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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

As I prep my fall classes (which I’m slowly accepting are almost certainly going to be entirely online and not the weird hybrid thing I’d imagined), I’ve been toying with the (I think) untapped potentials of zoom.

I wrote previously about the incredible coolness of a shared whiteboard (To Zoom or Not to Zoom), and now I’m deep diving into virtual backgrounds. I normally don’t like them because they distort the edges of the user, but these are pandemic pedagogy times, so “normally” doesn’t matter. I’m instead working from a couple of principles about zoom:

1) No one is there. It just looks like they are. If you approach teaching with the reflexive assumption that things are how they look, things may not go very well.

2) Figure out ways for everyone to be present in the zoom reality. Since zoom reality and in-person reality are radically different, figure out the metaphysics of zoom.

The first principle is the problem. The looked-at-but-not-seen weirdness of video cams means you can’t make eye contact or know what anyone is doing as their unseen hands fiddle with phones and multi-task on screens that have nothing to do with the class you think you’re teaching. In a way this is true of in-person classes too, but zoom explodes it exponentially.

The second principle is the attempted solution. Since the things that make an in-person class cohesive (eye contact, physical proximity, mobility, basic human interaction) don’t exist in zoom, find things that do exist and build from them.

So those goofy backgrounds. I’m going to upload a bunch for my students to download and use during class as elements of participation.

Imagine looking at the grid of your classroom, and asking something like: “Does everyone understand the homework assignment?” or “Are we ready to move on to the next section?”

Instead of one or two scattered nods in a chessboard of unreadable faces, the grid instead clicks into color-coded answers:

If the grid is a unified field of green, you’re good to go. If there is some red objection or yellow confusion, you know who to call on. But regardless of the specific responses, EVERYONE IS RESPONDING. That means they are actually “in” the zoom reality with you because they are actively interacting. It’s the zoom equivalent of eye contact.

What about when one student is speaking and everyone else is either listening or pretending to listen? Same solution. Active listening is always participatory, but instead of reading the nuances of body language and facial expressions (because they are largely unavailable in zoom), read the changing backgrounds as students respond to what is being said:

It would be a sad universe if that were all we could ever communicate, but it’s a start. Zoom is only as sad as you allow it be.

Here are a couple more possibilities:

And of course:

Should there be more? Almost certainly, but I don’t know what they are yet. We should probably create backgrounds tailored for each lesson, with very specific content applicable only to that day’s material. Think of it as prepping your chalkboard and overhead projector.

I made this background for a conference panel about art and the effects of distortion on subject matter:


And this one for a department meeting:

In my creative writing workshop, students will submit images with their story drafts, so when we switch stories, we switch images too. If you stop thinking of backgrounds as “backgrounds” but as ways of foregrounding content, your class’s shared zoom reality will get more interesting.

It’s also super easy:

1) Click on the little arrow tip next to the video icon in the left hand corner of the screen:

2) A cascading menu will appear (I tried and failed to image-capture it). Click “Select Virtual Background,” which will open a new window.

3) Have students download images before class (using the little plus button on the right), and then just click the image and the background changes.

That’s a total of three clicks, just one more than the two clicks it takes to project zoom’s thumbs-up and hand-clap reactions.

One weirdness warning: if you have “Mirror my video” selected at the bottom of the screen (which is the default setting because our brains understand mirrors but not our own not-reversed appearances), any writing will look backward to you:

But it will look normal to everyone else (or what is “normal” in zoom reality).

If you make your own backgrounds, it might take some experimentation to get the shapes right, including the live area for what doesn’t get cut off when projected. Since no one (including me) wants my disembodied head floating behind them, here are the backgrounds I’ve made so far. Feel free to copy and alter them however you like. I plan to upload them all to Canvas (another program I have to learn!) before the first day of class.

Does everyone understand the assignment?

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