A few weeks ago, I was part of a Hanukkah reading at my local bookstore, Big Blue Marble. Or I should say, of course, that I wasn’t at Big Blue Marble, and neither was anybody else. Our host appeared to be at the bookstore, but eventually revealed that she was using a virtual background and was actually in her apartment a few blocks away.
Such is pandemic life, and it came at the end of a semester of online teaching. I’ve been a professor at Community College of Philadelphia for almost half my life. In public, I disparaged the experience of teaching online, but privately admitted its advantages. Here’s a confession: recently, the dynamics of a face to face class had become overwhelming– students texting, cross-talking and challenging me when I tried to get them to focus, basic classroom management that had seemed much easier in the twentieth century. Online, these issues disappeared. In short, I felt more in control than I had in years.
Now, my fall grades would soon be submitted, and here I was in a virtual space with an audience of fifty, as poets and prose-writers read their work in turn. I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone, or even look alert. The writers were mostly women on the far side of middle age, earnest progressive Jews like me. and I let myself drift knowing that at some point, I’d have to un-mute and read a story, but that wouldn’t happen for a while.
Then someone broke in. “Is SEE-mone ZEE-litch here?”
Not a poet. Not a writer of prose. It was a man– a loud one– and I fumbled weirdly for the chat-box as though he had posted rather than shouted my name, but then the screen was taken over and we saw a grainy gyrating torso with the shirt pulled up to the nipples. The man called again– “SEE-mone ZEE-lich”– then something else I couldn’t catch, as the the torso gave way to a black and white video: cheerful marching Nazis and a jaunty song:
“We’re going on a trip to a place called Auschwitz. It’s shower time little Jewstein–”
The song lasted for maybe five seconds, and then, the host regained control of the screen and got rid of him– them– who knows how many. I was still I was still reverberating. That guy– whoever he was– knew my name.
So much for control. The evening went on, and although I read my little Hanukkah fable like a good girl, I couldn’t have felt less present. Instead, I considered: I’d posted about the event on Facebook. Yes, only my Facebook friends can read that page, but the post was forwarded– to whom? I know, I know, Zoom-bombers have targeted Black, LBGTQ and Muslim events ever since there was such a thing as Zoom, but I kept wondering, absurdly and obsessively. Did I know that voice? Did I know that torso? There was something simultaneously alien and intimate about it all, even the mispronunciation of my name.
And then, I thought: What if it were one of my students?
That thought was absurd, but it came quickly, and it stayed. Early in the fall semester, when I’d missed office hours for Yom Kippur, I’d told my students why. A month later, one student wrote an anti-Semitic response to an assignment, and then disappeared from the class. When I’d had prior Zoom conferences with that student, the background had been grainy, so close to what I saw during the Zoom-bombing that I felt I almost recognized the torso, but that was impossible. The whole situation was impossible, and I wallowed in paranoia, feeling defiled, in free-fall, out of control.
When I told friends about what happened, they gave plenty of advice about how to avoid it happening again: build a kind of Zoom fortress with a waiting room, get an assistant to vet all comers, institute mandatory muting and a chat-lock, not to mention disabling the screen-share to avoid offensive You Tube videos. Most people making these suggestions knew that trolls— a great word for folks like the Zoom-bomber– will be trolls. They’ll find a way into the fortress somehow, and storm it in super-hero costumes with their pipe-bombs. The great seduction of these platforms is this: we think that if we master them, learn how to play their games, then we’ll be safe.
I tried to play a different kind of game last summer when I designed my online courses. We use a platform called Canvas and all summer, I built structures as complex and well-supported as cathedrals. Assignments, quizzes, discussions, conferences, everything connected, and it was actually fun to poke around, get creative. I even created a friendly, cartoon avatar to attach to my messages and comments. Isn’t she cute?
Even after the semester started, I’d sometimes spend twelve hours a day in front of my laptop, obsessively correcting any flaws I found. Every time I discovered a new hack and applied it, the course felt more cohesive and successful. The structure– with its weekly Welcome videos, its constant communication, its required conferences– created opportunities for intimacy that I never had in a physical classroom.
Yet even during conferences, I seldom saw my students’ faces. They kept their cameras off, and for countless reasons: poor internet connection, no quiet place to work, and most of all, no way to control their environments. These are students at a community college in a city; they’re caring for children or elderly parents; they work in big-box stores; they take double-shifts at I-Hop when other servers test positive for Covid-19, or they test positive themselves, as three of my students did. Perhaps the greatest epidemic of all was depression and anxiety disorder. I know that several students dropped the course for just that reeason, and those were only the ones who told me so.
I kept thinking: if I create a perfect course, if I work out every last bug in the system, write meaningful assignments, get all the students laptops, connect them with counselors, plead with them to turn in a rough draft, plug every last hole that may sink my class, then they’d be okay. That course is under my control, and at the very least, it can be a space that didn’t disappoint them in a world where trolls roamed freely. I did try, probably too hard, but not everyone could be okay, and my control was an illusion.
Canvas, like Zoom, is what we have now, and we are bombarded with advice on how to make these platforms more rational and secure. They can be mastered, and if you’re like me, you can become obsessed with mastery. You’ll check the settings and re-check them, I wonder now in retrospect if my Canvas course became aspirational, a game that I was playing and trying to win. Are these platforms by their nature alienating to the point where we can lose sight of their purpose? Is alienation, in fact, their purpose? Perhaps. They aren’t intended to replicate their face to face equivalents. They go in a different direction, a direction that may well outlast this pandemic
There is no moral to this story. In a week, I’m back in the online classroom, teaching the same courses, with the same material and the same structure. I’m also participating in another event sponsored by Big Blue Marble with enhanced security. I’ll try not to spend twelve hours in front of my laptop, and I’ll hope this new event isn’t Zoom-bombed. However, what I fear most is that we will grow far too comfortable with these video games, the kind where cathedrals or fortresses are constructed brick by brick, and forget how to live in a messy world full of surprises.
I might find a world without surprises easier, but I will resist it, somehow.