In the past six months, we’ve all adopted a virtual lifestyle as our new normal. At this point, I can’t even imagine changing out of my pajamas for class, let alone walking uphill for 20 minutes to get to the School of Public Health. Life is virtual and it looks like it’ll be this way for a long time.


As classes have started up, I’ve been hearing the phrase “Zoom etiquette” thrown around by professors and students alike. On the surface, Zoom etiquette is a pretty simple concept meant to reflect that of a classroom setup — mute yourself when you’re not speaking (i.e. don’t talk when you’re not supposed to), keep your camera on to optimize engagement and make sure there are no distractions around you to inhibit your or your peers’ learning. But is this definition of Zoom etiquette appropriate for everyone? Is our institution’s approach to virtual instruction truly intersectional?


For the first time in our lives, we’re forced to blur the lines between home and school to the point where the two can barely be separated. Some students have no trouble transitioning between home and school, and can do so very confidently. However, for many students, especially students of color who’ve grown up learning that they must act a certain way to fit in with their white counterparts, the constant stress of wondering if others are judging your bedroom or background can get in the way of learning. During class, I often spend a great deal of time scrutinizing my own surroundings; will my laundry basket in the corner with clothes piling out of it label me as an unorganized person? Will my sorority’s letters pinned on my walls make people assume that my organization is one of the many not following social distancing guidelines? I’m always arranging and rearranging my setting to prevent any possible questioning gazes, and I know many of my Zoom classmates can relate. 


When professors insist that we keep our cameras on during class, I can see their perspective for wanting to do so. The most effective way to learn is to engage, and discussing class topics face-to-face can foster a familiar environment that encourages our openness to learning. This makes sense when we have in-person classes because there’s no way for us to hide ourselves when we’re sitting in a classroom. Whether we like it or not, we have to be present and give off the impression that we’re paying attention, even if we’d rather be anywhere else. We come to class with our “public look” on our faces, sometimes taking extreme caution and preparation before leaving our homes to make sure every loose hair is tucked in and every button is secured. We attend our classes as essentially different people than the ones we are at home.


This virtual semester has changed the way we learn. Now when I join some of my Zoom classes, I can keep my camera off and just listen; I want to immerse myself in the content, and without the internalized stress of worrying about what I look like to people, I can lose myself in learning about global health, public health systems and the like. If I feel like laying in bed, I can do that. If I feel like eating during class, I can do that without constantly wondering if I’m chewing too loud or looking unprofessional. I can construct my own learning environment, one that is uniquely fitting to me. I can learn the way I want to — not the way my classroom dictates.


When professors don’t give us a choice to keep our cameras off, even going so far as to call out individual students who have their videos turned off, they (probably unconsciously) show blatant disregard for a student’s home life. When we’re sitting in a classroom together, we don’t really have an obligation to consider what someone’s home environment is like. But in the world of virtual class, someone’s home and school environments are one and the same. Asking a student why their camera is turned off on the basis of promoting “Zoom etiquette” is the worst form of etiquette in my opinion. Not all students have their own bedroom, their own space to take their classes in seclusion. Not all students are comfortable sharing their surroundings to a class full of strangers. Many students live in multi-generational households and may be responsible for caring for elderly family members throughout the school day. It is insensitive if we don’t consider that a student can be uncomfortable having themselves and their family visible to a class. Zoom classes essentially inserts all of us into each other’s lives, which can be particularly detrimental to students of color. 


In a world where people of color are significantly more scrutinized for their appearance than their white counterparts, tearing down the barriers between a person’s public and private lives without their consent can be extremely detrimental both socially and personally. When instructors require us to keep our videos on, or throw shade at students who choose to keep them off, they practice an invasion of privacy that is difficult to fight in the context of a professor-student power structure. The way people of color present themselves at home versus in a public setting are vastly different, and having to merge these two images can add extra stress to a student’s learning. How professional does one have to dress to be taken seriously, even if they’re sitting at home? Are cultural garments acceptable in this new virtual medium of professionalism? Many of us may wear more traditional clothing at home because that’s how we’re raised. Will that be accepted in a professional setting now? Will others judge us for religious or cultural symbols present in our backgrounds?


In a semester where everyone is adjusting to a completely different lifestyle, little stressors seem even bigger. All of my professors have been emphasizing the importance of maintaining one’s mental wellbeing, more than they ever have in previous semesters — yet classes themselves are sometimes the most damaging to mental health. Now is the time for us as individual students to figure out how we learn best: Whether that’s laying in bed or sitting outside, we are discovering new things about ourselves and our actions everyday. Many of us are embracing this time to grow comfortable in our “home” skin, perhaps finally shedding the stress of maintaining a “proper” public image that is vastly different from who we really are. For now, despite their desire to maintain some semblance of order and a classroom-esque environment over Zoom, it would be in the best interests of both students and instructors to give others a brief respite from adhering to someone else’s guidelines of “Zoom etiquette.”


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