A doorway is an excellent and fitting feature to include in your virtual teaching space. If the door-frame contains a door, it should be open. It is often tempting to keep all doors that are in view closed, to shut out the rest of your home and life. But consider the symbolic significance of a closed door and compare it to that of an open one.
An open door invites curiosity and sets up an atmosphere of questions, mystery, and adventures; of transformative enquiry, seeking knowledge, and opening minds. Your doorway enhances the “higher education” feel of your learning space. (To which you are yourself also a doorway.)
An open doorway’s quintessential defining characteristics: liminal zone, portal to other unknown worlds, and between them a movable barrier. Even just slightly open, your audience can glimpse what lies beyond, and as the door is clearly unlocked they can see that it’s not an immovable or impenetrable impediment—like a wall—but one that can be moved to open it further and access what’s beyond. That is: they will have to exercise decision, will, and effort to push that door further open first. (You can of course lend a hand, as needed, from the other side if the door sticks or a student needs more help.)
A door might already be fully open, or it might have been removed entirely, or never have been in the frame at all; visibly, anyway. Your audience will next have to exercise decision, will, and effort so as to make their way across the doorstep. No-one can step inside for them. (Again, depending on the situation and student, you could help; mindful that if you pull someone forcefully, they might trip and fall.)
Doorways are more than doors as they’re also ways: about what’s beyond them, about their pathways, and about finding paths and ways of knowing. (The latter and its self-knowledge might also be part of the knowledge, and indeed the highest knowledge, to which you can guide students in higher education.)
A door can be a nice neutral background. It might also be the cleanest tidiest place in your home. A closed door is neat and orderly. There are many reasons to recommend a door as a background. This screenshot was taken from the instructions for the video part of a midterm exam three weeks ago:
Nothing makes a Zoom session more lively than, well, the presence of other living beings. They can add that special dynamic touch, and enhance the exciting live performance that is teaching by adding notes of improvisation. A family photo, the virtual size of a wall, makes a striking and pleasant static Zoom background too. It will enhance your individuality and communicate your values. Remember, this is all about presentation, expectations, and branding.
Don’t have any such pets living with you in your home? Zoomscapes can help here too …
It’s a small step from the idealising to the idyllic.
Start out in a library …
2. Start in offices and studios, meander into musing on the innovative hybrid virtual teaching space of a “learning lounge,” digress via early- and mid-20th-century reimaginings of human habitats, and end up in the most fantastical places dreamed up by Studio Ghibli …
3. Move away from a classroom with chalk-boards and marker-boards and projector screens …
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, 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?
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.”
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.
I started collecting potential Zoom backgrounds in early April 2020. Here in this blog are some highlights, and experimental lowlights, of the collection. Some might be useful. Some, I can vouch for their uselessness as backgrounds; but they come into their own in other ways, often improved and taking on new life and doing so in innovative directions in the absence of an associated zooming academic person. Some I’ve used and use more regularly; my regular zoomscapes have not been those that I expected. This is a new and evolving area of academic life and indeed of human endeavour. Expect the unexpected and go with the flow.