Swarthmore College

Janine Barchas says you should, and that she’s ready to help you look professional.

We’re more inclined to Andrew Ishak’s approach to recreating a professorial office at home.

That said, there is a deeper terrain behind this contrasting approach that has nothing to do with covid-19 or online self-presentation.

On one hand, what counts as a professional look in academic life is a deeply class-imbued issue from the outset–as it is in other workplaces. The professors who are most comfortable wearing anything they please are sometimes the same professors who are fine with being called by their first names, who are unworried about formality (either towards students or toward administrative leadership), who are strongly drawn to thinking of their workplace as a community, and who may think of their work as a vocation or mission. All of which often correlates with some sense of privilege or comfort, a sense that it is fine to surrender authority and hierarchy because there’s more of that to spare from some other source.

For faculty who have a sense that their professional status is both hard-won and constantly imperiled, the dignity that formality and distance provision can be an important shield. So there’s every reason why Zoom and what it reveals should be one more stage for this divergence to make itself evident.

Barchas’ advice (and the prospect of a consultancy dispensing said advice) may seem at the least unnecessary and at the worst a form of predatory anxiety in an already-anxious moment, but there’s no reason to ignore some common sense about lighting, proximity to camera, camera angle, and so on. If we have to teach or meet online, we have to be seen and heard as well as possible by our students and colleagues.

There’s also another issue to consider that cuts across the question of professional comportment and appearance and how it signifies comfort with or entitled access to academic life, and that’s about the widely variant mental states involved in the act of teaching itself. How we feel as we teach, and what we think about during our teaching practice, is something that faculty talk about on occasion but that we rarely commit to writing or other tracings of our experiences. At least some faculty likely feel the same as many athletes or performers: that too much conscious self-reflection and self-awareness during the act of teaching is a dangerous interruption of its flow. Like performers, teachers have to take note of and respond to an audience; like athletes, they need to tune repeated moves and strategies to respond to different environments or challenges.

This doesn’t resolve the careful-curation-of-Zoom question, since some of us probably need a neutral backdrop that we can ignore and some of us need a comfortable backdrop that feels like home (and in this case often IS home). The curious affordance of this moment is that for faculty who perform best as mentors and teachers in an environment that is comfortably their own, this is an unusual opportunity to step out of more sterile or neutral classrooms that have their own histories and economies of institutional arrangement. But for others, the loss of that third-party neutrality and the introduction of responsibility not just for the act of teaching but for the environment within which teaching happens is a terrible mindworm that may constantly break their sense of flow.

If you’re that person, the intrusive proposition that you have to think about Zoom curation is going to make things worse. Try not to dwell on it, and remind yourself that this is an interruption, not a life sentence. And at least do this much for yourself: always turn off your self-view in Zoom.

About the Author

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

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Posts by Timothy Burke
August 19, 2020