As I closed down the last Zoom meeting for a seminar this semester, a far-off voice called out ‘I will miss you professor!’ and then disappeared into the black screen. ‘End meeting for all’ flashed the software prompt. And so the semester concluded not with laptops and books closed and stuffed into bags dragged up from the floor, chairs scraped under the table, and the mutterings of students with too many assignments all due at the same time—actual bodies really passing through the threshold of the room to whatever next awaits them. Maybe just the bus home. It ended without mutual good wishes; or the conversation with the quiet star who waits till everyone else has gone to ask me what classes I think she should take next semester; or the quotidian walk back to my office across campus, dodging harried students and staff, my own sense of freedom bubbling up. By the end of the semester, I had come to hate the ‘end meeting for all’ prompt; every time I hit ‘ok’ it felt like I was supporting a lie about the real meaning of the loss of all these small but significant moments of connection that make teaching possible, and rewarding.
The loss of human interaction as a consequence of pandemic lock-downs is one of our new, shared experiences. For those of us who teach in universities, the loss of in-person interaction with students has had particular consequences. One of these has been a growing and uncomfortable self-consciousness. When we first met on Zoom, the students logged in with videos on, so long as the connection held, revealing their bedrooms, kitchens, lounges, even patios—as they shaded the sun off their faces. Flatmates brought tea; cats jumped on keyboards. Siblings yelled from another room—before everyone learned to ‘mute’ themselves when not speaking. Here was a possibility of newfound intimacy with our students—or was it actually over-exposure? Others experimented with backdrops, they ‘sat’ in front of the Golden Gate Bridge or even more improbably were immersed in tropical waters. But by the end of semester most have turned off their videos, the rest of us left to stare at white names on black windows. What is the right thing to do, I wondered? Ask them to turn their videos on, so they would have to show their faces, and their rooms, both to others in the meeting and also back to themselves in the doubled gaze of video conferencing?
One student did consistently let us in to her childhood bedroom, where anatomical posters were carefully arranged around three walls, passed on to her by her dad from when he was training to be a physiotherapist. Her cheerful face beamed at us while, over her shoulder, I could see the skinless, muscle-bound figure of man-as-system. This image is stuck in my mind, perhaps because it symbolizes an online paradox. On the one hand, our inability to share in fleshy moments: the tiny ripples at the corners of eyes, finger pads resting on a table, soft hands twining and untwining ponytails, were all now unobservable. On the other hand, the poster evoked our rising concern about our own skinless-ness, our fear of revealing too much to each other, of being unable to control or even experiment with a public face as we can in the physical classroom.
The university classroom is a distinct kind of public and pedagogical space. The practices that I have learned about and adopted over the past decade have assumed the co-presence of teachers and students in regular but short sessions (the standard lecture and tutorial period is fifty minutes) over twelve weeks. We need to establish respectful and generative classroom dynamics quickly with and among our students, many of whom do not know each other. These dynamics must be subtly but firmly maintained. How do you draw out the shy ones? Put them in small-groups, often awkward in many of the classrooms we are working in, but achievable if the chairs or tables can be moved around. How do you moderate the domineering over-talker in class? Sit beside them. Make eye contact with everyone during the session, although not too much. Help them be seen. Notice the one who pushes his chair back, angling his body back from the desk, his gaze directed anywhere but here. Bring him back. Watch for the over-anxious, fastidiously taking notes in order to avoid answering questions.
Very little of the way we engage students intuitively and with care is workable on the flat screen. On ‘gallery’ view, I can arrange all the ‘participants’ evenly in neat, checkerboard squares. But the equality in space taken up on screen bears no inherent truth for classroom dynamics. When someone speaks, the border around their window lights up a pallid yellow, though it often takes a moment to register the connection between voice, border, and speaker. That disorientation—who is speaking?—reminds us of our lack of shared, three-dimensional space. We don’t experience the split-second moment of the coming-into-being of a conversation, when we prepare our bodies to receive what it is that someone else wants us to know. We miss the frustrated interruption of someone else, more certain in their opinion. The silence after I pose a question on Zoom feels endless. No one can sense who else might be readying themselves to answer; behind the black window, more like a wall, no one knows if the person to whom this name is attached is still there or whether they’ve sidled off to get a snack or are scrolling Facebook.
In the physical classroom, I can get a measure of the students’ understanding, read their quizzical or confused faces, and pose a question differently. In the tutorial room, if not always the lecture hall, I can see when they check their phones and have a word with them about turning it off during class. It’s impossible to do any of this on the video call. I can’t survey each window quickly enough, even if they have chosen to display a pixelated version of their face and their connection works. And so an extended silence makes the precarity of our situation feel almost impossible. How should we speak with one another? I have to address myself to a particular name and at the same time admit that body and identity are de-linked. I’m embarrassed if I can’t remember how to pronounce someone’s name correctly, and it’s hard to recover from the embarrassment when I can’t see their face, acknowledge my own short-comings and have that acknowledged in turn. I avoid using that student’s name, hoping they will just jump in.
Instead of intuiting the speech of someone we are breathing alongside, we are to choose a function of voice, with its de-personalized and implicitly anti-democratic threat—’mute’ or ‘unmute’. Perhaps this is the most accurate description of what it is like to speak in the Zoom seminar. We can choose to be ‘unmuted’ but not full-throated, timid-voiced, resonant, high-pitched, quiet, loud, reserved, outspoken. Our voice is not described by this binary as an instrument evolved for language, one that we might practice and experiment with and learn to control. Instead, we make a choice that is premised in a default incapacity to speak. Either we ‘mute’ ourselves, adhering to the ethic of the medium in which surrounding sounds—even those emitted by our own bodies—might distract or annoy; or we ‘unmute’ ourselves, a kind of negative choice that serves to reinforce the idea that, normatively, we cannot speak.
I write this not because I think we need to apologise for or restore the university to what it was prior to the pandemic. My colleagues and I do not work in a democratic institution. We teach at an elite university in Australia. Few of our students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, even fewer are Indigenous. The proportion of students from language backgrounds other than English does not reflect the make-up of our city. Fees are high even for domestic students, and for international students these fees are up to seven times higher. Many local students save costs if they can by living at home; the majority, domestic and international, work ‘part-time’, which often means well over twenty hours per week. The pandemic has made the facts of their home-life more real to those of us engaging with them online, while it has also seriously affected their current employment not to mention their future prospects.
But I do want to foreground the poetics of in-person classroom teaching, not as a value-added extra for an elite cohort, but as the essence of what we do. The experience that we can share with each other in a classroom is too easily dismissed, even in the name of further democratization of the university. Hans Taparia, an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, argues that the pandemic and experience of online teaching has ‘ravaged’ the business model of many American universities, based on extraordinarily high fees for domestic students and increasing the numbers of international students. He believes that online education is the new future for universities, and that this will expand access while reducing costs. Despite surveys showing that three-quarters of students this semester do not feel that they have received a quality education, he points out that ‘what surveys miss are the numerous spirited efforts to break new ground, as only a crisis can be the impetus for.’ 
I am sure that, as many online learning specialists have said, what I and others have been doing is not ‘real’ online teaching, just a stop-gap measure in highly unusual circumstances. And, for now, it looks like most brick-and-mortar universities will return to face-to-face teaching sooner or later. At the same time, teaching staff at my university are being surveyed about what worked and didn’t work; an (online) conference is being planned for us to share ideas about the online teaching experiment so that we can begin to incorporate these learnings into future practice. We are asked to do this knowing that our university is facing close to a half-billion-dollar deficit, a hiring freeze means that no new permanent positions will be created in the foreseeable future, and most casual teaching has been cut. Another university in Australia has just announced that it will shed 300 jobs.
While Taparia’s argument—democratization as a function of a significant technological shift—needs to be fully addressed, it seems quite possible that our ‘spirited efforts to break new ground’ will result in at least some of us unwilling pioneers in online teaching losing our jobs. It’s hard to believe that job-cutting will result in better access and lower costs for our students. Given the lack of transparency around university budgets, we can’t be assured of where savings will go in any case. Equalizing access by going online should not undervalue the embodied work we do, in real times and places, to help our students, and indeed ourselves, be seen, appreciated, cared for, joked with, challenged. In the digital rush, whose body is hidden from view, and whose name drops off the screen entirely? Mute, or unmute?
Miranda Johnson teaches Pacific, settler colonial and Indigenous histories at the University of Sydney.
 Hans Taparia, “The Future of College is Online, and It’s Cheaper,” New York Times 25 May 2020.