Zooming Through the Pandemic

Jonathan Chambers and Stephannie S. Gearhart predict that academics will experience a cult of speed in the future even more intensely than they do today as COVID continues to unfold.

December 2, 2021
 
 
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Beginning in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic led to worldwide lockdowns, astounding numbers of fatalities, economic devastation and an uncertain future, many commentators attempted to find something positive for people to cling to. One frequently repeated promise was that our work-from-home experiences would offer us the opportunity to shape our own time. We could finally tend to our long-neglected home improvement tasks, learn how to make the perfect sourdough bread and master the foreign language we hadn’t studied since college. We could, in short, live the slow lives those like author Carl Honoré have extolled as being the antidote to our fast world.

If you are an academic, we are willing to bet that this romanticized slow life has not been your experience during this time. This should come as no surprise because, as we discussed in our book, Reversing the Cult of Speed in Higher Education: The Slow Movement in the Arts and Humanities (Routledge, 2019), even before COVID-19 struck, colleges and universities were already compromised by their uncritical acceptance of our culture’s standards of productivity, busyness and speed upon which all activities are judged. The pandemic has only intensified that situation.

There are numerous signs that the cult of speed was, is and, we predict, will be experienced more intensely by academics in the pandemic that continues to unfold. We’ve perhaps most acutely and universally felt it in our daily experiences with videoconferencing generally and Zoom in particular—a platform whose very name is indicative of the speed and immediacy that has become the norm in higher education over the past 20 months.

Illustrating the intimate relationship between neoliberal values and the cult of speed, Zoom promises its users, “We move fast, remain flexible, and get results.” Eerily, those words describe the expectations of the pandemic-era academic, who is always “on,” ready to “pivot” in an instant, and who is usually teaching, researching and/or serving as if the world has not been changed by a global crisis. Our interactions with students have been expected to align with the values of Zoom: like the platform, we are to “deliver happiness” and to offer “frictionless” learning experiences. Through our use of Zoom, we’ve been required to become Zoom.

By “empowering people to accomplish more,” platforms like Zoom have supported and advanced the cult of speed in higher education that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated. In a fall 2020 survey of faculty members, 82 percent at all levels said their workload had increased since the previous January. And although “more” was certainly expected during the pandemic, the survey found that “happiness” was not at the forefront of many academics’ work-from-home experiences.

Feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted in this context are unsurprising, given technology’s role in creating and sustaining fast culture. In The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (Sage, 2007), John Tomlinson explains how—in contrast to industrial-era “heavy” technology—our current “light” technology, which requires only delicate taps and swipes, makes speed easy and expected, or frictionless, as Zoom puts it. Closing the gap between desire and consumption, this light technology makes immediacy and the appearance of effortlessness the norm.

Jonathan Crary underscores this point in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013) where he analyzes the detrimental effects of being expected to always be available online and being denied an on-off switch. He argues that in an era of 24-7, we are expected to be, like our computers and phones, in a “state of low-power readiness” at all times; “nothing [including us] is ever fundamentally ‘off’ and there is never an actual state of rest.”

Though Tomlinson and Crary were writing well before the arrival of the pandemic, platforms like Zoom illustrate and embody the cultural predicament they describe. In the spring of 2020, as work for most of us moved from our office, library, classroom, lab or other campus locale to home offices (if we were fortunate, but as was more often the case, makeshift workspaces in our living rooms, bedrooms and closets), we were, as many people quipped, no longer working from home but living at work. We were, in other words, “on” 24-7.

Accompanying our never-ending work-from-home reality were attendant expectations to write and answer emails at all hours, quickly build and then continuously update our hastily created online course shells (often without adequate support), and conduct our professional (and, in many cases, personal) lives entirely via videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. For many of us, prepping for a videoconference-based course intensified our labor. We might even say work time spread exponentially, akin to the virus we were all fighting. Work that once took an hour now took four or five.

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The escalating amount of time we spent on class prep led to the delaying or shelving of research and creative projects. For many of us, when not preparing to teach, we were asked to attend seemingly countless meetings to discuss the academy’s (and our institution’s and program’s) responses to COVID. Downtime evaporated as we zoomed from one professional obligation to the next with the click of a mouse. The pauses provided by Zoom’s waiting room offered not respite but instead harried moments when we could grab something to eat, check teeth and hair, and perhaps attend to other bodily needs before moving on to the next thing.

While a number of Zoom features exemplify the fast, superficial approach we have come to adopt, the chat function in Zoom concretely illustrates this “new normal.” During a Zoom class, students can fire off their knee-jerk reactions one after another, in the midst of discussion or lecture. Though some chat is generative, just as often it adds to the noise of an already disorienting virtual experience, repeatedly dividing the attention of teachers and students during a class session. (And this doesn’t even account for the private chats and texting conversations that are almost certainly taking place simultaneously.) In short, the chat feature doesn’t simplify teaching but instead subjects us to a near-constant and rambling information dump to which we are expected to reply in real time.

Adding to this incessant intensity have been the increasing demands of both students—most of whom have had to engage in academic pursuits in unexpected ways—and administrators, who have their own legitimate concerns about the current and future success of their institution in an era of pandemic. Living in this state of disquiet has instilled and cultivated in many of us an abiding sense of crisis.

Reclaiming Time for the Wandering Mind

Within this context, it is little surprise that thinking has often been nearly impossible. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen explains in Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age (Pluto Press, 2001), “Creativity … is directly produced by the gaps.” But the gaps in our schedules that afford opportunities to let the mind wander—and do the kind of creative and critical thinking we are not only used to but also expected to do—are nearly eliminated in a Zoom world, a concern The Wall Street Journal recently addressed.

The intensity of our zooming lives was and is, unsurprisingly, amplified for women and minority populations. As has been widely reported, female academics are at a disadvantage not only due to the lack of gaps experienced by all scholars who zoom, but also because they tend to bear the brunt of domestic and childcare duties while attempting to work from home. And they are expected to keep their domestic lives just out of the shot of the Zoom screen, as Gretchen Goldman’s widely circulated Twitter post of her interview with CNN illustrates. Add to this race and academic rank, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Whatever kind of thinking we have managed to squeeze in since Zoom entered our homes is likely not impressive. As Eriksen points out, in this kind of accelerated environment, we are compelled to “stack” information rather than to make meaningful connections between ideas. Similarly, in Empires of Speed: Time and the Acceleration of Politics and Society, Robert Hassan has called our behavior in this fast context “abbreviated thinking”; that is, thinking that tends to be instrumental (or quick) rather than critical (or slow).

Is this the kind of thinking we’ve been doing in our research, creative work and teaching during the pandemic? Is this what we’re compelling our students to do? If so, what was gained by soldiering on via platforms like Zoom? And what will be the long-term effects if this type of quick, superficial thinking is continually normalized?

Crary has said that in a context like this, human compassion erodes. We have little care for others, as we are not required to wait for or listen to anyone or anything. There is no sense of reciprocity but rather a focus solely on the self in an immediate, 24-7 world. While muting our mikes when not speaking on Zoom may have mitigated some of these detrimental effects, the virtual world has left many of us feeling less rather than more connected to our colleagues and students.

This sense of isolation was immediately felt when, in the first weeks of the lockdown, shelter in place and stay-at-home orders were issued. In the months that followed, as we were zooming through the pandemic, our sense of separation from others only intensified. Sadly, within this context, many of us became docile individuals, too busy for reflection on our condition and too exhausted to attempt to change it.

Could the mosaic we have painted here explain why in the past 20 months we have read so much about “self-care” rather than about resistance, opposition and refusal? As we previously argued, “the problem of time in higher education is rooted in a much larger phenomenon and that phenomenon must be confronted head-on rather than accepted and adapted to.” Here again, we point to the institutional, cultural and structural mechanisms that create and perpetuate fast culture. We do so with the aim of cultivating group consciousness among academics that will be followed by group action—rather than isolated, individual strategies to survive within the system.

Upon our return to our in-person classes, meetings and events this fall, we have found that we are far from free of Zoom ideology, even if people assure us otherwise. Before the Delta variant quelled such projections, many were predicting that this would be a “Roaring Twenties” period for academics, when we would celebrate things being back to normal—or rather, a new normal, as we are often reminded, one with face masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing.

But this is not all the new normal entails. The very phrase itself naturalizes the experience we had in lockdown: it is normal, we are being told, to be able to pivot on command, to be available 24-7, to meet students’ and administrators’ demands immediately, to not have gaps in our schedules. The new normal means we are consistently operating in crisis mode—in a reactive rather than a reflective one. We are expected to be Zoomers even when we are face-to-face with each other. This is the new normal, and we seem to have no alternative.

Yet in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, we nonetheless ask, how do we counter these fast demands now that we have returned to campus? The answers to this question are vital because we must reclaim our time to think—about teaching, research and creative work, service, and our working conditions. And we must denaturalize the new normal and resist its ostensible inevitability. If we don’t, we will be zooming long after this pandemic is finally over.

Bio

Jonathan Chambers is professor of theater and film and acting associate dean in the Graduate College at Bowling Green State University. Stephannie S. Gearhart is professor of English at the university. They are the authors of Reversing the Cult of Speed in Higher Education: The Slow Movement in the Arts and Humanities (Routledge, 2019).

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