What Will We Do When We Can’t Turn our Cameras Off?

We’ve learned new ways to escape being noticed this year, novel ways to disengage. We disappeared through technology, muting our voices and hiding our faces. What will we do when we are face to face again?

In the fall of 2020, I taught a graduate course as an adjunct at the University of Pennsylvania, not surprisingly, on Zoom. Penn had worked hard over the summer to prepare us to teach effectively in our virtual world. I took a seminar that prepped me with all kinds of strategies and cool technology and practice classes. The theme threading through it all was- try to build a community in your Zoom room, a community of little Zoom faces logging in from all over the world.

In our eagerness to build this elusive community, Dina, my co-teacher and I said, “Please keep your cameras on, unless you really can’t — we just want to get to know you.” For how could we get to know each other behind virtual shields? I began to look forward to the faces populating my screen each week as the students dutifully tried to stay focused. We started a discussion board so there would be time for “asynchronous” interaction.

That lasted about a month. More and more cameras began to be turned off. Less and less postings appeared on the discussion board. Dina and I agonized over whether to make our efforts at community building mandatory (“You WILL turn on your camera or lose grade points”). We asked our teaching assistant why students weren’t posting on the discussion board and she said, “because you didn’t assign a grade to it”. So much for asynchronous learning.

In the end we gave up on the whole community building enterprise, or at least the cameras. If the students wanted to turn off their cameras because (a) they were in China and it was 5:00 am, or (b) they were eating dinner, or © their kids were screaming, or (d) their parents were screaming, or (e) they were really doing something else, who could blame them?

No doubt a more skilled teacher could have overcome this reflection of pandemic fatigue from Zoom-weary students. And yet, when I described my sense of failure, some seasoned professors reminded me that, long before Zoom, there have been disengaged students — the ones who sit in the back of the room, the ones who stare out windows or at their phones. Long before the pandemic, teachers had to take away phones, order laptops closed, separate the desks of disrupters.

We have brain fatigue from even reading about Zoom fatigue and the agonies of our brains to cope with it all. We’re wired for social interaction, we’re exhausted staring at a screen in the same position, and we can’t figure out nonverbal cues in Zoom rooms.

But Zoom disengagement feels different. It is shorn of body language, eye contact, and physical grounding — we simply disappear. The disengagement is complete with a click of a button, leaving a virtual name tag instead of a body and face to say “I am here, but I am not really here. I choose not to look, and I choose not to be seen”.

Of course, most of us are longing for the physical contact we lost the past year. We want to hug, sit at a bar and chat with a stranger, go to the theater. But these are things we crave. At the same time, we’ve learned new ways to avoid the things we don’t crave, to check out of places we’d rather not be in. It will be an interesting process to ease back into those places, those face-to-face meetings, the physical classroom.

This time we won’t be dropped off a cliff as we were in March 2020. But as restrictions ease, I’ll bet there will many who, despite complaints of Zoom fatigue, will find they still prefer to keep their cameras off.

Urbanist who lives in the wilderness. Planner + Strategist. Real estate consultant to nonprofits. Attorney. Traveler (both near and far). Yoga teacher. Writer.

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