One of the largest transitions that colleges have had to undertake during this pandemic is their migration to online classes via Zoom. The video-conferencing software has made being glued to a screen less of a choice and more of a chore, constantly demanding that students sit quietly and smile into the abyss that is their camera. However, these classes don’t have to feel like panopticons in disguise. In reality, the virtual ways that professors and students communicate and learn do not have to be dissimilar to how a normal classroom can operate.
Students can have their blank stares on zoom removed from their faces by some early welcoming exercises by their professors. In professor J.B. Manchak’s “What is Space” Honors seminar, everyone seems saved by the sound of indie music playing to liven up the names on the screen. When people turn their cameras on, Manchak attempts to close the distance between his address and his pupils with personable questions. Met initially with resistance, eventually one student speaks up and sparks a conversation in the comments. Suddenly, everyone is talking and everyone seems a little more connected.
The more open students are with the process of participation, the less doubt exists in the Zoom zone of learning. When someone verbalizes their wonderings, not only does it put everyone at ease, but it also lowers the standard of what is reasonable to ask. Simple clarifications on a homework assignment are not met with glares of inattention, but with glows of admiration from professors. Furthermore, it helps students concerned about the same thing, while widening the range of discussion. Making a joke on Zoom or greeting participants with a funny anecdote can create a lighthearted atmosphere where classmates can begin to characterize one another. Even if the story isn’t a hit or the joke is a joke in itself, when embedded in Zoom it can be a higher tolerance for social acceptance because everyone is on the same page — quite literally.
The most effective method I’ve witnessed when managing the awkward silence is to accept it. Manchak took five minutes of each class for everyone to meditate. Most of the students leave their camera on, sitting in silence with closed eyes and open minds. After, students are able to feel better prepared for class while the five minutes less of lecture acclimatizes students to the day’s lesson plan. In the Philosophy of Logic-based seminar, students were then more willing to break the awkward silence of breakout rooms by openly discussing their likes and dislikes.
Zoom breakout rooms can be a hit or miss, as proven by honors student Trishia Rowe V. Sapigao.
“If you can break through the initial silence and start a conversation with people, it usually goes well for the rest of the time that you’re in the breakout room. It just becomes super awkward if you can’t get through that first phase,” Sapigao said.
Some students like Mobina Rahmanifar are more likely to break-the-ice in a breakout room than a classroom.
“I feel more comfortable talking and we don’t get as much time to be put into groups and have a discussion in person,” Rahmanifar said.
Others, like Daniel Soroudi, think that breakout sessions can’t be salvaged.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like talking, so four people will just sit in silence for the first two minutes. I don’t know how to fix it. It’s really annoying, it wastes time in classes,” Soroudi said.
Manchak himself took both sides by saying, “As hard as it is to get a dialogue going, especially with the chat, people tend to participate more than in my normal classes through the chat. Some of the folks who wouldn’t be participating do, but it has its drawbacks too.” His patience and the patience of everyone enrolled shows that by addressing some of the setbacks there is room to create a more hospitable learning environment.
The question still remains: how do we bridge the gap between virtual connections and reality? My answer is to connect the imperfections of both. While it may seem like every sneeze, bad-hair day and Zoom accident will live on in infamy, the truth is that most students are only casting a critical lens on their own Zoom square. In a time when we all can exert so little control over our lives, we shouldn’t be pressuring ourselves to act perfectly all the time on Zoom. An awkward story that gets no laughs may seem like the end of the world, but if it breaks the ice at the beginning of class, that’s more than enough.
“It’s impossible to be terrible at meditation,” Manchak said. In the same way, it’s impossible to be a terrible participant of a classroom, a Zoom room, or a college campus, as long as you make the experience yours.
Amanda Abramovitz is an opinion advice column intern for the New University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.