Why I won’t be using Zoom

by Carl Dyke

There’s a lot of personal detail in this post. I think it’s necessary, and also in my case pretty funny because I’m empowered to shield myself from the unfunny bits. But if you can’t be bothered I don’t blame you. The tl;dr is that for me and some other people, I reckon, the experience and performance of self is awkward in ways that make personal imaging technologies existentially confusing, disruptive, or even threatening. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. But as we head into a technology-mediated school term because of the pandemic, I have this to add to the lore of video course delivery and the confounding diversity of human kinds.

My Grandma Liz famously disliked being photographed. This seemed odd to everyone else, because by many standards she was a beautiful young woman and a handsome older lady, with strong features and an intelligent gaze. The standard garbage folk diagnosis was vanity, but her frank discomfort with her own image ruled that out. Some of us chalked it up to the free-floating poisonous critical judgment that can emerge from the family talent for observation and fine discrimination. And certainly it becomes swiftly wearing for a smart, ambitious woman to be constantly reminded that for others she’s little more than a pretty face and a fine rack of lady parts. In any case this was nowhere near the only way Grandma was odd, as are we all, so we all got on with it. I don’t have Grandma’s figure (it’s probably for the best), but I used to get along pretty well with her and I’ve gradually come to believe we had something more permanent in common.

At some point when I was a kid, I remember being given to understand that Dad was concerned I might be showing signs of self-absorption. This was a pretty serious party foul in Dad-world so I installed it as a priority hypothesis to test in a life cobbled together out of experiments. I think the irony must have been lost on me at the time. There was plenty of evidence – I was pretty fascinated with mirrors, or really reflective surfaces of any kind. I looked at myself any chance I got, from every angle I could. Store and car windows were magnetic, personal video selfies before personal video selfies. It probably wasn’t quite obsessive.

Fortunately I was not self-absorbed, at least in the sense of vanity. The issue was not connection but disconnection. I was fascinated with the image because it was obviously ‘me’, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that to make sense. Every time I looked, every step and angle, this uncanny something or other I couldn’t find any way to identify with moved right along with me. In middle school I took the sewing version of home ec and for a few years after that I would buy thrift store shirts and custom tailor them for myself. Badly, which I knew at the time, but it wasn’t really the craft I was concerned with. I have no idea what I thought I was doing at the time, but I was trying, I now think, to get what I looked like to have anything at all to do with how I experienced myself.

Yes, I had a fedora phase. And this:

Felix the Superbeetle and cousin Lindsay

One of my girlfriends in college remarked that when she saw me walking across campus, “it” looked good to her. I was delighted! Yes, nailed it!

Was “it” like that for Grandma too? I have no object permanence to myself. I don’t fear death, because how would it be different? To this day, when I see my reflection in a mirror, in a photograph, or on video, my first reaction is “what the hell is that.” Every. Time. From one moment to the next, I have no damn idea what I look like. Obviously I get queer, and for what it’s worth I count normal as a genre of queer. I get the horror of being pinned into any of the categorical identities, and the further horror of having to inhabit them in self defense. I can really understand why some people automate their self-presentation with stereotyped hair and wardrobe constructs, and I’m sympathetic with the chaos that must break back into their lives when that presentation is disrupted. But when they expect it of me as well I draw the line. It’s not that I want to fight that battle, but I don’t want to live it either. I is the kaleidoscope you see (I guess?), for better or worse.

All of this is stuff I’ve long since learned to manage, or at least live with. The Carl-bot is a practiced performance in many settings, and lets me peek out around the edges of ritual and expectation to express my care in the ways I care to express my care. But the bottom line is that having or making an appearance is an active and chaotic and distracting process for me. It’s work, and adds to the multi-tasking burden of all the other chaotic feeds I’m getting from environments full of other critters like and unlike me commanding my attention in various ways.

Seeing that work reflected back at me in realtime is mesmerizing and awful. Thinking about it happening on all of the other screens is an infinite regress of confounding self-reflection. I know I can turn off my video. I’m not telling you a problem and I’m not interested in your solutions. I’m an adult, responsible, smart, and adaptable. I guess? What I’m saying is, this is why I won’t be using Zoom.

8 Comments to “Why I won’t be using Zoom”

  1. Okay… so what will you be doing instead?

  2. Amen. I’m wit’chu.

  3. Will you still be teaching? How will you do it? (Great loss to your students if you don’t.)

  4. Thanks, Ma!

    Nicole and Maggie, so nice to see you!

    John, you’re very kind.

    Yes, I’m planning to teach until they carry me out. I’m teaching a standard load this semester, four courses, three world history intros and a race/ethnicity seminar. One is all online, the other three are hybrid, with the hope we can keep meeting in person and the hedge that we can’t. So I’m designing all of them with a full course site on Canvas (our learning management system). All this planning and scheduling is killing me a little bit, I’m much more comfortable winging it and looking for the through lines as we go.

    I expect more of my teaching will be moving online in general, both because of the present emergency and as the online degree and degree completion offerings of my school ramp up.

    In terms of the main work of the class, nothing much changes for me or the students with online delivery. I’m teaching research seminars all the way down. All of the instruction and evaluation centers on their research projects. I don’t lecture but I do demo the process and there’s a lot of workshopping the stages from topic thru research to analysis and writeup. All of that is pleasant and convenient to do face to face, but also translates well to discussion boards.

    Not lecturing takes a lot of the rationale for Zoom out. I think this is yet another of those opportunities to rethink the lecture default, but it’s very strong and a bad tool will drive out good change. Running a good discussion is hard, and I’m really good at it. I don’t find Zoom to be a tool well suited to that purpose and I’m sensitive to the dropoff. Flat serial video filters too much of the paracommunication that enables positive feedback loops of intervention, amplification, and inclusion. It’s also a fuss in a way I find fundamentally chilling to good interactive pedagogy. Of course it’s possible to do all of those things more mechanically on video and if I have to, I will. But in the absence of good interactivity I’m very comfortable with a text driven system, and very comfortable working out the students’ skills around text as a fully legitimate pedagogy.

    I want my students to learn, and I’ll use whatever means are necessary to achieve that. But if you can’t be sure any particular means are more likely to produce any particular ends, you might as well pick means that are congenially sustainable and see how it goes. I expect all of this to be an adaptive, evolutionary learning process. I also expect we’ll find that lots of things kind of work, and kind of don’t work, for all sorts of reasons we can specify without boiling them down to causes, and the thing to do is to be alive to that rather than constructing bias confirming dogmas around selective interpretations of messy data.

  5. “Mood,” says Kenzie to your post. Insightful reflections.

  6. Thank you, and my compliments to Kenzie. Might I ask in what sense she means ‘mood’? Or is it in all of the senses and therefore self-explanatory?

  7. Putting words in K’s mouth here, but mood = same, relatable, feeling it: I understand what you’re saying and experience similar feelings to what you express.

  8. Wahsome. Adding this to rolling geezer-trying-to-stay-hip lexicon.

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