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Curating your Zoom environment is toxic influencer culture for profs

By Kristy Koehler, December 9 2020—

As a regular Twitter user, I read plenty of articles that drive me up the wall. More often than not, I just keep scrolling. Recently, however, I came across one so asinine and so patently ridiculous, that I feel compelled to give my two cents. Buckle up.

“How to Curate Your Zoom Backdrop, and Why You Should,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Aug. 12 is equal parts business advertisement and nose-in-the-air critique. It embodies everything wrong with academia and is firmly rooted in protecting the image of professor-as-god.

The article says that, if you’re a professor, your messy room that served as an online lecture hall was acceptable — even a bit endearing — at the onset of the pandemic when the world was in upheaval. But, now that we know online education and Zoom lectures are inevitable, it’s time for you to get your shit together. No more humanizing yourself to your students. No more looking like you might have a life outside of scholarly pursuits. Professors, it’s time to climb your way back up into that Ivory Tower, one leather-bound-book-visible-in-frame at a time.

The article touts the need for curating your visual environment to ensure that students see someone professorial, who wields authority and appropriate mastery over their chosen subject. And the way to do that, it seems, is to ensure that the objects in your Zoom frame project a carefully-crafted image.

“Do the specific books on the visible shelf behind you truly convey the authority you wish to project in class?” asks the article. “Are they related to the subject you teach or administer?” 

This is partially correct — students will try to read the spines on your bookshelf. And unfortunately, it isn’t to ensure that you’re a well-rounded reader, firmly versed in all areas of a particular subject. It isn’t even to note your affinity for 16th Century Italian literature so we can try to work it into an essay for brownie points — it’s because social media has bestowed upon us the wonderful practice of shaming people for what they’re reading. Better make sure you have more Marx than Friedman lest you be labelled as a professor with a #problematicbookshelf.

A visit to the author’s Zoom curation website — yes, unfortunately this is a business that exists — reveals a tagline arguing that “the stuff behind you competes with what you say.”

But don’t worry, if you want to look like a lifelong inhabitant of the Ivory Tower with absolutely zero human attributes, you can spend $250 to have your knick-knacks critiqued. Two hundred and fifty whole dollars is what it costs for someone to tell you to remove your copy of Captain Underpants from the shelf behind you and get rid of your mint-in-box Darth Vader figurine. From where I’m sitting, this is bullshit.

If you engage with your students and care about their education and well-being, I don’t care that you haven’t turned your bookshelf into a performative spectacle. But, if you paid $250 to look like you’re firmly planted up your own ass, I’m far less likely to trust you as a lecturer. Being taken in by vapid, hollow, influencer-culture speaks far more about you as a person than having a couple of clay giraffes on your shelf.

Obsession with appearances is a genuine societal problem that no one should be perpetuating. This article tells the reader that, in order to be taken seriously as an academic, a scholar, an authority on a given subject, that you must project the right appearance. I’d rather judge your professorial ability by your lecture content than by your carefully-curated collection of “look at me I’m smart” props.

The article also goes back and forth between some progressive ideas and some regressive ones. At one point the article includes the rather ableist statement that “no one trusts a hoarder,” a statement I very much resent as hoarding tendencies are a legitimate mental illness.

In the same breath the article recommends that professors be “sensitive to differential economics in your classroom and the privileges signaled by that fancy window treatment or a glimpse of your cavernous living room.” But make sure to look like a giant snob by projecting a picture-perfect life? However, don’t look like too much of a snob by showing you’ve actually achieved material success. Insert brain exploding emoji here. 

The article claims that students “need to see someone professorial, someone who has created a space that feels curated and helps students focus on the material.”

This is not even close to what I need as a student. If anyone genuinely believes this is what students need, I have some serious concerns about the state of the academy. 

Students need compassion when things go awry. We need lectures that are engaging and hold our attention. We need to be treated with respect. We need to be allowed to disagree with your viewpoints and not forced to regurgitate your talking points in order to do well. We need an environment where ideas are encouraged, debate is welcome and learning takes place.

In turn, we’ll happily understand that you have a life outside of teaching — that who you are as a person isn’t wrapped up in your career. Let’s be clear, I’d prefer if you put away your butt plug or the Fistomatic 4000, and I’d rather not get a peep into your BDSM dungeon — not because I don’t think you should be having a good time in whatever way you see fit, but because I don’t want to picture you in leather.

No one is saying that professionalism doesn’t count. It absolutely does, but it can be projected in the way you conduct yourself. We should not be teaching students that appearances are more important than substance. Quite frankly, I’ve found myself in some seriously downtrodden classrooms along my university journey and the peeling paint job and broken chairs didn’t in any way take away from an engaging lecture.

But apparently, “all the generosity in the world […] cannot unsee the stuff in a Zoom frame.”

Look, unless I’m witnessing a crime or you get up to refill your coffee and reveal that you aren’t wearing pants believe me, I’ll unsee it. Your students probably didn’t even see it — whatever it is — in the first place because we’re far more worried about what’s on the test than what’s in the Zoom frame. 

There are real problems happening in the world and real challenges that come along with receiving an education online. Focus on providing students a respectful, positive environment where they can feel comfortable in this unprecedented craziness, rather than on curating your Zoom environment.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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