Perhaps the most dreaded facet of online learning is the Zoom Breakout Room, a wasteland of black screens and muted microphones and often silent, unrequited group work in a shared Google Document. And like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” the Zoom Breakout Room has come to define itself as a somber event of cultural permanence. It’s s the ultimate battleground of the virtual college experience and more deeply, one of the darkest underbellies of social interaction. My experiences in breakout rooms have left me questioning my peers’ integrity, maturity and emotional depth, but more importantly, have led me to a much more refined understanding of the human condition. You see, our experiences are not always novel or paramount: all of our hearts begin to race before we enter a breakout room, our palms begin to sweat and sometimes we stutter and ramble and overshare about our love for Jhumpa Lahiri or Audie Cornish from All Things Considered or Emily Ratajkowski’s essay on buying herself back. With this in mind, I have amassed a list of proven tips and tricks, through a lengthy process of trial and error, on conquering the Zoom Breakout Room once and for all. Use at your own discretion.
1. Turn Your Camera On
Taking the initiative to turn your camera on in a breakout room can often be nerve wracking and nauseating especially when no one else has theirs on. People tend to mirror one another and turning mine on has almost always catalyzed a chain reaction of cameras turning on. It’s important to be aware that often people keep their cameras off because of external circumstances we may not understand. For this reason turning on cameras can be a hefty matter and one that should be approached with tact and care. Never force cameras to be turned on, this is a process that is best undertaken naturally. If you turn your camera on and no one follows suit, you should probably turn it back off. According to the students in my biology discussion breakout room, each breakout room has its own delightful bags of tricks and surprises and sometimes we get handed a smelly bag rotting at the seams.
2. Ask People How They’re Doing
I start every conversation in breakout rooms I’m thrusted into by asking people how they are doing. This is a common courtesy and should always be asked. “How are you doing?” poses itself as an even more potent conversation starter in the midst of a pandemic. People are not often asked this question with sincerity, nor are we expected to answer honestly. It’s okay to not be doing well. It’s okay to be honest and open about failure. It opens the floor to productive dialogue and most importantly, renders the breakout room a safe virtual space for completing group work. Sometimes I don’t know the answer to the group work. Sometimes unprecedented events happen or we lose motivation or the world can become lean and mean for periods of time and we fall weeks behind in lectures or readings. That is OK.
3. Ask People About Their Music Taste
People love to be understood, validated and heard in all kinds of ways. Music and sharing music presents itself as one of the most sacred forms of friendship and communication. People love to talk about music and more importantly, the kind of music they listen to, because by default it is an extension of the soul and the mind and the heart. Sometimes this doesn’t work and I’ll receive vague answers like I-listen-to everything-but-country but sometimes I’ll get things like Phoebe Bridgers (who I discovered through a breakout room!) and Ms. Lauryn Hill and Mos Def. And sometimes I’ve played those songs into sickening oblivion.
4. Refer to People By Their Names
I often refer to people by their names. Names have power. Sometimes, referring to someone by their name has often jolted them out of mic-off, black screen anonymity. Other times, it has accomplished nothing. Regardless, it should not be treated as some sort of broad untouchable boundary. Using a name is a modicum of courtesy, and mostly it makes people feel like they take up space. Now more than ever, people deserve to feel like they take up space. Including you.
5. Don’t Ramble
Do not ramble. Know when to stop talking. This is a huge problem for me and often I keep talking and talking and talking just to fill gaps of silence. Sometimes gaps of silence are healthy and okay. Do not drift off into tangents or overshare about your hobbies and passions and ideas. You have 15 minutes to get group work done. How might you know when you’ve been doing too much? Your mouth gets too dry and your hands begin to fidget too much (doodling on nearby papers or picking at loose threads on your sweater). Stop here. End sentences with conviction and power. And when concluding, don’t apologize for speaking.
6. Being Left On Heard
Students at the University of Michigan are wonderful. They are kind and witty and opinionated in the most wonderful of ways. I’ve often wondered if this was a direct result of living and learning in the Midwest, but conversations here are almost always punctuated with pleases and thank yous. On rare occasions, a phenomenon I’ve dubbed as being “Left on Heard” has happened, in which one poses questions about group work or other matters and receives no response. Being Left on Heard should never be taken personally. Recovering from this can be humiliating, invoke cringing and leave a sour taste in the mouth. In these situations it is best to not test the waters and continue working independently. The only remedy to the shame and awkwardness that comes from being Left on Heard is time. This will happen and that is OK.
7. Talk About How Much You Love Your Section At The Michigan Daily (Optional)
I always talk about how much I love Michigan in Color. To everyone. Though not everyone reading this is a part of Michigan in Color or The Daily as a whole. Students here love The Daily and they love Michigan in Color and sometimes I tell them all about my favorite pieces and things like Anamika’s piece entitled “A dash of spontaneity from my paati” or Smarani’s piece entitled “Cheers to February 15” or Maya, Lora and Nada’s piece on Muslim dating apps or sometimes I even tell them about our Editor-in-Chief Claire who takes the time to read my work thoughtfully, and not because she has to, even though she probably has hundreds of pieces to go through each week. And a lot of people in breakout rooms ask me how they can join right this second to become writers and columnists and editors and designers.
8. Become Self Aware
A lot of these tips and tricks place the sole responsibility on you, the reader, to streamline the breakout room experience. This is not your job. It is not your job to always carry the burden of people’s insecurities, awakrdwaness, or grief or love. You do not exist for this; I often forget myself, lose myself and lose the boundaries I have struggled so hard to draw for myself in the process. You are not a bad person for not taking every effort to ensure a person’s comfortability and safety because you must ask yourself if they are willing to do the same for you. Approach every interaction you ever have with a person with love and care, but mostly, approach every interaction with love for yourself.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.