The Silence of Zoom; Or, unmuting the classroom.

A note inside a square
Playlist by Arthur Shlain from the Noun Project

In the virtual classroom and meeting room, the silence is deafening. In the months since we’ve integrated Zoom to teaching and learning, meetings, and, to my discontent, socializing, I’ve had enough time to realize that I’ll never get used to it. In particular, I’ll never get used to its silence. Colleagues commiserate about the student behind the blank screen (or the screen with only names and pronouns or, in the best of cases, a profile photo). We all worry. Is the student who cannot turn on their video, alright? Are they falling behind or are they very engaged? Is our Zoom pedagogy failing them? But these questions also apply to those with video on. Some days, the students I can see on video seem as far away as those whose video is off. Even if they’re staring right at the camera, I can’t make eye contact and I can’t hear them. The spontaneous sounds of the classroom—the rustling of notebooks, the clicking of pens, even the sighs and the yawns—are all gone.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, a proliferation of posts about Zoom etiquette, dos and don’ts, circulated on social media, professional websites, and online magazines, telling us what to do with our backgrounds, lighting, session length, and quite emphatically reminded us to mute our mics. Using this advice, institutional directives, and our intuition, we’ve all been learning how to work, engage, and be social through a medium we never chose. And it sometimes seems like we can only bring a third of who we are. This applies to my colleagues. We’re present from the waste up, but most often than not, forget that we have arms and hands. It’s been months since I last heard some colleagues speak. For some, it seems, “Mute your mic” means “Don’t say a word.”

For instance, at a heartbreaking farewell Zoom party for a dear colleague at the end of the spring, I realized that we’ve decided that clapping, even if we’re all doing it at once, is somehow inappropriate. Will it break the Zoom? Instead of unmuting ourselves, we all waved goodbye, smiling, and with our mics muted, said, “Goodbye, dear colleague!” Our small face framed in our tiny Zoom square which suddenly seemed more like a submarine porthole vanishing into the depths of the ocean, except that instead of slowly disappearing, we blipped out of sight when we clicked “Leave meeting.” A student gave me a hint as to what might underlie this hesitance to unmute: they expressed anxiety at interrupting others due to the nature of the platform. At the root of this anxiety is the awareness that absent our bodies, we’ve lost our ability to anticipate, to perceive, to hear and, therefore, to acknowledge, even respect, each other. Out of fear that we’ll interrupt and therefore offend or stifle our thoughts, nay, enter an awkward interaction, we’d rather just be muted.

As a way to counter this silence, which admittedly might bother me more than it does others, I’ve followed colleagues who, in the so-called Before Times, integrated music to their classrooms as a way of creating community. At the beginning of the semester, I asked students to share their values as well as their taste in film, music, and literature. For music, I asked them to share their favorite song of the moment (this was back in August). With these titles, I’m creating a class playlist. Each class, I play a different song while students log on to the session. Then, we follow our daily check-in by playing 30 seconds of the song and then ask the student who shared it to tell us why that song matters to them. I continue to play the song again during the breaks, so that it becomes a kind of soundtrack for that class day. To be sure, a song that I control won’t do much to conjure up the spontaneity of the classroom. My hope is that by integrating these songs to the day’s session, I’m giving us a chance to listen to each other through the sounds that bring us comfort. The upside to the muted mic is that it doesn’t silence music, so even when our mics are muted, the music can speak for us and of us.

An eraser with two pieces of chalk on an old style blackboard sill.

About First Days Past

Some teachers are masters of the first day of class. They prepare thoughtful icebreakers or find inspiring and witty ways to convey the relevance of the course for students’ lives. I’ve never been one of those teachers. Even though I’m always very excited to meet students for the first time, it’s usually the only day when I cut myself some slack. I show up with my hard core hard copies of the syllabus (an opportunity to address print vs screen debates), race back to my office for something I left behind (who took the markers?), warn students I’ll go over the syllabus in painful detail, promise the rest of the semester won’t be as boring (why should they believe me?), carefully start to put names to faces, ask students to complete a survey, and if we have time, I’ll move into an icebreaker that usually involves sharing some of the answers from the survey. As I look back, I’m amazed that they came back. Was there a goal to this uninspired routine? Yes: to give the syllabus its place as a transparent document. Does transparency require monotony? No.

This year, my first contact with students in my two courses wasn’t in the physical classroom or the Zoom classroom. Instead, the semester started, at least for me, with a short video where I introduced myself to them one week prior to our first Zoom session. Our institution asked us to do this before we met for the first time. Although I dread having to see myself so much these days, whether on my phone screen or trapped inside a small Zoom square, it was refreshing to present myself like this. In an unexpected way, it allowed me to be spontaneous. I chose not to have a script with me when I recorded each video. Instead, I imagined I was in the classroom—a better first day classroom than the one I just described—and shared some details about my expertise, about my family history (something I never do on the first day), and was open about my excitement to be starting the semester’s journey with them.

Right now, I would do anything to be in the same room with my students, so there’s something paradoxical about how in being removed from them, I found a means to break the monotony of years past and find a fresh start. Was it the technology? I’m decidedly not a luddite but I don’t think it was about the digital medium. Instead, I think it’s all about the effort so many of us are making to reproduce an ancient medium we have lost since we went online—our teaching persona. I think that what allowed me to keep up my boring first day routine was in large part the certainty that I could convey warmth, enthusiasm, and care even though I was just reciting they syllabus. Trusted colleagues who have taught online before, assure me that students do warm up to teachers who they only meet online. I’ll choose to believe them. Still, it remains to be seen how the teaching persona of the introductory video holds up through weekly Zoom meetings, learning management systems, screencasts, audio clips, and GoogleDocs. What is clear already is that, this year, I’m not just meeting my students on the first day of class but also a new version of my teaching self.

Vamos a la feria

One of the many great gatherings during the Christmas season in Mexico happens around the feria or fair (although it is interesting that the Spanish meaning of the word differs from the French etymological meaning and English usage in that in Hispanic American cultures, feria means a holiday, religious function, and fair, whereas in Anglo American cultures it is solely associated with the selling and buying of goods and not related to religious festivities or holidays). These photos are from the feria held in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe, whose holiday was just celebrated last week, on December 12th.

Of Libraries, Philanthropy, and Graphic Art in Oaxaca

This Atlas Oscura piece on “wonderfully specific libraries” reviews libraries around the world devoted to collecting and archiving very particular materials, from ice to unpublished manuscripts, or to documenting single subjects, like the history of activism or dogs.  For the voracious reader or the devoted student, there is nothing quite like walking into a library. These public spaces, whether privately owned or state sponsored, offer privacy (most of the time), silence (usually), and access to resources not otherwise accessible. And, in addition, as Oaxaca’s specific libraries and collections remind us,  these spaces play a critical role in supporting community life.  Particularly at a time when the interest of the rich in funding educational and artistic projects is rapidly decreasing, they are proof of how carefully wrought philanthropic projects can keep alive traditions and knowledge (specific and general), and fill in significant gaps left by a not always consistent or committed government.

Books at the Biblioteca Burgoa.

Libraries, general or specific, are not usually on the Oaxaca traveler’s list of places to visit. But they should be. With 365 libraries, Oaxaca is actually the second state with the most libraries in the country, and many of them are wonderfully specific. A key example is the Biblioteca Burgoa, housed in the World Heritage site, Templo de Sto. Domingo de Guzmán,  once a thriving Dominican convent, today the library’s collection holds more than 30,000 books and manuscripts collected from the many convents that were established by Dominican, Franciscan, Agustine, and several other orders in charge of evangelizing indigenous Oaxacans from the sixteenth century onwards. The collection allows scholars of history, literature, religion, and law insight into what monks colonizing this part of Mesoamerica were reading.

While the Biblioteca Burgoa is run by the  Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, many of Oaxaca City’s libraries were founded and are funded  by Oaxacan-born philanthropists, and the collection’s specificity can be traced to the interests and causes of, for instance, the financier, Alfredo Harp Helú, or the renowned painter and graphic artist, Francisco Toledo. Even though these libraries are privately owned, as part of a commitment to providing public spaces and education to Oaxacans of every socio-economic level, they are free and open to the public year round. In addition, both spaces are beautiful and offer a quiet respite for students who wish to do homework, for scholars working on research projects, for whomever simply wishes to browse their collections, or to sit down and write away from the honking, music, and conversation of the lively centro streets.

Two spaces I have visited repeatedly in the past four months are the Biblioteca de la Filatelia (The Philately Library), founded by Harp Helú which is housed in his Philately Museum (MUFI), and the graphic arts library at the Instituto de las Artes Gráficas Oaxaca (IAGO), founded by Francisco Toledo. At each of these sites, Helú and Toledo have made accessible their own collections for public use.

This pathway leads from MUFI’s stamp collection to one of its exhibition halls.

Covering two centuries of postage stamps, MUFI offers access to an amazing collection that visitors can easily browse through for a few minutes  or for hours (given that the museum is free and open from 10:00am to 6:00pm every day). Doing just this, I rediscovered a series of post stamps that were released in 1975 and ran through 1993, titled “México Exporta.” These were the stamps of my childhood and adolescence. Everything from bills to personal letters we received at my parents’ came stamped with one of these memorable examples of the sophistication of Mexican graphic art. The series, which represents the manifold products Mexico exports, is also a testament to how consistently Mexico has developed its national identity projects by way of graphic art since the latter half of the nineteenth century (other examples include the commercialization of José Guadalupe Posada’s satirical calaveras in the early-to-mid 20th century and the 1968 Olympics).

México Exporta stamps. Photo Credit: Fermín Tellez.

A reading room in the IAGO (Alcalá).

The importance of  graphic art in Mexico, and specifically in Oaxaca, is at the center of Toledo’s Oaxacan Institute for Graphic Art, which has two sites: the headquarters are located on one of the historic center’s main streets, Alcalá, and just a few steps away from Sto. Domingo and the Biblioteca Burgoa; a second site is located on Pino Suárez.  The Alcalá site is home to Toledo’s extensive collection of art books that cover genres from caricature to protest art, and disciplines from sculpture to architecture. It is one of Latin America’s largest collections of this kind. It also houses the graphic art workshop, El Alacrán, where interns and art students from Oaxaca and all over the world can participate in free workshops, such as the weekly two-hour drawing session that one of my students has been attending. And the Institute’s three exhibition rooms showcase work by Mexican and international artists year round. The Pino Suárez collection is focused on literature, film, and theory. Browsing through both collections I found materials pertinent to my current research projects that I wish I had more time to study before leaving, but which I have found thanks to the helpful staff of each location.

Mosaics at one of the IAGO (Pino Suárez) reading rooms.

Francisco Toledo’s own art and creations by local artisans and art students decorate the Institute’s walls and doors. The floors of the Pino Suárez site are tiled with Casa IAGO Design mosaics, as are the restrooms at both sites. The windows and doorways are decorated with ironwork designed by Toledo. Therefore, the Institute’s commitment to art is exemplified both in the collection and the buildings that house each collection.

Doorway at IAGO (Alcalá). Ironwork by Toledo with alacranes (scorpions).

Questions about the politics of philanthropy arise, of course, as do questions about how the voids filled by Helú’s and Toledo’s endeavors would be filled without their commitment to Oaxaca. Not all states have such philanthropists, and there the absence of a governmental commitment to art, culture, and education is sorely felt. MUFI and IAGO are a testament to the central role that carefully developed and sustained philanthropy can play in any society, and how the productive use of these spaces keeps alive traditions, inspires artistry, and fosters curiosity, collaboration, and conversation. Their commitment to access is also a testament to a culture of hospitality that does not distinguish between Oaxacans and visitors just passing through as it gives equal access to both.

Kites designed by Toledo in memory of the 43 disappeared students at the entrance of IAGO (Alcalá).

Atardecer en una esquina.

Atardecer sobre García Vigil y Leona Vicario. As I walked home this evening, I looked over my shoulder and stopped. Many other pedestrians, some going out to dinner or for a walk, others clearly heading somewhere on business, also stopped to take in the sunset. Captured by accident in this photo is a stray dog who usually hangs outside La Popular, the corner restaurant. He likes to chase the cars as they come down García Vigil. Tonight, though, he was just passing the time.

Pan Dulce Surtido.


The end of the semester always means grading, whether in Tacoma or in Mexico. But in most cities and towns in Mexico, a panadería (bakery) awaits a block or two away. This is a modest display compared to what is available in Oaxaca City every morning and evening. But it still is a luxury. Click on the images for names and a few details.

Hombre-Coyote y Maíz

An example of the detailed graphic art that captivates pedestrians on the streets of Oaxaca. Note how a narrative unfolds from left to right: the corn stalk on the window frame leads to the mesmerized coyote-man holding the sacred grain, then, if you’re paying attention, the rooster peeking down from the doorframe comes into sight, and finally leads to the two corn cobs (mazorcas) resting on the bottom right corner of the door.  The scene is probably a homage to the fundamental role that maize plays, to this day, in Mesoamerican cultures and identities. Oaxaca prides itself in its resistance to GMOs and fiercely defends the indigenous variety known as maíz criollo from contamination by GM varieties.

28 days left in the “City of Resistance”

Welcome to the City of Resistance. Corner of Berriozábal and Benito Juárez.

I have been living in Oaxaca for about 112 days, working as site-director for the Pacific Lutheran University | University of Puget Sound Oaxaca Program. I have 28 days left in a city that surprises at every corner, be it through street graphic art, graffiti slogans (see above),  a bounty of colonial architecture and art, libraries and bookstores, everyday practices (eating at a puesto in one of its parks or sidewalks), mezcalerías, vegetation, museums (mostly free and open to the public almost every day of the year), calendas and comparsas. Many of these are part of life in Mexico. I grew up in Mexico City, another incredibly rich and exciting place, with its own share of food puestos, colonial architecture and history, museums and bookstores. But the configuration of these with Oaxaca’s inexhaustible creativity (music and art are created daily and apparent everywhere), its particular history, politics, and ways of keeping traditions alive (most famously, Día de Muertos), the seemingly inexhaustible warmth of oaxaqueños, all have deepened my understanding of my country’s cultural diversity, history, and social complexity, which has of late been denigrated by the glamorization of cartels and violence, and the disparagement of Mexicans living both here and in the USA.

These 28 days also mark the countdown to my very first sabbatical. The posts I will be publishing over the month of December 2017 are a homage to the time I have spent here, the many things I have learned about hospitality, home, and nation that I will continue to process in months to come, and everything I will never forget about la bella Oaxaca de Juárez.