Neil Reisner is a professor of journalism at Florida International University and a newspaper reporter.
Odd, isn’t it? After all, in most corners of academia, Zoom is spoken of as a necessary evil, imposed by the vicissitude of the pandemic. We instructors had to turn on a dime from in-person instruction to the virtual realm. But it didn’t take me long to learn that I liked this online world, and that teaching in it wasn’t just different but in some ways better.
Zoom turned out to be a safe space that let students share their concerns, loves, losses and fears as the pandemic raged, in ways I’ve never witnessed in person. Now I’m sad that space has slipped away.
Maybe it’s because at heart I’m vaguely antisocial and more than vaguely cynical. I was quite happy during the lockdown, ensconced in my U-shaped desk and nestled among the books lining the walls of my home office. It’s the place I’m most comfortable, the place I spend my time researching, writing, even relaxing.
Many students shared finding a similar refuge. Most were at home in Florida, but also in Texas, Colombia, Panama, even Saudi Arabia. They learned from their living rooms, kitchens, porches or bedrooms, nestled among what brought them comfort — though I did put my foot down about wearing pajamas or sprawling under the covers.
I could suddenly see students up close instead of as a blurry crowd. Their faces told me whether my teaching was getting through, and the names at the bottom of their little windows meant I never worried about forgetting. I could see if they were depressed or anxious. This was an intimacy none of us would find when we came back to live teaching.
Did every student engage? Of course not, just as in any in-person class. Some students wouldn’t turn their cameras or microphones on, and might have been vacuuming, cooking, even sleeping. (Though, then again, snoozing isn’t entirely foreign to in-person instruction.) And there were students who never logged on at all; they just stopped coming to class.
But from those who did engage, I heard things I never expected to. It started when I decided it would be good to take breaks every few weeks to talk, not teach. I simply asked, “How are you?”
Over Zoom, students told me and dozens of peers about friends or family who were sick, about how lonely it was to be away from boyfriends and girlfriends, how they worried about loved ones. They brought their pain to class when somebody died.
In a lecture on covering marginalized communities, one young woman felt comfortable enough to come out as bisexual, a fact even her family and most friends didn’t know. In another class, a student talked about how debilitatingly anxious the pandemic made her. The class encouraged her to find a therapist, and when she confessed that even contemplating making a call triggered anxiety, students rallied around her. She phoned university counseling the next day.
Some conversations were more private. One student went through a tough breakup when her boyfriend ran off with her best friend. We spent weeks talking via Zoom chat as she processed the pain.
When you don’t worry about bumping into peers in the hallway after class, it’s so much easier to bare your soul. But this closeness wouldn’t last.
The Florida university system, following the no-mandates-mandate of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), decreed that all schools would open face to face for the fall 2021 semester and that real-time remote teaching would be left behind.
Of course, many of my colleagues wished Zoom good riddance, the ones for whom managing screen sharing, chatting, “Speaker View” and “Gallery View,” etc., was more confusing than tracking tenure. Even Google’s search results bear out professors’ frustration; the first hit for “Zoom in the university classroom” yields a listing from which the algorithm extracted this snippet of text as the most relevant preview: “Get Help.”
But for me, Zoom was the thing providing help, not demanding it. During a time of intense isolation with students scattered all over, it knit us tighter than ever.
Now I look out at my classrooms and something’s gone. We’re not as close, and students tell me that in face-to-face classes, it’s unlikely we will be. It’s simple. They won’t be comfortable revealing themselves in front of people they don’t really know anymore. They’ll come to class, they’ll learn (I hope), and they’ll leave. There’s none of the intimacy we had with Zoom.
I miss it, and wish I could get it back. Even if it means pajamas.