By Simone Zelitch
January 5th, 2021
A few weeks ago, I was part of a Hanukkah reading at my local bookstore, Big Blue Marble.
Or I should say, of course, that I wasn’t at Big Blue Marble, and
neither was anybody else. Our host appeared to be at the bookstore, but
eventually revealed that she was using a virtual background and was
actually in her apartment a few blocks away.
Such is pandemic life, and it came at the end of a semester of online teaching. I’ve been a professor at Community College of Philadelphia
for almost half my life. In public, I disparaged the experience of
teaching online, but privately admitted its advantages. Here’s a
confession: recently, the dynamics of a face to face class had become
overwhelming– students texting, cross-talking and challenging me when I
tried to get them to focus, basic classroom management that had seemed
much easier in the twentieth century. Online, these issues
disappeared. In short, I felt more in control than I had in years.
Now, my fall grades would soon be submitted, and here I was in a
virtual space with an audience of fifty, as poets and prose-writers
read their work in turn. I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone, or
even look alert. The writers were mostly women on the far side of
middle age, earnest progressive Jews like me. and I let myself drift
knowing that at some point, I’d have to un-mute and read a story, but
that wouldn’t happen for a while.
Then someone broke in. “Is SEE-mone ZEE-litch here?”
Not a poet. Not a writer of prose. It was a man– a loud one– and I
fumbled weirdly for the chat-box as though he had posted rather than
shouted my name, but then the screen was taken over and we saw a grainy
gyrating torso with the shirt pulled up to the nipples. The man called
again– “SEE-mone ZEE-lich”– then something else I couldn’t catch, as
the the torso gave way to a black and white video: cheerful marching
Nazis and a jaunty song:
“We’re going on a trip to a place called Auschwitz. It’s shower time little Jewstein–”
The song lasted for maybe five seconds, and then, the host regained
control of the screen and got rid of him– them– who knows how many. I
was still I was still reverberating. That guy– whoever he was– knew
So much for control. The evening went on, and although I read my
little Hanukkah fable like a good girl, I couldn’t have felt less
present. Instead, I considered: I’d posted about the event on
Facebook. Yes, only my Facebook friends can read that page, but the
post was forwarded– to whom? I know, I know, Zoom-bombers have
targeted Black, LBGTQ and Muslim events ever since there was such a
thing as Zoom, but I kept wondering, absurdly and obsessively. Did I
know that voice? Did I know that torso? There was something
simultaneously alien and intimate about it all, even the
mispronunciation of my name.
And then, I thought: What if it were one of my students?
That thought was absurd, but it came quickly, and it stayed. Early
in the fall semester, when I’d missed office hours for Yom Kippur, I’d
told my students why. A month later, one student wrote an anti-Semitic
response to an assignment, and then disappeared from the class. When
I’d had prior Zoom conferences with that student, the background had
been grainy, so close to what I saw during the Zoom-bombing that I felt I
almost recognized the torso, but that was impossible. The whole
situation was impossible, and I wallowed in paranoia, feeling defiled,
in free-fall, out of control.
When I told friends about what happened, they gave plenty of advice
about how to avoid it happening again: build a kind of Zoom fortress
with a waiting room, get an assistant to vet all comers, institute
mandatory muting and a chat-lock, not to mention disabling the
screen-share to avoid offensive You Tube videos. Most people making
these suggestions knew that trolls— a great word for folks like the Zoom-bomber– will be trolls. They’ll find a way into the fortress somehow, and storm it in super-hero costumes with their pipe-bombs.
The great seduction of these platforms is this: we think that if we
master them, learn how to play their games, then we’ll be safe.
I tried to play a different kind of game last summer when I designed my online courses. We use a platform called Canvas
and all summer, I built structures as complex and well-supported as
cathedrals. Assignments, quizzes, discussions, conferences, everything
connected, and it was actually fun to poke around, get creative. I
even created a friendly, cartoon avatar to attach to my messages and
comments. Isn’t she cute?
Even after the semester started, I’d sometimes spend twelve hours a
day in front of my laptop, obsessively correcting any flaws I found.
Every time I discovered a new hack and applied it, the course felt more
cohesive and successful. The structure– with its weekly Welcome
videos, its constant communication, its required conferences– created
opportunities for intimacy that I never had in a physical classroom.
Yet even during conferences, I seldom saw my students’ faces. They
kept their cameras off, and for countless reasons: poor internet
connection, no quiet place to work, and most of all, no way to control
their environments. These are students at a community college in a
city; they’re caring for children or elderly parents; they work in
big-box stores; they take double-shifts at I-Hop when other servers test
positive for Covid-19, or they test positive themselves, as three of my
students did. Perhaps the greatest epidemic of all was depression and
anxiety disorder. I know that several students dropped the course for
just that reeason, and those were only the ones who told me so.
I kept thinking: if I create a perfect course, if I work out every
last bug in the system, write meaningful assignments, get all the
students laptops, connect them with counselors, plead with them to turn
in a rough draft, plug every last hole that may sink my class, then
they’d be okay. That course is under my control, and at the very
least, it can be a space that didn’t disappoint them in a world where
trolls roamed freely. I did try, probably too hard, but not everyone
could be okay, and my control was an illusion.
Canvas, like Zoom, is what we have now, and we are bombarded with
advice on how to make these platforms more rational and secure. They
can be mastered, and if you’re like me, you can become obsessed with
mastery. You’ll check the settings and re-check them, I wonder now
in retrospect if my Canvas course became aspirational, a game that I
was playing and trying to win. Are these platforms by their nature
alienating to the point where we can lose sight of their purpose? Is
alienation, in fact, their purpose? Perhaps. They aren’t intended to
replicate their face to face equivalents. They go in a different
direction, a direction that may well outlast this pandemic
There is no moral to this story. In a week, I’m back in the online
classroom, teaching the same courses, with the same material and the
same structure. I’m also participating in another event sponsored by
Big Blue Marble with enhanced security. I’ll try not to spend twelve
hours in front of my laptop, and I’ll hope this new event isn’t
Zoom-bombed. However, what I fear most is that we will grow far too
comfortable with these video games, the kind where cathedrals or
fortresses are constructed brick by brick, and forget how to live in a
messy world full of surprises.
I might find a world without surprises easier, but I will resist it, somehow.