The obvious background

The obvious choice of background, for an academic whose workplace has moved into the virtual zoomworld, would be the actual physical space that they are now using for their academic work. This is what you’ll see behind and around many an academic when they’re doing the kind of work that involves interaction with other people, and that’s now often on video as a surrogate for being in physical person and in university campus spaces; for meetings and suchlike, but most importantly and immediately, when teaching.

Some take comfort in resistance: standards should be maintained, keep things as normal as you can, life goes on, business as usual. Some try to present themselves and their environment as being as close as possible to What Was Before; a calque, if you will.

This might feel simpler and easier for research in the humanities: reading and writing and thinking, for many of us, can mean similar set-ups. (There is the issue of libraries. Don’t let’s talk about libraries. I desperately want to be able to work in a proper academic library again, browsing, wandering, adventuring labyrinthinely and serendipitously. Alas.) One can bring an office chair, computer, and favourite pen home.

Some colleagues already have an office at home. Some have been doing most of their research work at home anyway, rather than on campus. Some might find we do reading and writing and thinking work better at home, the space and conditions better suited to it.

Unfortunately we don’t all have the space at home for a home office, or the ability to convert a room. Academics, like other human beings, often live with other people and family and companion animals; and academics in many places like where I am—Vancouver, Canada—live in rather small spaces because we’re not rich and housing here is expensive.

But that’s all OK, because there’s no need for anyone to see how you’re doing your research work. For years now I’ve done most of my reading on a sofa in pyjamas and my better thinking while walking outside. No-one need know such things. Working conditions for that part of intellectual work can remain enigmatic. I’ll not ruin academic mystique; imagine, if you will, that in our debonair lounging we look like Sherlock Holmes, Noel Coward, Patrick MacNee as John Steed … even though most academics are not privileged white gentlemen of a certain venerable age.

What we’re interested in here is that part of academic work that cannot be shrouded in mystery, wafting around in silken velvet robes.


Our actual physical world has practical limitations for teaching. Few academics live in palatial mansions that contain an equivalent room for their every teaching activity. So most academics have had to do some more nuanced translation—still in a fairly strict sense of the word—to shape their home at least to a semblance of “an academic office” if not “my/the office.”

I’m lucky. As my office on campus was “unprofessional-looking” and designed to be comfortable and comforting for anyone who spent time there (starting, of course, with me), “translating” features that made my home a comfort: it was quite easy to translate homey-office to (what became one of several areas of) office-at-home. Pictured here: the space at home that inspired a parallel space in my old office.

Depending on the space available and the nature of your teaching, your teaching space might also be trying to look like a classroom, a lecture theatre, a lab, a seminar room, a library, a studio, a café, a refectory, a common room, a smaller study room or office for individual meetings, and so on.

Some take The High Road of strictly separating spaces and of teaching in a space that is intended to seem to the viewer as much as possible like the most formal, “professional-looking” public space. Neutral or no background, sterile environment, this is a stage for an actor to voice and deliver. A strict separation is one way to separate public and private, and individual rights to privacy extend to faculty too; they are people too.

But neutral can look bland. Worse: faceless, empty, impersonal and depersonalised, all humanity scrubbed and sanitised out of existence, dehumanised and inhuman. Not exactly build for or welcoming human beings. On the other hand, to be fair, that could perfectly reasonably be the effect that you desire and the atmosphere that would be most appropriate for your area of knowledge, teaching manner and persona, and individual personality. Neutrality might be your style. You might not be human. I don’t know you: so who am I to judge you and your zoomscaping decisions? (I admit that I considered teaching with an old plain bedspread as a neutral background. I took a photo, and it looked like I was hiding Bluebeard’s dungeon in the background. And I don’t think much about “looking professional,” if you want to read me ranting against it at some tedious length see this series of posts on radical professionalism.)

Sometimes this virtual space that will be shared with your students can come to mean a translation—now in a broader sense of the word—that thinks about extracting the essential elements of the old space, and that maybe rethinks old distinctions between different kinds of old spaces.

A teaching space at home could look very different from your old office on campus. This new space you’re making could bring together elements of these older spaces—from lecture theatre and library to office and café—selected and remixed in new ways into a new creation. Questioning and rethinking every element, aspect, quality of each of these spaces; asking fundamental questions about teaching and learning themselves. Learning is a living art (and art of life); like any living thing, it would be expected to breathe and move, to flow and change.

Adapting the virtual to the practical limitations of the physical world also reshapes the latter into something that exists in a different reality. A staged fiction, a film-set, something between public and private, partaking of both and neither. Like teaching itself. The space and time and mode of intellectual work is another realm, a magical one, one of hypothesis and speculation, of playing “what if…?” with ideas, of suspending disbelief and going with the argumentative flow, of figuring out problems. Teaching and learning are in the same world as drama, fiction, stage magic, improvisation, and all live performance. That doesn’t make any of these things any the less real, true, honest, and deeply personal and human. Being activities (and spaces for them) in a more poetic mode, they can—could—should—be more deeply personal and human.

Such spaces should, of course, always bear in mind that they’re not for the benefit or comfort of the person who is teaching, but of their audience. And audiences have expectations. Insofar as you ought to be exercising any imagination when teaching, it should be channeled in that single proper direction, to imagining your hypothetical audience. Furthermore: while you may well be faculty in the arts and humanities; and while you might even be in one of its more imaginative, creative, curious areas; your imagination should nevertheless be subject to guidance from non-academic authorities who know all about the hypothetical student and their hypothetical expectations of what academics and teaching and a teaching environment should look like.

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