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Will Young Students ‘Zoom’ This Fall?

At the heart of my Christian faith is a love that is fully present. Incarnation. Despite it's many benefits, there's no denying that Zoom discarnates.

Children, like puppies, are always zooming around. They zoom until they drop exhausted, and it’s great fantastic fun. But Zooming with a capital Z – or whatever your video conferencing platform of choice may be – is not good for teaching students except as a last resort. Our local Christian elementary school just announced they will open in September and have all students in the building five days a week, with many new protocols in place. But that’s not every school or university!

Zoom means fast. Zoom is so fast it connects two distant points almost instantly. For those who are isolated in remote regions, it’s a Godsend. You can live in Nunavut and take a class at Harvard. Zoom compresses time and space, offering an advantage that extends our reach. I use it almost every day for my work with my global network, and it’s efficient. Public schools couldn’t Zoom because of privacy laws, but our Christian school students were in constant visual contact with their teachers and classmates. Zoom means connecting without infecting.

Yet I’ll say only two cheers for Zoom and its competitors, not three, because at the heart of my Christian faith is a love that is fully present. “Incarnation” means literally “in the flesh,” and our full healing and redemption comes because God made himself fully present in the roving teacher Jesus Christ. Love risks coming close, being vulnerable and touching another person. Appropriate touch reminds us we are real embodied creatures and we matter; we are not mere angels or avatars, let alone binary code.

What Do Screens Hide?

We are certainly more than our images, and more than our voice. We all have a spirit, a sort of non-physical energy that is intimately tied to our body, which is not perceived in the same way through wires and screens. A screen reveals, but the meaning of a screen is also something that conceals and partitions one thing from another. What does your device “screen out”? Usually we see only heads and shoulders, and much body language is missing – the bulk of authentic communication. Some people Zoom in their underwear and do personal email while appearing to be attentive to a meeting. Zoom discarnates our relations.

Or think of this: we say some people have presence – something that makes you turn and look when they walk into a room. Some people are like fresh air – you breathe better as soon as they appear. Others we speak of as a toxic presence – their entry into our space causes us to cringe or even feel a little ill. Presence is not automatically a blessed thing, but it has an extra power that is not equalled by our digital avatar.

Draining the Brain

The Chronicle of Higher Education carried an article on June 19, 2020 by education writer Becki Supiano that claims Zoom is draining, distracting and dehumanizing. We don’t normally look directly at someone’s face so close up, and for teachers, there is no walking back and forth, and no way to really gauge the response from the class. In the midst of a global pandemic, a professor can’t really tell how his students are coping. The brain works overtime trying to fill in for missing cues that are normally there. Technological fatigue and compassion fatigue – and just pandemic fatigue – all combine to leave us worn and weary.

There has been other research on the student side of the equation. The New York Times reports: “New research suggests that, by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains” (June 5, 2020). That’s not just Zoom, as many schools didn’t have such personal communications. We know that staring at a screen, by yourself, trying to motivate yourself to keep up, stick to the schedule and just sit for hours on end is draining.

But don’t break any COVID restriction policies on account of the limits of technology that I’m naming here. Lockdowns are much worse! I am still offering two cheers for Zoom for bridging distances. Compared to the telegraph, let’s say, it is a rich, sophisticated, gift of communication. A hundred years ago we would be hand-writing letters to each other instead, and, if we played by the rules, those letters would have to be quarantined for days before they could be opened. Thank God for Zoom.

Zoom is fast. Presence is slow. Presence takes time, extra effort, loving intention – if it is to be the kind of presence that is like fresh air. Such presence is not instantaneous. Children, puppies – and parents – prefer real, live zooming around the school yard and hallways. We pray it happens for all students this fall. Safely.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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