Our Bodies, Our Selves: On Imagining a Post-Zoom Return

Current Events

May 18, 2021

Today is the last day, I hope, of my Zoom teaching year.

I have all my end-of-semester portfolio conferences, except for one that happened yesterday. So: 47 meetings. Five minutes each.

And then I’ll wrap up the semester, Semester 2.5 of pandemic teaching, all online.

The classes, both of them, went well.

Students had fun. They learned. They enjoyed coming. Many have told me—voluntarily—that these classes were their favorites of all that they had this semester, even with many of their others in person.

And from what the students told me during our optional in-person meetings two weeks ago on campus, they feel that we’ve gotten to know each other. Some of the teaching folks call this “teacher presence” but I really don’t want to emphasize this. I call myself “coach.”

I’m just a person, alongside them. Bringing as much of my full humanity to the encounter as possible, inviting them to bring as much as they want. No forced disclosure. No putting anyone on the spot. No mandatory cameras-on policy.

We’ve made it work. My WiFi failed only once this semester, knocking me out of the class. I did utter a “shit” when I realized that it was my freezing, not theirs.

And yet.

For all the goodness--and there was abundant goodness--it has depleted me.

(Here I acknowledge all the ways that my life was far easier than most people teaching, in higher ed or in K12, from teaching load to housing conditions to racial privilege to economic security to class size to health to the pandemic-year blessing of my children being adults.)

Every class took enormous preparation and concentration.


Visual focus.

Fighting interactive instincts.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways we interact on teleconferencing platforms, as have many others, and comparing it to fully embodied interactions. All communication is mediated—what in my field is called semiotic mediation—from speech to writing, to texting and more. 

But in person, we recruit all our senses, and there are probably some we don’t even entirely know about: we notice a body flicking a hair away as someone coughs, and we feel the energy, the tension and the joy. We see and feel and hear and notice. Some people are facing forward and some are sitting side by side muttering out of the corners of their mouths. Simultaneity is the joy of being embodied together, precisely what is impossible except visually on Zoom. The inhalation in a yoga class, the gasp in a science class, the sitting up to see something….all the bodily recruitment is something that we, as animals, are exquisitely attuned to, just like the deer who wander by my front sidewalk early in the morning and look to see if I’m turning my head, wondering about the reflection from my glasses.

But on the screen, we have to focus intently on the visual, on the full-frontal faces staring. Are they smiling at a video they’re watching? Are they nodding at something someone said? If we’re attuned to people’s reaction, we need evidence, and if the only evidence is from looking at the very tiny faces arrayed in those little boxes, or maybe in the words in the chat, then our eye-mind is getting a strenuous workout. We don’t get any extra information from all the other bodily sources.

A year ago, when I was settling in for a wait that I never expected would be this long, I saw almost nobody in person, in body. When I did, I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed with the complexity of the presence of other beings. There was so much to watch!

But now, fifteen months later, I’m ready.

I want to feel the energy in the room, to note a raised eyebrow and hear a couple students quote a show in unison and evoke loud, unfettered, unselfconscious laugher—something that interrupts the signal on Zoom.

I want all those too-subtle bodily awarenesses to help me out.

I want my eyes to get a bit of a rest.

I want to relax my vigilance (Am I missing something? Did someone want to speak?) and just be another body in a room, alongside others, on a shared learning-and-being adventure.

Forty-seven zooms to go.