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.