Collective Zoom Guilt and the Russian Studies Classroom

Written at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, this essay remains relevant as many colleges and universities continue to operate within the online environment for the fall 2020 semester.

Originally published in the August 2020 NewsNet. To view endnotes, please visit the link.

Administration asks you to attend a Zoom meeting. “Be sure to look your best!” stares at you in bold font from the bottom of the e-mail. How do you react? Do you add steps to your morning routine in order to look especially professional (whatever that means)? Do you refuse to turn on your camera? If you haven’t received one of these messages, congratulations, you have not had to worry about it.

The insistence on holding meetings over Zoom—implied or otherwise—is academic administration’s way of maintaining control over the non-teaching responsibilities with which faculty and staff are grappling during the time of COVID-19. “Shall we do this over Zoom?” is a way of trying to ensure that we rise from the depths of our sleep chambers and make sure our curlers are out before we hit “Start video.” Zoom and other visual platforms mandate that the faculty or staff member be physically bound to a space while working from home in order not to be distracted from extraneous household demands. Would it still be a “real” meeting if it were held over the phone and participants simultaneously folded their laundry? The fact of the matter is that a lot of these Zoom meetings, if held in office, would actually be conducted as phone calls. This detail seems lost on the COVID-era workforce. Confining faculty, staff, and other employees to a visual space where they can be seen and tracked is a fleeting effort to control a situation that is, quite frankly, impossible to maintain.

There are times when the Zoom format is productive and necessary. Zoom tyranny, however, along with the hegemony of visual learning, has encroached upon classroom instruction during this crisis. Of course, not all faculty members or instructors have been advocates for consistent synchronous teaching over Zoom, but “collective Zoom guilt” serves not only as a way to manage administrative duties, but also as a barometer for legitimacy of classroom instruction and contact hours. There seems to be a silent despotism telling us that we have not really conducted class if it has not been held via Zoom. The visual model has become the baseline for what is acceptable in transposing a traditional classroom to the virtual space. Why? Because it simulates the illusion that students and instructors are bound to a learning space together, just as they would be in person.

Such platforms have advantages. Breakout rooms, for example, provide a productive space for discussion, and they provide classroom attendees with at least a little visual variation. However, the fact that Zoom has become the backbone for what constitutes a “real” class is not sustainable for remote learning in the long-term, especially considering that many college and university campuses will not reopen for the fall semester.

Like most other instructors, I initially panicked about moving my second-year Russian language course online when my institution shifted from the face-to-face to virtual format. The additional challenge arose from the conflict between the higher stakes of graduate learning and the limitations of online language instruction. In my case, I experienced few technology bloopers. However, some of my colleagues did not have the same luck.

My academic training in cinema naturally led me to gravitate towards visual resources as a way to take advantage of asynchronous class time. It quickly became evident, however, that the students were not receptive to watching films. I initially thought that if students were not in a synchronous classroom then they would view the assignments with less disdain, since watching the movies could coincide in some respects with their personal schedules. But the problem was not that they were uninterested in screening films. It was that they were tired of screen time. Some research has shown that the Zoom model actually curbs the productivity of participants due to the distraction of their own images on screen. Instead of listening and engaging, participants are tempted to analyze themselves in the mirror or focus on the appearance of others.

With the popularity of podcasts as a new media platform, I am surprised that instructors have not more widely recognized the value of audio resources. Audio tools decrease screen time and allow the listener, in circumstances as extraordinary as these, not to be bound, ball and chain, to their spaces and screens, but to also accomplish baseline daily tasks that keep getting pushed to the margins of our lives as a result of working from home. Audio resources provide a chance to accomplish the unexpected labor that comes along with working from our living spaces. Because remote work has blurred the lines between our public and private spaces, many people—staff, faculty, instructors, and also our students— never have a break from the workspace. Household chores and caring for children and family members occur in the same space as meetings and instruction and balancing the budget. Audio resources provide a chance to combine labor and to alleviate stress after the workday has ended. Rather than closing the professional day and gearing up for domestic business in the evening, if we want to multitask, there should be no shame in doing so. We should not have to hide that in between calls or meetings or office hours we are also doing the dishes. We should be able to tend to our personal lives since we are already devoting the bulk of our “good” energy to our professional ones. 

For those of us who need to prepare class in between disinfecting groceries and repressing the almost perpetual state of existential dread, here are some useful audio resources for the Russian Studies classroom:

For Content:
Most professionals in the field are aware of Sean’s Russia Blog, the leading podcast on Russian and Eurasian history, politics, and culture, hosted by Dr. Sean Guillory, University of Pittsburgh. For a content course at any level of university instruction, the SRB Podcast has plenty of material to stimulate class discussion or debate. Adapting it for a language-based course involves a bit of creativity since the podcast is conducted in English, but students can still listen to the podcast for content. The instructor can also assign exercises indirectly related to episode content itself. For example, asking students to look up the experts that Guillory interviews and come to the language class prepared to discuss the expert’s educational background and their interests is a productive activity for a language course in which the students do not have enough vocabulary to expand on content in the target language.

For Language Learning:
The Slow Russian Podcast by Daria Molchanova is a hidden gem for language courses, as it requires little extraneous planning for the instructor and serves as interesting listening practice for students. Episodes address a variety of topics, and the host speaks Russian slowly in a way that students should be able to absorb a decent portion of content. This is an assignment for which instructors can easily prepare while multitasking around the house, waiting in line to get in the grocery store, or kickboxing in the basement. The same goes for the students. Instructors may want to couch content in context, like any other assignment and then during the next synchronous class session, an informal question and answer conversation can provide an easy start to instruction.

For the Literature Classroom:
My Chekhov Audio Books provides a platform to listen to Chekhov’s literature. There are, of course, other platforms that showcase audio books by numerous other authors, but English companion texts are easy to find, which provide students with a complement to the Russian version. For some of the audio stories, Russian transcription is provided, so students have the option to synchronously listen or return to the text later. Of course, such resources are an excellent complement to the reliable hard copy itself! For more variety, Loyal Books provides other classical pieces of Russian literature with readings recorded by volunteers. Here, students can choose to listen to short stories, novels, or even Aesop’s Fables.

The Listening Gallery of Poetry provides audio readings of Russian poetry through Northwestern University. This is an excellent resource for short-form listening exercises and a productive way to encourage student interest in Russian poetry.

Russian Songs:
Anyone can search for Russian music on YouTube as a teaching resource, but Lyrics Gaps provides an opportunity for students to listen and check their understanding. On this site, students have the opportunity to fill in the gaps to the lyrics of the songs they are assigned. It does require the use of some screen time, but songs can be reviewed away from the computer and the accompanying activities can be optional. Instructors can customize these lessons, and songs are provided for various stages of language learning. There is even a karaoke option!

For Interactive Activities:
Although it does require some use of video, the Flipgrid platform allows students to record their answers to audio or video prompts posted by the instructor. Students record their responses and are able to listen to themselves speaking, listen to their peers, and feedback. It is a productive asynchronous way to practice verbal speaking skills with low stakes.

The Radio:
No, students are not going to understand every line of a radio broadcast in the target language but asking them to listen to the radio for 10-15 minutes per day is a flexible assignment. More importantly, it is an easy resource to which they can return for infinite supplemental listening practice. Asking students to come to class prepared to provide a short summary of what they heard is a good warm-up exercise and even a productive assignment for discussion.

As I have heard over and over again: these are not normal circumstances and educators cannot treat them as though they are. However, the problem is that as teaching and learning online becomes more and more normalized, we forget that these are not normal circumstances. Being able to let go and embrace learning formats that are not necessarily visual may help students get more out of their assignments. In trying as best we can to mimic the traditional classroom environment, we have actually accomplished something far from it. The advantage of experimenting with audio learning, in some ways, corresponds more closely to the traditional classroom or lecture hall setting than a Zoom session. Classroom settings use visual tools to enhance instruction, but that instruction is rarely dependent on them. Audio resources insist that we all listen. Even though there is the possibility of multitasking while using such resources, we can still practice listening as opposed to being distracted by images. Many of these audio resources existed long before Zoom and the college and university setting rarely engaged with Zoom on such an intense level prior to March. So why have we left audio behind in favor of this simulacrum? We do not need to be bound to synchronous classes and maximize the visual format to provide quality instruction during this crisis.

Kelly McGee is Deputy Director for the Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies at The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She has worked for several years as ASEEES Convention Program Coordinator.