Being in an online videoconferencing meeting will be familiar to many adults. Academics, like other adults, have meetings too: from small working groups to the whole department; in faculty associations and unions; scholarly societies, colloquia, talks, workshops, conferences; and then more administrative meetings at a larger scale and higher level, Faculty, Heads, Senate, Board of Governors. (Our Board has a small number of elected representatives there for faculty and students, albeit in a tiny minority compared to the provincial appointees. Don’t get me started on that, and especially not on the latter group’s “exemplary outstanding community leadership excellence” credentials and the values that the latter’s criteria represent. Life’s too short and the capitalocene gallops on.)
Profile pictures can usefully double up as backgrounds, especially if this might be a long meeting and you might need to work on something else and perhaps a second device at the same time (ex. reading a book), because academics have big beautiful brilliant brains that can multitask and supertask.
It’s wise to be prepared. Have a set of backgrounds ready in case you experience the urge, mid-meeting, to go out and get some fresh air, a change of scene, hug a tree, etc. Here are some personal examples …
You could also, in theory, film yourself beforehand and post that on loop as a *video* background. This would be easier to do (or could be replaced by a still photograph) if you usually sit very still in meetings, or with your eyes closed. It would probably assist the impression of versimilitude were you to punctuate your film with the occational 👍 and 👏.
You could add all manner of things as a video background. Depending on the meeting, it might be a kindness to your colleagues to screen a movie. Meeting series, for example across a whole term or year, could thereby double up as film festivals.
Short films and gifs can be a happy compromise. Here’s an example, one of several Studio Ghibli items in my zoomscape collection. (I should add a note of thanks here to Netflix for making a large collection of Ghibli / Miyazaki works available recently. They’ve been a great support for the last couple of months.)
The last part of this post is on Zoom reactions and moods. Those delicate, dangerous moments.
Sometimes there is an elephant in the room, sometimes it/they can’t be pointed out directly, and at times like these a virtual background can help you all.
Many a meeting can be spoiled by all the usual posturing, bullying, harassment, peak privilege, gaslighting, use of corporatese NewSpeak, sealioning, trolling, foolish games, and pointless nonsense. You have probably been in many a situation where some assistance would have been welcome. You might have seen nasty things happen to others, but felt unable to do anything; as flight or freeze responses are by far the most common in tense and dangerous situations. Do not feel guilt or shame for having failed to fight. You’re human. You haved human limits. There’s a simple step that you can take, which avoids speaking up out loud or even changing your facial expression, when even raising an eyebrow feels impossible, yet which doesn’t mean silence. (Silence can be construed to mean non-dissent, consent, or even active assent; especially in compliance culture.) Change your virtual background. And practise what you might do instead, for as long as you need to until you feel comfortable about doing it in a meeting. Collect visual backdrops that express mood. Line them up ready for action. Keep practising changing them. And practise your poker face. Especially if you’re in a cultural environment where expressions of human sentiment are disapproved. Your background becomes an extension of your face and voice.
A background that is your physical zoomroom already communicates a lot about you. Even (maybe especially) if it’s supposed to look neutral. The same is true of a virtual zoomscape. It can be used as an extra perceptual and sensory dimension, to add mood and feeling and emotion to all that you are expressing. There’s nothing bad about moods and feelings. They’re human. The means to express onself multimodally, multidimensionally, is a good and enriching thing for helping us all be more human, i.e. more intersectional social justice feminist. Anyone saying otherwise, and advocating neutrality in all things, is somewhere on the toxic masculinity spectrum. It’s OK: this is a matter of culture and impoverished upbringing and environment, suffering under patriarchy and hurt by it, and is an entirely curable condition. Nurturing masculinity is out there for everyone. And/or/as humanity. Le féminisme est un humanisme.
(You are human, aren’t you? That might be an arrogant assumption on my part. I don’t know you, or where or when you are reading this. So I hereby issue a formal apology to anyone reading this who is not human. Consider yourself an honorary human—it would be an arrogant presumption for me to suggest that you consider humans as honorary members of your own kind—or all of us as interspecies kith and kin, if you find that we share qualities as sentient sensitive sentimental sensible beings.)
Online chat is also a great boon for making meetings more equitable, humane, and human. In combination with response buttons, and with the addition of backgrounds, these multiple channels and modes of communication increase and enhance the potential for expression, ideas, and quality content in a meeting.
Take Zoom to the next level: let a Zoom gallery have your back. Think sparkly shiny sophisticated thoughts about how meta this all is. Imagine that you’re drinking champagne. Yes, just imagine; of course no-one imbibes alcoholic or other intoxicating substances in meetings. We’re academics, so we’re more serious responsible adults than other adults. This is one thing that distinguishes the radical professional from mere professionalisms and from “looking professional.”