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At this week’s open chat with faculty, someone asked whether they have the authority to compel students to show their faces during synchronous classes. I hadn’t really thought about it, and I’m still trying to decide on a good answer.

The answer I gave in the moment, which I think is fine as far as it goes, is that it’s perfectly reasonable to do that in classes in which visuals are part of the course. In public speaking, for instance, you aren’t only listening to the student’s words; you’re also looking at body language, gestures, even props. To do that, you need to be able to see the student. Classes in which students do presentations or give performances (like in an acting class) require visuals. It’s less clear why that would be true in, say, history.

Some professors argued, correctly, that it’s disheartening in Zoom to talk to a bunch of black boxes with names in them. Cold-calling those black boxes often results in silence, strongly implying that the student isn’t actually there. Good discussions -- one of the affordances of synchronous technology -- require that people are actually tuned in. When students wander off, the discussions fall flat. Besides, someone other than the student might be there, pinch-hitting. As the old cartoon says, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. (Of course, that can also happen in a classroom class. I never asked for ID when I took attendance. If the same student answered to “Otto” every week, I assumed he was Otto. He could have been Otto’s smarter brother and I wouldn’t have known.)

Another professor alertly pointed out that in class, students have to show their faces. That’s more an inevitability than a policy, but it’s true. It isn’t true, though, in asynchronous classes, which suggests that the question isn’t as easy as it seems.

With Zoom (or whatever synchronous video app you’re using), there’s an element of visual overshooting; you see the background, as well as the student. Students may not want to show their surroundings, and there’s no reason they should. Yes, sometimes virtual backgrounds work, but I’ve found them maddeningly inconsistent. And I know well from all of my own Zooming that sometimes I just get tired of constantly staring at a screen. I would imagine that many students feel the same way.

To get an 18-year-old’s perspective, I asked The Boy. He quickly responded that no, students shouldn’t have to show their faces online. As he put it, “Online is different. Everyone can see you.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but he had a point. In a traditional classroom with rows of desks or tables, most students are facing the front of the room, so only the professor is seeing all of the faces at once. But in Zoom, students can see other students’ faces all the time. Even worse, given the way the screen works, you don’t know when someone is looking at you. For folks in the most self-conscious years, that’s an issue.

So assuming the class isn’t one with mandatory student performances or presentations, should professors be allowed to mandate that students show their faces?

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