Life on Zoom

By Zoe Mize

BOLOGNA – If you’re a SAIS Europe student, scrolling through your friends’ month-old Instagram stories may induce déjà vu. Story after story show near-identical screenshots of Zoom classrooms. After the rapid increase of Coronavirus cases in Italy, many students chose to return home, where time stamped Instagram posts (and crying gifs) documented the reality of 3 a.m. classes. If you didn’t catch all the Instagram stories, maybe you saw this SAIS Hopkins post, or this one, featuring students and faculty arrayed in little squares like a less loving Brady Bunch

A month on, what does our new digital normal look like, now that the sheen has worn off?

Professor Nina Hall, who teaches Theories of International Relations, has proactively discussed the new Zoom norms with students. “This is a work in progress,” she cautions in a Google Doc shared with her class. To keep class discussion interactive, she suggests everyone attend class with cameras on. Students, in turn, have added their own recommendations. These suggested norms are important for a class of 42 students, a number on the higher end for SAIS Europe. 

Standards differ, however. SAIS Europe MA student Kenneth Barragán, who is now taking his classes from the East Coast of the U.S., says turning his camera on shows professors in smaller classes that he is paying attention. “And it also helps me focus a little more, because I know that somebody could be looking at me.” In larger classes, however, such as Macroeconomics, video is often treated as optional. Emma Riley, another SAIS Europe MA, agrees, saying that in lecture-based classes she prefers to leave her camera off. “You can have your coffee from bed in your PJs.” She clarifies that while this may not be considered optimal academic policy, it makes attending those lecture classes more enjoyable, given that she is attending on Pacific time.  

Ananya Kumar, who has remained in Bologna, takes a course load of smaller, discussion-based classes, and she finds it easy to talk in her Zoom classes without using the “raise hand” feature or actually raising her hand. Language classes, too, carry their own norms. For Kumar, it is effectively impossible to mute her microphone in Arabic class, because the class requires constant engagement.

Virtual life outside the classroom can also be tricky to navigate. There are myriad apps designed for video conferencing, and with in-person hangouts cancelled, friends are doing what they can. Barragán schedules video chats at least three times a week. “It’s just chatting, seeing how everyone is, seeing how people are reacting.” Meanwhile, Riley has been attending online exercise classes with friends, and has even been able to attend a friend’s dance workshop for the first time.

Like many other SAIS students, Barragán and Riley have recently made use of Houseparty, adding it to an arsenal of boredom-fighting video-chat apps. Houseparty features in-app party games, riffs on classics like Cards Against Humanity, as long as you’re willing to video-chat from your phone. Its more divisive feature allows other Housepartiers to drop in on your call at will. 

Online life can be exhausting. “When I want a break from [school], it also has to be on the computer, and sometimes I’d just rather not be on a screen,” says Riley. But, she adds, “because we’re all self-isolating, I prioritize socialization, even if it’s only online.” That prioritization, plus the increased free time that comes with quarantine, makes it difficult to say no to social obligations. 

Professors, too, can be eager for the brief personal connection that videoconferencing provides. “I feel like some of my meetings could be done over email, but now I’m scheduling calls all the time,” says Kumar, referring to discussions with both professors and classmates. “But I mostly enjoy video calling!” she adds. “It makes me feel closer to people I can’t see!”

As video conferencing replaces in-person interaction, we become accustomed to this virtual reality. But, not all SAIS students are convinced that online classes can ever be as rewarding as in-person ones, even as we attempt to formulate new norms. “Though Zoom is as good as any option in the situation, there’s nothing that replaces actually being in class,” says one SAIS Europe student who prefers to remain unnamed. “I find it harder to focus when listening to lectures amidst various lags, freezes and audio issues.” 

Having sheltered in a house with poor Internet connection, Riley has also found technological difficulties to be a hindrance. Worse than slow wi-fi, she believes that the new reliance on platforms like Zoom, which were otherwise not widely used by the student body, has forced students to accept the terms and conditions of these apps without recourse. “Our school and our socializing [online] has pressured us into consenting to being recorded or filmed out of necessity,” says Riley. Students are thus left open to privacy violations.

The implications of this new virtual dependence are varied and complex. SAISers are now posting fewer screenshots of classes and more TikToks. But while we run up our screen time reports, let’s not forget that the real world is still out there, waiting.