of how hard it is, reduction of assignments, reduction of readings.
On "Pandemic Pedagogy," the tens of thousands' strong Facebook group composed of K-12 and higher education teachers that started with the shutdown in 2020, there are two camps: you support students' right to be off camera in all circumstances always, or you are an anti-student, classist, racist, ableist, cruel monster. Anyone who raises so much as a peep about how hard it is to foster discussion or participation or engagement without cameras on is silenced by legions of those who say they must not be trying hard enough, must not be compassionate enough, must not be flexible enough. I've been one of those silencers, judging my colleagues for being insufficiently attuned to students' needs.
I, as a professor privileged in many, many ways, and engaged in a hierarchical relationship with students, have no right to burden students with my own problems, right? I shouldn't share with them that I log off Zoom and want to cry. I should silence at least 9 out of 10 ways that this has been hard on me, too. And I do.
But I have come to fear and dread the transformation that is under way. If we assume that "education" consists not only mainly but entirely of one-way delivery of "content" from a professor to students and by professor we mean someone who is engaging, compassionate, lively, flexible, and knowledgeable, to students who are silent, invisible, mute and passive, we are doomed. There's tons of data showing that students learn best when they are taught by someone who sees them for who they are, recognizes them and acknowledges their precious existence and mind, and who understands them to be members of families and communities [add citations]. But what about the teacher? The teacher is not a person? Is a teacher not a human being who belongs to families and communities? A teacher does not need human connection, compassion and flexibility to do their best work? We are fundamentally misunderstanding that education is relational. That it is about human beings in communication with each other about ideas. And if I am the only one present, and still expected to "teach," I have become a robot more than a human being.
I know from the countless videos my son watches on YouTube that all of the content I teach is available in a whole mess of Youtube videos that last approximately 4-6 minutes and are likely more fun and informative than anything I can dream up. When he overhears me talking about chinampas (Aztec floating gardens) in my class, he shows me a video that is so beautiful and interesting and thorough, that I know my "content" can't compete. But, it has never been about content. Yes, I have a PhD and studied years and years to become competent in the subjects I teach, but the worth of my teaching is not about whether I pass on that content to my students. It is: do they get excited about learning in my class? Do they know a lot about what major figures in the field have thought about a given subject and then do they question all of that received knowledge? Do they interrogate the sources and the "canons" they've been taught? Can they think out loud about the concepts we're studying and then defend their ideas using evidence drawn from their studies? Can they write about these ideas? None of this is achieved with a passive one-way delivery of "information" from me to them.
The best, most gratifying and inspiring, moments I've ever had in a classroom have come when somebody has a lightbulb moment. When we're in the room together, sometimes this means somebody jumps out of their chair and starts yelling about something they just realized (I'm not exaggerating, this happened the semester before the pandemic), or two students debate an idea spontaneously, or somebody starts nodding so enthusiastically I worry about their neck. We can sometimes achieve this on Zoom when everyone shows up for each other and is visible and audible. None of this happens when we can neither see nor hear each other. So, for the same reasons so many have argued that we can't require cameras and mics to be on, or force students back into classrooms if they don't feel like it's safe yet, can we please, please, turn cameras and mics back on? Can we refuse to collectively give up on this profoundly important work we do together in community?