Zoom University: Who are my classmates?

A screenshot of some of the common Zoom settings in which both audio and camera are turned off.

Lillian Cadwallader

A screenshot of some of the common Zoom settings in which both audio and camera are turned off.

This school year has undoubtedly been difficult for everyone, especially first-year students ready to meet new people and make friends. Despite the ability to live on campus, learning online via Zoom has not been conducive to this process. Zoom has decreased recognition, resulting in many students not knowing what their classmates look like and eliminating moments like the smiles and waves to an acquaintance from class. 

Not only has there been an increased sense of isolation, online learning has given the classroom a new feel, too. Moments where in-person classes gave students the opportunity to socialize, such as group projects, have been replaced with silent and faceless breakout rooms. Lively socratic seminars have been reduced to quiet screens of named black boxes. 

This new style of college has put more of an emphasis on the idea that if you didn’t already know students coming in, or are not part of a sports team or club, the chances of quickly making connections are exponentially lower. 

“It’s been pretty weird,” first-year Katy Farr shared. “I definitely think that socializing and making friends has been a lot harder this year.”

First-year student Maryn Leonard shared that in her classes, “most kids have their camera off. Having school over Zoom allows you to separate yourself from the class by having both your camera and microphone off.” This creates a barrier not only between students and their work, but their classmates as well. 

The predicament of cameras being off has not only affected the dynamics between classmates and their peers, but has also affected professors. What is it like to not see the students? Erin Davenport, a sociology professor here at Guilford, recounted an interesting story of meeting a student while picking up takeout.

The worker bringing her curbside pickup food greeted her with, “Professor Davenport?”

This induced a moment of panic, and after evaluating that this must be one of her students that kept their camera off, Davenport introduced herself.

“Yeah! I didn’t recognize you because you don’t have your camera on!”

“There was no way I could have recognized her because I had never seen her face before!” Davenport said. “(Afterwards), I became especially aware of how I wasn’t seeing people, and they were seeing me.” 

For both students and teachers, this loss of in-class interaction has resulted in a dissolving sense of community.

“I absolutely think there is a lack of community between myself and my classmates,” Farr said.

The concept of community can show itself in many ways: the small chats in class, the unexpected anecdotes and even inside jokes of the class. It’s the signal from student to student that they share a mood, and a signal from the student to the teacher that they are attentive and listening. 

From a professor’s perspective, the loss of that experience has been difficult. 

“It’s so hard to not be able to read the faces of the students; that’s such a core part of teaching, getting a sense of the room… it is a struggle when almost the entire class turns their camera off,” said Davenport.

There are so many reasons one might not want to turn their camera on: to get some extra sleep, to hide a background that isn’t ideal or because it might just feel awkward to show your face. Either way, the mass of switched-off cameras makes it hard to stay engaged. Perhaps with more cameras on, we can return to some sense of the normalcy of school before the pandemic.