October 1, 2020 | Feature
a digital exploration of another untethered semester
On the second day of school, my professor decided to simulate what would have been normal last shopping period—turning and meeting the students next to you in a lecture hall—by sending us off into “the whirlpool vortex of the Zoom breakout room” (her words) for 10 minutes of introductions and less-than-subtle awkwardness.
It’s not to say that I didn’t meet lovely new people and learn things about them. My classmates were studying remotely from Mumbai, D.C., and San Francisco—but that’s about as far as we got before returning to the meeting to be split up all over again. Few things can break the ice in a randomly-assigned breakout room, where meeting new people feels like giving a presentation about yourself to three floating heads.
Clicking on a link at the turn of the hour instead of walking into the wrong class made me wish that Zoom’s computerized efficiency wasn’t so efficient. I wanted to be taken through virtual campus sidewalks and hallways before popping into my 10 a.m. lecture at 10:02. I wanted to bump into some distant friend from freshman year and have a conversation that would make me late. My digital version of that experience was relegated to the breakout room, a useful tool for professors and another signal of irregularity for students.
Sitting in the virtual back row of classes I probably wouldn’t take (in reality, staring at slide after slide on Powerpoint) didn’t appeal to me this shopping period. I didn’t have the energy—or maybe I’m just getting old. Once an anxious but voracious shopper, this semester I registered for 5 courses through C@B and barely explored any others. Yet by the first weekend, I was drained.
Staring at a screen for hours makes me feel like my parents are going to materialize in my room and reprimand me at any moment. During class, I am conscious of my eyes glazing over and my attention drifting toward the red dot on the iMessage icon at the bottom of my screen.
This tendency to become distracted is one of many manifestations of “Zoom fatigue,” a term that names the discomfort induced by video conferencing. To seem like we’re paying attention, we feel we must keep our eyes glued to the screen: This is exhausting, according to a Harvard Business Review article.
Let’s face it: It’s easier than ever to text your roommate who is Zooming into the same class from a different room, check and re-check your Google calendar, or, if you’re like me, opt for a camera-off, in-bed lecture on particularly draining days.
After all, we’re only human, and taking away the physical cues of human interaction (including eye contact, body language and other subtle behavioral signals) makes Zoom-style video conferencing especially “taxing,” a News at Northeastern article wrote.
It’s no surprise that these limitations may also translate to performance in online classes. A 2017 study published in the American Economic Journal found that online college courses seemed to reduce student success, reflected by an average 0.44-point drop in students’ class grade point averages. Of course, Zoom and other new digital resources have since changed the fabric of online learning, signaling a need for updated research.
A few weeks before last winter break—anticipating a month at my humble home in Des Moines, Iowa—I decided to look into Brown’s online Wintersession courses. Introduction to Creative Nonfiction caught my eye, a change from my fiction writing tendencies. After realizing my financial aid applied to the course, I signed up.
I was nervous for an online college course; the class condensed a semester’s worth of material into just four weeks. Our syllabus involved daily work: readings, discussion posts, and developing three nonfiction essays that would be reviewed by my peers, the course TA, and Professor Elizabeth Taylor.
Still, the course’s pacing and flexibility allowed me to complete my readings and responses while boarding a Greyhound to Chicago with my friend Emma. Even online, I felt vaguely connected to my peers through virtual discussions and got to know my professor through regular one-on-one video calls. Over those weeks—remotely workshopping drafts, exchanging ideas, and analyzing Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with my classmates—I was surprised by my complete absorption in the material.
This week, I interviewed Professor Taylor—one of just a handful of Brown’s faculty members who answered the University’s call to develop online courses nearly five years ago, not to mention one of very few undertaking the task in the humanities.
At the time, Professor Taylor saw digital learning as an exciting opportunity. “Since I was a journalist and computers first came into the newsroom, I was always fascinated with what you could do with computers,” she said.
After a decade of teaching Introduction to Creative Nonfiction in person, Professor Taylor took it to Brown’s Digital Learning and Design group, whose purpose was to help faculty replicate their courses online. She remembers telling them, “I want to take exactly what I do in class and put it into Canvas so I don’t lose anything.” Professor Taylor quickly found that Canvas could facilitate effective discussion, analysis, and peer-reviewing, although some of her colleagues remained skeptical.
The course’s asynchronous format gave greater flexibility to students with busy schedules, and mandatory discussion posts offered a platform for students who don’t usually speak up in class, she said.
With her prior experience, Professor Taylor helped her colleagues in the English department transition online in March. “Everybody adapts to the technology more quickly than one might assume,” she said. “Within months, you acclimate.”
Still, some students feel persistent loneliness from the sheer lack of face-to-face interaction—not to mention Zoom’s inevitable dysfunctions, from un-muting your mic at the wrong time to sitting in a silent breakout room. Already under quarantine, it’s almost too easy to feel disengaged.
I’ve recently found myself tucked in bed with my computer for hours on end, having not left the house since the day before. Some things I’ve found solace in: hilly bike rides, India Point Park on a breezy day, cooking new recipes with roommates, and daydreaming about puppy adoption.
Online classes can’t replace in-person instruction, but in the absence of in-person classes, knowing the limits of online instruction and taking advantage of its benefits is one way to keep learning.
I felt grateful to have had the time and resources to take Professor Taylor’s course over winter break. This semester, I have even more to be thankful for. I have an apartment in Providence with a whole room sectioned off just for me—even the paint stains on the hardwood and inherited hole in the door (RISD kids lived here?) can’t dull my excitement.
The fact that I can take classes online without worrying about my home life or financial situation hasn’t escaped me. The New York Times reported that most K-12 students will have fallen behind by this fall and predicts that pre-existing racial and socioeconomic education gaps are likely to grow due to disparities in technology access.
A few years ago, at the only Asian-fusion ramen shop in Des Moines that we knew of at the time, Emma and I ordered kimchi tater tots with vegan cheese. The steaming tots arrived next to a small container of yellow-green sludge.
“I don’t know if I like vegan cheese,” I said skeptically, staring at the liquid.
“It’s okay,” Emma said, “don’t think of it as cheese. Think of it as a savory sauce instead.”
Emma’s suggestion changed my perspective on the meal, an enjoyable combination of diverse textures and flavors. And the sauce was indeed savory. Digital learning doesn’t have to be viewed as a complete replacement for in-person classes (it probably can’t be) but it might function as another avenue for the same goal—to continue to educate students as best we can. As Susanna Loeb, Brown professor of education and public affairs, wrote in Education Week, while online learning isn’t as effective as in-person learning, online courses are “certainly better than no classes.”
This fall, I shopped an introductory poetry class. During the first couple minutes—everyone’s mics muted while a few stragglers trickled in—the instructor wrote in the chat, “Digital silence is weird, huh?” An apt comment that made me smile.
Just today, I found myself alone, staring at my hair in the mirror of my Zoom screen for three minutes after another professor accidentally placed me and each of her other students into individual breakout rooms. Despite ongoing hiccups and adjustments, I can appreciate a sense of mutual trust between faculty and students. We’re all adapting, trying to be understanding with each other amid one of the most dystopian years of our lives.
I’ve found small surprises and pleasures in the nuances of this semester like no other: someone’s puppy demanding cuddles during class, making ramen during section, feeling the air transition from summer to fall while I rewatch a lecture outside.