Zoomscapes collected through late September, October, and early November.
The fish-tank is supposed to be a calming yet enlivening feature in interior decorating. If your aesthetic is more ascetic and aseptic, maybe even ascerbic, something that lives and maybe also breathes and moves can add a touch of life. It is fascinating to observe how even cold-blooded creatures can add warmth to an interior’s atmosphere. Their graceful dance gestures metaphorically towards lively ideas, motile intelligence, and unpredictable divagations. Your zoomroom is a place of thought.
Instead of an aquarium one might have plants, or a terrarium, or film outside in a landscaped garden with water-features.
Don’t have any of these at home? Consider filming outdoors in a public park.
Stuck indoors? Research libraries and their digitised manuscript collections are your friends. That’s just one example; I am amongst assorted things a medievalist, so that’s where I hang out online for fun. Every area of knowledge has their own thing that’s like digitised manuscripts …
The example above is from the Luttrell Psalter, Add. MS 42130 in the British Library (c. 1325-1340, made in England, in Latin; this is on f. 185v). You can flick through a selection in Turning the Pages™️, read the whole digitised manuscript—I recommend the “view: folio” and “direction: right to left” route for maximal manuscripty feel—and read more about it here. And here’s the full catalogue entry. All this is for free, to anyone anywhere in the world: exemplary public humanities, public service, “outreach” as in-bringing, and why paying taxes to fund shared things like public libraries and their librarians is A Common Good.
But I digress. Back to important zoomscapological matters: if you are looking for a zoomiverse companion animal to adopt, this manuscript is one of the best places to find one. You will find my dream pet and favourite medieval unicorn on f. 179v.
If you follow #MedievalTwitter, you may occasionally happen upon animated manuscript gifs. Any manuscript image can be turned into one. In only a few days, you could create your own. A little longer, a few weeks, and you could make a whole short film. Getting close to the beginning of the new term and the academic new year? In need of stress relief? What better way to procrastinate while being productive?
Ready-made virtual analogues of the aquarium background abound. While any video can be used as a zoomscape, it can be of supplementary relaxing and therapeutic benefit to spend time online perusing this specific genre. Viewing film of our natural world, forest-bathing, gazing meditatively into tranquil pools, standing at a safe distance from rushing waterfalls, marvelling at cetaceans leaping in and out of the ocean.
Going beyond the most luxurious home aquarium imaginable, you’ll find webcams in places like our local Vancouver Aquarium. You could film a segment and play it as your zoomscape, or fully zoomescape into live immersion in an other other world via that other virtual world behind you.
(Out of view: the baby otter cam. Yes, that might be how I have been spending time at home when it’s too hot to be outside or to work. I am a Ginger. Our brains fry and we melt above about 21 C. Also, we are at present outside regular working hours. Yes, these still exist.)
Underwater already seems like alien universes, and adds an otherworldliness to your online learning space. Ambient suggestions: a place of wonder, of questioning, of questing with a respectful distance. An awesome place, that awe complicated by the awful. Here’s a delightful recent example:
Ending this post with a favourite gif, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind …
Whether in a carefully curated room that is a fictional construct, in a natural habitat, or in a 2020 hybrid that’s ambiguous: successful zoomscapes often feature artwork and handicrafts that reflect the tastes of their owners and/or makers. The whole room itself is, similarly, a creative œuvre.
In the previous post, we saw a variety of rooms. The serious and sincere, the deeply personal, the honest and raw. The messy and lived-in. The overly-tidied, too smooth, glib, superficial; guessing what a viewer expected to see and manipulating an environment to fulfil or exceed expectations. The clean and flat. Rooms that looked like they had been interior-designed by someone else, or “staged” by a “real” “estate” person. Rooms that were too clean, as though cleaned professionally after an unfortunate gruesome incident. Rooms that showed no signs of humanity. And rooms that suggested they’d undergone serious work to humanise them, to try to look like a human being spent time there doing human things, that a human hand had cared for them, and that the hand and being were those of the person pictured there.
A common way to look human is to look like you have tastes, and perhaps even Taste. (This returns us to an earlier post where we talked about choices and decisions.) This is where Art might make an appearance in your zoomscape: be it actual works behind and around you in your zoomroom, or images used as zoom backgrounds. “Art” could include all manner of arts and crafts. You might have an embroidered cushion or a framed sampler bearing an inspirational message: a motto, a quotation, a slogan; something that is a source of comfort to you, that is close to your heart, that is a part of who you are that you would happily willingly share with others to bring that special human touch—that no money can buy or fake—to your online video work. Such messages may be all the more important during pandemic times; sharing them with others, to support them in turn, can be a noble act of generosity.
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.”
Many people, academics and otherwise, live in mortal terror of being zoombombed. Fear not: forearmed is forewarned. Be prepared with a collection of zoombombing images that can be used to pre-empt zoombombers and to visually shout louder than them while being more witty and cultured, through your use of great art-works and historical documents.
Cheeky butts …
Cheery cute skeletons are your friends …
Random strangers, swinging by, just passing through …
Using a still image as yourself as a background while you just have a quick break …
(Still photos of yourself (or someone who looks like you), and stop-motion animation are also useful for meetings, and will be discussed in the next post.)
Sometimes what’s happening around you might seem fine and tranquil and quiet, because you are used to these other people living and working in your shared space.
Yet even what seems to many faculty to be low-level, lower-impact everyday life could be frowned on by others as a distraction.
Sometimes, if there are too many people around and too much going on, that can create a distracting atmosphere. Its impact on engagement and transformative learning should be treated with due seriousness.
Consider investing in a nice soothing aquarium.