Opinion | Lights! Video camera! Better communication!

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 3:28pm

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BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! It’s 9:15 a.m. I get up, hop in the shower and then get dressed. Moving semi-quickly, I usually prefer to go anti-“Zoom casual.” I don’t roll out of bed. I try to get dressed as if I were going to school in person, along with brushing my teeth; this routine helps me get into “school mode.”

It’s 10 a.m. and my history class is starting. As I join Zoom, I select “Join with Video” and prepare to see the faces of my classmates too. However, I am mistaken. The cameras are off, including the cameras of both professors — I am suddenly the only face to the learning process. Embarrassed, I swiftly turn mine off as well and for the remaining 79 minutes, I stare at black boxes or the names of my illusive peers. 

What the heck is going on? The first semester, I estimated, was an anomaly. As students, we were all getting used to Zoom and maybe we preferred to go unseen in our non-traditional learning states. So be it. Now, in the second semester, I’m confused. Almost a year into this whole “virtual learning” situation, are we still breaking the ice?

We shouldn’t be. In fact, keeping cameras on compensates for the lack of informal social interactions that can occur outside of a pandemic. In a breakout room for another class, I noticed a poster for Drake’s Nothing Was the Same album on the wall of my peer’s room. Coincidentally, he happens to be my favorite artist and NWTS is my favorite album, so a natural conversation transpired. If my friend had her camera off or we were in a classroom, chances are I would have never known she liked Drake too. In a pandemic setting, where creating informal social interactions is incredibly difficult, these candid on-camera moments are a social lifeline. 

Forbes notes that not only are face-to-face video calls encouraged, but they are becoming the norm. Gene Marks, business columnist and founder of The Marks Group consulting firm, believes that turning the camera on has helped him “close more deals and connect to our customers better.” Seeing is, quite literally, believing; people are more trusting in others when they can view them. 

The Stanford Daily ran a survey of 46 students across the country about leaving their videos off during class. Two-thirds of respondents said they’ve been in a situation that is uncomfortable during class and preferred to not use their camera. Don’t worry, I get it — I’ve been there too. We all have. A brief period without visuals is warranted at times, certainly. 

However, as students, the number one thing we crave from our professors is transparency. It’s a two-way road. How can we expect it from our professors if they aren’t receiving it from us? Let’s be honest: you’re probably not paying attention with your camera off. I receive daily Snapchats of other people’s computer screens in a gallery view. Moreover, how does anyone capture the “Zoom fails” I watch on YouTube? While these moments are clearly mortifying, they are relatively preventable if you pay close attention to what is in view in your background and warn your housemates and family members that you are on a call.

Additionally, don’t we want to see other people while we learn? We feel reassured when assimilating with others’ confused looks in math class, curiosity when we catch someone daydreaming and solidarity in rolling our eyes at the one kid who always talks. Quite simply, face-to-face interaction is essential to our educational experience. 

I hate to be this guy, but there is a possibility that Zoom becomes our future. The convenience of clicking on a link and joining a meeting via mobile device is exponentially greater than the trouble of organizing in-person meetings. For example, say you’re a businessperson and have a 10 a.m. meeting. Do you want to wake up at 8 a.m., have to put on a suit and tie and wait in traffic? Or would you rather wake up at 9 a.m., take a shower (which could even be optional) and only have to focus on your top half looking sharp? 

Turning our cameras off, especially just because we feel like it, is yet another bad tendency of ours exposed by Zoom: laziness. For many of us, we often welcome the path of least resistance within our respective day-to-day grinds. Thus, we have to make a conscious effort to salvage the positives of our day we had grown accustomed to before this pandemic: seeing each other. 

I’m not saying that you have to show us your roommate picking their nose in the background and I don’t necessarily need to see an empty chair if you go to the bathroom. All I ask is that for the sake of our collective sanity, it would be nice to enjoy each other’s company the way Zoom, FaceTime and all other video conferencing platforms are intended. 

Until then, I’ll be sure to wear my best slippers and robe. See you in class! 

Sam Woiteshek can be reached at swoitesh@umich.edu.


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