Fully Remote: Blank Screens and Muted Mics (Part 2)

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The requirement to keep cameras on and mics unmuted assumes that students have access to quiet and privacy. This also assumes that having live faces in the Zoom squares somehow replicates a “real” classroom. They don’t and it can’t. No, I don’t know if my students are playing Fortnite or sleeping or otherwise disengaged when their squares are blank. But in face-to-face classrooms, students can disengage in other ways-- prepping for exams on their laptops, scrolling through Instagram on their phones, sleeping in the back of the classroom because they worked the late shift and came directly to school from work. The distractions and catastrophes that students faced in the years before the pandemic interrupted their ability to be fully present, to take part in group activities, and to listen to lectures. 


And this year, students who are recent high school graduates have had their schooling interrupted for nearly two years because of Covid-19. I’m not talking about “learning loss,” which as Rachael Gabriel suggests, does not exist. Rather, I mean that we need to honor the learning that has happened in the last two years, especially learning that happens outside of formal classrooms and that cannot be measured by standardized tests, some of which were suspended in 2020.


So -- when we talk about remote learning, we need to consider the purpose and the place of asynchronous work, of alternatives to group work, of somehow creating community despite the odds. With these thoughts in mind, I invited students to photograph either their writing spaces, their writing tools, themselves writing, or some other combination. The assignment was optional, and I offered journal credit for students who submitted photos and wrote brief captions to include in the collage. The collage would be called Writing Spaces.


Across two sections, about half of the students participated. No one sent photographs of themselves, which was not surprising. The absence of faces allowed me to reconsider the blank screens and muted mics on Zoom. Indeed, the photographs in the collage helped me to understand that students were in fact present behind those screens and muted mics. 


For Writing Spaces, students created the particular spaces they needed for writing amidst the cacophony of their everyday lives. Some students sent photographs of spaces that included pets, flowers, and plants. Other students sent photos of their laptop screens featuring our course assignments. One student sent a photo of a space in the reopened college library. Another student sent a photo of their rough draft, suggesting that the act of writing was a means of creating space. 


Taken together and reassembled in a video, the collage of photos became a means of introducing our second writing project, a synthesis essay-- from many parts, we can create something new. In other words, working separately and collectively at the same time, students created their own tool for teaching and learning conceptualizing writing. 


There are no easy solutions to blank screens and muted mics because, it seems to me, there aren’t any. But what I learned from our collage is the significance of rethinking how to approach the teaching and learning of writing. The goal is not to somehow replicate a pre-pandemic classroom, the conditions for which no longer exist. Instead, the hope is to create something new with the tools we have before us. We also need to refuse the deficit model of “learning loss. Instead we must offer our students the means to consider and build on their strengths. Zoom can only do so much, but remote learning can do so much more than perhaps many of us believe.


Remote learning is an imperfect tool for troubled times, but we have to make use of all the instruments  at our disposal. I try to remember that blank screens are not a cause for sorrow, but yet another affordance for all of us to learn to use together. Blank screens seem an appropriate metaphor for the promise that writing has to offer. At the same time, we must be unafraid to build on what we know to face what we do not yet know. Writing, in the end, can still become a process of discovery, and perhaps a practice of recovery as well.



KEY WORDS: online learning; first-year writing, writing assignments, journals, Covid-19




Caption: Teaching and Learning on Zoom (Zoom immersive background)

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.