Think back, if you will, to your first college Zoom class. How did you feel? Disconnected from your peers, unfocused in your childhood bedroom? Millions of college students have shared this sentiment over the last year as social structures that define the college experience have been upended. Though I too found the spring 2020 semester to be jarring and frightening, spending my junior year as a hybrid commuter student has been surprisingly wonderful. I never expected to adapt to, never mind thrive, learning on Zoom. I’ve been able to reevaluate my learning style and how different environments change my state of mind while keeping my asthmatic lungs safe, and still spending time on campus a few days a week. I’ve serendipitously discovered how clear my mind becomes when I have little else to distract me.
I’ve always been hyper-aware of my surroundings. I notice every detail of a room, remember friends’ outfits for days after I see them. My mistake has always been assuming everyone’s brain works like mine. When I walk into a room, I tend to think that people will scrutinize my appearance or ideas. Half my mental energy in a classroom is taken up by trying to read the minds of my peers. As someone with sensory issues, classroom settings are generally not my ideal environment. Loud sounds and artificial lights drain my energy and my desire to learn, unavoidable as they are. Sometimes my need to get to a quiet space outweighs the importance of a lesson, though the gravity of the decision to take a break weighs on me. As much as I have always loved learning, traditional learning environments don’t love me.
It is difficult to articulate how grateful I am for my year of Zoom. Learning (mostly) online has allowed me to live my greatest wish- to be “a brain in a jar” as the effervescent Kate McKinnon said. I have been free to think my thoughts and share them with others, finding clarity and bravery in the solitude of my bedroom. I have the privilege of choosing when I am to be seen by others, and in what context. To be clear, I am not advocating for coasting through the semester with your camera off. But it is invaluable to me to be able to pause being seen and heard without missing out on a lecture. I am effectively able to take a break without breaking focus. In the last year I have maintained my good grades, but beyond that I feel I have retained so much more information than I ever have before. Operating as a brain in a jar means all the energy formerly spent worrying about being perceived has been reassigned to learning. I’ve been able to participate more in clubs and organizations because I’m able to do so in a space that makes me feel calm. My laptop’s volume buttons and blue light filter are my newfound best friends.
If I’ve given you the impression that I prefer to be locked in a room, I apologize. Anyone who knows me will vouch for my energy and love of my friends. What I intend to bring to your consciousness are the ways in which online learning can democratize education. I don’t have a volume button in a physical classroom, nor do I have the ability to prevent people from perceiving me. All I can do is ask you to consider how Zoom may have improved your own learning or taught you something about yourself, even if that something is that you despise online learning. Either way, there is something to be learned from the last year- it’s up to you to discover what it is.