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

Sharon Barr
4 min readMar 9, 2021

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.

Sharon Barr

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