On Teleconference Backgrounds and Privilege

Today, a number of interesting thoughts about pandemic life collided in my head.   So .... here I am, dusting off this ancient blog, to write and think about them.

Most of us who have been thrust into online conferencing and teaching over the last six months are aware of "the camera issue".   We're all on Zoom, or Google Meet, or whatever, and one of the first question becomes: do you turn the laptop camera on, or not?

For student instruction, the general consensus (at least among my friends) has been that, as much as it hurts, students shouldn't be required (or coerced) into turning on their cameras.

There are very practical reasons for that stance.   Not everyone has a functioning webcam (even if it is built-in to most laptops these days).   And not everyone is participating in their online sessions with stable networking and high bandwidth, in which case turning off the camera can help to improve the stability of such connections.

But even if those practical concerns aren't an issue, there are issues related to equity and privilege that come into play.   Not everyone has a fantastic environment in which to participate in online conferencing.   Some folks are uncomfortable sharing their surroundings with other viewers.   Some do not have the ability to "conference alone", and turning on a camera would violate the privacy of those with whom they are sharing space.    

Sure, some systems provide the ability to show a green-screen background, but not every platform supports it (our instructional platform doesn't), and not everyone's laptop is powerful enough to make it work.

I know I struggled a bit with this in the initial months of the shutdown, as the only viable space for me (as four of us needed separate spaces to work) was my bedroom.   I found careful ways to position my laptop on calls so that viewers wouldn't see the piles of laundry, or the unmade bed, or anything else that might be deemed "unprofessional".

Eventually (for other reasons), my family built a makeshift workspace for me in our basement, and that's where I'm working for now.    The view isn't great .... pretty typical scruffy basement views, I suppose.

And then I saw the hullabaloo on Twitter regarding an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that all of us professors need to step up our Zoom game and clean up our backgrounds to create a more "professional" image for our students.

The initial reaction on my Twitter feed has been pretty uniformly negative.    Frankly, most of us don't convey a "professional" image in our physical campus offices, so it seems odd to require it for our virtual offices.  It's yet another huge burden to place on faculty (like me) who are struggling just to keep up with the demands of teaching in this unfamiliar mode.   And, perhaps most damning, many pointed out that the author of the article just happens to be running a consulting service where, for a fee, the author will be happy to advise you on how to create a pleasing background environment.

I've been quite happy to leave my camera on, looking at my grungy, unfinished basement, hoping to send a signal to my students that it's okay to have an unpolished image online if they desire.

And then I realized .... that I'm privileged enough to be able to do so.  I'm an old(-ish?) white male tenured professor.  Very few people are going to attack me for anything as tangential as the quality of my background.

But I think of my colleagues, many of whom don't have those positions of privilege.   I wonder if my female colleagues, or Black colleagues, or poorer colleagues, would feel comfortable projecting an image of their homes to the world that wasn't pristine, because they know that some of their students or colleagues would seize on any opportunity to criticize them for the vague crime of "unprofessional conduct".

So I will keep my camera on in my scruffy basement, in order to try and normalize the idea that we don't have to have perfect lives.  But I wonder if it will make any difference.


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