The Phenomenology of Zoom

It took a global pandemic to force me to teach online. Before, I occasionally lectured online for various schools and conferences, but had never taught a course online, either synchronously or asynchronously. (I use words like that now, given my unexpected but necessary immersion into online teaching.) My school agilely adapted to the coronavirus crisis by closing our residential campus for teaching and putting our courses online via the now ubiquitous Zoom. Since I have studied the philosophy of technology, I was prone to ponder the difference between teaching in the classroom and on Zoom. One benefit of a planet-wide crisis is that it affords an occasion to reflect on what might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The unusual allows us to revisit the usual and make some telling comparisons—even if we would rather not do so.

I banned laptops in my physical classrooms fifteen years ago. After vainly battling my students to restrict their laptop activity to taking notes on my lecture (they kept going online instead), I instituted a perpetual injunction. If I tried to ban laptops today, I would be out of a job. So, to keep my job as a philosophy professor, I adjusted. I also tried to reflect philosophically on the state of education and turned to phenomenology.

Phenomenology and Technology

Phenomenology is the study of how something appears or is presented to human consciousness. Water is H2O chemically (objectively), but that is not how we experience it (subjectively). To us, it feels wet or cold or hot. The range of phenomenology is as broad as human consciousness. The discipline traces to the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and is evident in Heidegger and Existentialism. What, then, is the phenomenology of Zoom?

In Zoom, everything is mediated. We are in cyberspace; it is computer-mediated communication (as we used to say when it was new). When teaching a class on Zoom, I see my students and they see me. I hear them and they hear me. There is a semblance of eye contact. We are in real time, except when the video freezes or slows down or speeds up. In this, Zoom is like a classroom. It is also far different from one, simply because every communications medium is a buffer as well as a delivery system. Remember Marshal McLuhan: the medium is the message.

How does the Zoom world differ from classroom teaching? In the typical classroom, no one is on camera. There is no electronic mediation. Everyone is in the same place, and that space is designated for teaching and learning. At least it used to be this way. Now my school offers courses that combine a live, in-person contingent with others who are live on Zoom. I find it difficult to give the Zoom students the attention that I give the in-person students. My live students have to tell me that a Zoom student has her hand up. It is good that distance students can join us, but it is not the same.

The students and teacher are not in the same room with Zoom. Each student participates from a different place. You and your students are in many rooms, and all of them are on camera. As the instructor, you see others in two dimensions, not three. Students’ screens may go black for no reason. Unlike a classroom, you can choose how to arrange the placement of your students’ images on your screen. There is the gallery view or the speaker view. When a student disappears in gallery view, the images of the other students rearrange. For a moment, you might lose someone who is still online. You can also choose to see yourself or not. You never have this choice in the classroom. All these Zoom-specific elements can be disorienting. You must adjust and readjust to the changes in real time, which takes attention away from the subject at hand.

In Zoom, the teacher hears voices coming from one place, the computer speakers. In a classroom, voices accompany bodies from different places in the room. The teacher and students can move around a bit, but they usually stay in the room and remain visible. The ambient noise is normal and helps set the tone of the class. For example, nonverbal sounds have meaning. I may hear a student titter or sigh. In most Zoom settings, by contrast, people mute themselves until they speak and often forget they are muted when they try to speak.

Zoom allows you to go off camera easily, since the camera captures less of each person than you see in the classroom. Each student’s Zoom room allows for interruptions in their environment. Some may be minor, such as a cat walking in front of a student’s camera. Others may be major, such as a drunken friend storming into the room while singing. Zoom does bring the teacher and the students into the private world of students to an extent that is not possible in a regular classroom, especially if they are in their homes.

The greatest benefit of Zoom, it seems, is that it allows teaching and learning to continue in a classroom, virtual though it is. I have found some other benefits. Students cannot talk to each other while I am lecturing, but they can talk to people in their physical rooms. I can use the chat function to write out the titles of books. Students can write out references, give links, or make short comments, which can aid in learning. To put this into perspective, considera short case study of a class session done entirely in Zoom.

A Case Study

In my Writing for Publication course, we read Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, in which she discusses that the possibilities of the internet allow for emotional expression through notations not used in formal writing. My six students and I discussed this and then I used the chat function to have them demonstrate the use of nonstandard characters. It went well and was enjoyable.

At the end of the class, the students and I used the chat function to write some reflections on McCulloch’s chapter on emojis. I wrote several sentences and a few students did as well. I found that emojis don’t come through Zoom on my computer. They did come through on some of the students’ computers, though—more Zoom idiosyncrasies.

I joked that there should be a book called the Emoji Study Bible. In seconds, a student found some Bible verses done online as emojis in 2016. We enjoyed laughing at this. I said, “Just when you think of something so absurd it cannot be true, you find out that it is.”

Zooming Ahead

I hope my Zoom-only teaching days will soon be over, since, for me, the detriments of Zoom outweigh the benefits of classroom teaching. Nevertheless, attending to the cost-benefit structure of this virtual environment can be illuminating. When I use Zoom after the pandemic is over, I hope my engagement with it will be well-tempered, wise—and rare.


Image: Chris Montgomery, Public Domain

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Douglas Groothuis

Douglas Groothuis is a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "The Soul in Cyberspace."

3 thoughts on “The Phenomenology of Zoom

  1. I’m wondering what Zoom is doing to introverts — students who might not want to be front & center the way that Zoom forces all students to be.

    Not always female, these are the students who sit in the back of the classroom and very much are paying attention, but they are shy. *When* they say something, it will often be the most insightful thing said in the class all semester, but it also likely will be the only thing that student has said all semester. Or sometimes they will sit front and center in the classroom and pray that the professor calls on someone else.

    Zoom is very much a SEE ME, SEE ME, SEE ME environment, and a lot of academics aren’t that way. Nor is a significant percentage of our students. And hence I’m wondering what the forced public persona is doing to students.

  2. The author said “Students cannot talk to each other while I am lecturing…”

    Not correct. The chat feature on zoom allows students to send messages privately to other students during a lecture.

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