Zoom University

I, like many current college students, am an attendee of “Zoom University”—and this learning experience is surreal. In fact, it is so bizarre I can only describe how I feel about it using a metaphor. It’s like being strapped onto a roller coaster (that you didn’t stand in line to ride) and just succumbing—no, enduring—the sheer physical torture of g-force, centrifugal force, and all the other laws of physics that apply to roller coasters. Like every wild ride, this pandemic year has taken a toll emotionally, physically, and psychologically. And I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.

            I know it is probably more productive to discuss this period of strife longitudinally—as a period that had a high number of mishaps, but ultimately showed us what mattered: connection to other people through our relationships (familial and otherwise), appreciation for caretakers and school teachers, evaluating time and the value of spending it with people instead of in pursuit of money or material gain, equality (the realization we are all human and all deserve access to healthcare and a chance at a meaningful life), and actual survival. The idea that a disease can wipe us all out, pretty easily I might add, is very grounding.

            While I think it is important to acknowledge this pandemic experience as universal, I also think that much of the fallout is out of our control. When I feel out of control, I start a habitual anxiety spiral, and the only way I know how to stop it is to analyze the situation at a micro-level and evaluate the elements I do have control over. In this case, my personal remedy for “sense-making” is to deconstruct such awfulness from the perspective of a student.

            It is an interesting time to be a composition student considering the dramatic shift in writing behavior and practices as our lives have switched to a heavily virtual existence. Our social interactions, our avenues for acquiring resources, and our participation in digital spaces are currently in flux, and our success as students is contingent on our access to technology. Technology is now incorporated in every step of the learning process, and this added dimension fundamentally changes educational instruction. It introduces a new set of affordances and constraints—student responsibilities expanded, deadlines (and other time-associated tasks) feel irrelevant, zoom meetings challenge classroom “etiquette,” and issues of accessibility casts inequality in a new light.

            The reactive nature of this school year led to many problems, including incomplete syllabi, “conditional” hybrid curriculum, and reduced/eliminated face-to-face class time. Reading and writing tasks increased two-fold. I’ve been asked to read more articles and perform more online exercises in lieu of in-person discussion sessions. Thinking, speaking, and writing are different thought-processes and it takes more time (and effort) to transcribe an idea into writing than to discuss a thought aloud. Constructing an email requires different communication skills than a dialogue exchange with a professor during their office hours. Not only are the communication styles syntactically different, but so too is the information exchanged. Verbal communication allows for a different level of fluidity and the social element encourages mutual feedback.

            Students’ correspondence with instructors and peers is facilitated by digital interfaces such as video conference calls, email, and discussion boards. Students adapt to this new learning environment through a new form of “code-switching,” in which students’ participation is enhanced or hindered by their ability to compose their thoughts and ideas through various digital means. A student’s participation in a digital space is easily monitored via interaction logs on collegiate affiliate website interfaces. Professors can see the course components students accessed and how long they viewed them, how many times a student logged onto the interface, which discussion boards a student contributed feedback for, and the total time a student spent viewing the curriculum. Because participation can be quantitatively assessed, virtual tasks have higher stakes in the “new world” and are now perceived reflections of character. Answering emails in a timely manner is evidence of reliability, and dressing in business casual attire for a presentation (minus the heels because webcams can’t see your feet) shows a nod to professionalism.            

            This digital world also offers windows into our personal lives that were formerly invisible. I am keenly aware of what is audible/visible through my webcam lens. While attending class from home is convenient (no drive time required), I find it strange that my classmates can see my bedroom and hear my kids and pets play in the background. It feels as if my identity is sometimes revealed against my will—like student, mother, and wife blend into every action, and I no longer have control of the information people have access to; I’m not sure how I feel about that. Perhaps I like the idea of ‘control’ more than most, but I truly enjoy attending class and only having to worry about fulfilling a singular role. It is a nice break to focus on tasks that are individual sometimes, and for me, that task is school. When I attend school from home there are zero caretaking breaks and then I have to manage two tasks at once, which makes me feel half-present in both roles.

            However, there are some amusing aspects of Zoom University identity revelations. I thoroughly enjoy webcam style. I’ve seen fluffy robes (in a variety of colors), unkempt hairstyles (facial hair of all varieties; beards long enough to braid; top-knot styled messy buns), and I can only assume what people wear on their feet but I hope it’s ridiculous monster slippers (because that’s what I wear). But the idea of self-expression extends beyond clothing to digital backgrounds. I’ve seen the equivalent of visual ambient noise presented in backgrounds of coffee houses, bars, various travel destinations, and my favorite—a looped rave clip with a bikini-clad woman dancing on a stage with technicolor strobe lights flashing to an inaudible beat. I’ve learned the names of my classmate’s pets. And I’ve realized that many of my fellow classmates also have children, and other family members living within the same household. The webcam (and our Zoom sessions) create this sort of grey space where we unsuspectingly witness people in intimate spaces of existence. While it is true that a digital existence may also be peripheral and allow for ridiculous and copious amounts of audacity, it also offers an avenue for change.       

            This exploratory learning environment is rife with challenges and complexities. Students, professors, and administrators face new and interesting challenges in the virtual world. We all have to renegotiate concepts of identity, navigate new and innovative scholarly practices, and reconfigure our workloads to perform successfully. However, each problem faced in Zoom University is cause for both entertainment and chaos. Much like a roller coaster ride, we’re all sharing the thrill and fear of surviving what feels like an extreme experience.

Timi Matlack
Timi Matlack

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