When Boomers Must Zoom

Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Anne Fadiman has spent the last 15 years teaching writing with only one requirement — a round table in the smallest possible room, to enable an intimate environment for her students to learn. A self-proclaimed Boomer with limited technological knowledge, moving her class online due to COVID-19 filled her with fear. Bravely, she signed up for a course to learn the intricacies of Zoom. She tells us all about in Wired:

Brian addresses us from his bedroom, which has an impressive record collection, an electric-guitar case, a full wastebasket, a bowl of pet food, and a bed whose duvet is slightly askew. He has a beard and a voice so soothing that he sounds as if he is telling a bedtime story. This is exactly what we need. The other faculty members who are taking the class—I see their diminutive heads, some of them gray-haired, arrayed in a vertical column on the right of my screen—are probably as terrified as I am.

Brian is an excellent teacher. He shows us how to sign in to the university’s Zoom page and calmly guides us through the mysteries of Gallery vs. Speaker View, Spotlight Video, Microphone Mute and Unmute, Chat, Screen Share, Whiteboard, and Breakout Rooms. I’ve heard Zoom images described as “squares,” but I see now that they’re horizontal rectangles, each inhabited by a face. In addition to us real students, Brian has four pretend students, one per rectangle. Two of them, Clare and Timberley, whose names are displayed below them in white, are fellow educational technology staffers. They wave at us. The other two—Barry, a small blue teddy bear, and Yoda, who is crocheted—do not wave.

With a class full of Gen Zs who grew up on screens, Fadiman was confident that her students would have no issues learning through Zoom rather than IRL. But she found that they missed being together — and the physical expression of sharing food or touching an arm to offer support. Beyond the class, her students were also missing out on rites of passage others have taken for granted.

It’s worst for the seniors. Senior spring is supposed to be the best time they’ll ever have in college, the time to consolidate friendships and check off their bucket lists and try to hook up with people they’ve always considered out of their league, because it’s now or never. They’ll miss Senior Week: Bar Night, the Last Chance Dance, the Day of Service, the senior picnic. They’ll miss Commencement.

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