digital rhetoric Teaching

zoom, distance, and productivity theater

I’d be curious to know if other institutions are running surveys similar to the one UB has run. Since I can link to it here, I assume there are no state secrets within. It’s a survey of students (there’s another for faculty) after one week or so of this online existence.

  • 20% of students say they lack either the internet connection or the hardware to do their school work.
  • More than 50% feel either very or somewhat uncomfortable completing coursework online.
  • 45% say they are working more now.
  • The best news was that more than 50% also said that most or all of their instructors were willing to accommodate the challenges the students were facing.

I was sitting in yet another zoom meeting today (though I’ve been fortunate to keep these to one or two a day, so I know many folks have been zooming much more than I). I’m not sure why exactly, but I started thinking about this idea of “productivity theater.” It’s somewhat akin to security theater, as some people describe the TSA.

By calling it theater, I do not mean to suggest that it lacks value (who would say theater lacks value?) I do mean that it is a fiction, though not in the sense that it is unreal, but, to the contrary, in the Latourian sense that it is constructed. Productivity must be made; it must be performed; and it must be tested/evaluated.

Setting class time aside for the moment, Zoom meetings are exactly that, meetings, and we all know that even FTF meetings tend to be unproductive. Zoom meetings, in my experience, tend to be even less productive than that. Yet they do give us a feeling that we are doing something. They structure a day and remind us that we are part of something larger, though now distant and abstract. We struggle to be productive on Zoom, we do not know how to perform our roles, and we are often left nonplussed by the event at the end, unsure how to evaluate our experience.

A similar thing occurs in Zoom classes. From the anecdotes I’ve heard, students feel uncomfortable with the focus of the Zoom webcam gaze upon themselves when they speak up. They do not know how to perform the role of student for the camera. They are not ready for their close-ups. The same could be true of faculty. Just as many stage actors struggled to translate to the screen in the early days of film, the “sage on the stage” might not cut it as the “sage on the screen.”

One of the central themes of this blog and much of my scholarship has addressed our struggle to learn how to live/interact/communicate online. It is a struggle of academic disciplines, of universities, and of classrooms, but of course it is also generally a struggle for all of us. Our current circumstance has only intensified that condition.

I think we basically understand this, but… productivity, teaching/learning, etc.: these all are things that must be performed. That means they need to be staged. In our new online roles we are self-conscious. We are aware of acting. Like actors learning a new script, we are mumbling our lines to ourselves before we speak them. We have little sense of how the performance is supposed to feel, so we have no organic intuition of whether the performance is working or not. It’s not like our familiar roles in the office, in the lecture hall, lab, seminar room, and so on. Someday (soon-ish hopefully), we’ll be back on that old stage, and maybe at first it will seem strange to be there, much like the cliché of the strangeness experienced coming home after living abroad for a while (or the first-year student coming home for Thanksgiving).

So I’m thinking about productivity theater and learning to live online while I’m looking at those stats (and I’d have to guess our students are not so very different from those at other universities).

  1. We have to understand the stage on which we’re working. If 20% of our students lack the necessary tools, then we need to adjust. My guess is the primary problem is with a data stream for Zoom, so that’s something to consider.
  2. I don’t know for sure, but I would also guess that there’s a correlation between those students who are not comfortable working online and those who are working more. When we don’t know our roles, we feel uncomfortable, and we likely find ourselves working more (and/or feeling like we are working more).

To be clear, when I see that we feel like we are working more I don’t mean to suggest that such a feeling is an illusion. For example, half a lifetime ago, when I dabbled with music, the effort in learning/performing a new song was quite different from one in which I was well-practiced. In some abstract sense those performances were equally productive; i.e., whether the song was new or old to me, either way, I produced a performance of one song. These days, as a writer, somedays it is easy and somedays it is not. We all know this. Somedays I crank out a couple thousand works and somedays I labor over a paragraph for a couple hours before calling it quits.

Unfortunately these is no easy solution to this problem. As successful writers we learn that struggling is just part of the cost of doing business. In fact, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature. It’s the part of the process where you will discover you’re actually onto something (or realize maybe that you aren’t). It’s like those last five or six push-ups that you struggle through. It’s the part where you’re getting stronger.

Under different conditions we could imagine this as a “teachable moment,” where we could reflect on the feelings of discomfort, labor, and struggle in relation to rhetorical performance and the stage on which we are called to act. For so many reasons though, now may not be the time to add to our struggles or cognitive load. But if we can see how we are struggling not only technically and not only with the many other non-classroom, non-professional stresses, but with the rhetorical challenge of learning how to perform productivity, then maybe there’s an insight there that can help us understand why our students are feeling as this survey suggests they are.

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