The idealised background

A first historical pattern to be observed, among humanities academics, was when we replaced what was actually behind us with an image of a perfect library. Photos of the great research libraries of the world abounded. Libraries, museums, archives, and research collections participated in this trend, tweeting more and ever more deliciously wishful images. (I’ve done this too.)

It’s one thing to close your eyes and picture yourself there. It’s quite another to open them again, look at the image of yourself on that screen, and see that library behind you. Realisation will dawn that that’s not you on the screen, but your virtual alter ego, a more perfectly bookish self. Gloriously glowingly comforting.

Surely adding to your relaxation (and much-needed comfort in front of a camera), and thereby to things that matter: assurance, self-assurance, and most important of all quality of teaching.

On a more serious note, consider this as an extension of the Zoom “touch up my appearance” feature; then contemplate how it reflects on our teaching spaces in the old world, which enforced an entirely arbitrary and artificial separation between an environment and its denizens, treating both as mechanical movable parts rather than as a whole living ecosystem.

A fascinating trend. You’re moving beyond the confines of a home, even of a home office that’s very like your old campus work office, even one that’s an exact replica or an improvement. It keeps the same general shape and idea and atmosphere, scaled up dramatically to giddy heights of bookishness. This is another kind of “translation” from old campus physical spaces to a new virtual one, skipping the home office step completely. Just as we’re translating teaching from one medium to another, so too the teaching environment. Pick the right great library and you can combine office, study, café, refectory, seminar room, lecture-theatre, and of course library, and add in a bonus ballroom with chandeliers. The feel can be anything from simply elegantly haughty to warm, cosy, and welcoming.

Backgrounds over which you have control can speak volumes about the person choosing them … even if the choice is of a stark, austere, cold space. Your choices can say a lot about you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s usually good. Therapeutic, anyway, exercising control over something controllable in a world uncontrollably out of joint. Good as it is a choice, made by an individual human being, reflecting their unique precious human individuality. A space thus chosen—be it physical or virtual—has the potential to be far better than what it replaced in the old world: more personal and personable, more humanly interactive among fellow humans, an environment more conducive to the intellectual collaboration of learning.

Remember the bland generic impersonal depersonalised uncomfortable inhospitable dehumanised inhuman teaching spaces on campus. (I had a good hearty rage about them around this time last year.)

Remember, too, those spaces that we often miss the most, the public spaces of regular hanging out and paths crossing and serendipitous encounters. Spaces for chat. Corridors. Liminal space and time, before and after class, on the way from one place to another. Translatable online? Perhaps to paths crossing in public online spaces like Twitter.

Remember the crumbling and the constant construction of anything and everything except classrooms, libraries, and all that is directly part of the core academic mission / raison d’être of a university.

And remember the horrible institutional furniture: those chairs that caused you physical pain when forced to sit in them for more than five minutes, never forget the aching back and guts and bottom of talks and meetings; chairs build for that mythical creature, The Average Adult, who shares leg length with no known human being ever; and that worst of horrors, student seating, especially those chairs with the silly little tables that flap up and down and that are barely big enough for a smartphone.

Still nostalgic? Feel free to use or adapt any of these photos, if that makes you feel more comfortable and “at home” in a “natural” teaching and learning environment.

Alternatively: why not move to Montaigne’s library?

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