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Black Boxes: An English Professor Reflects on Juniata’s First Hy-Flex Semester

Dr. Laura Feibush, Dept. of English

Here at the close of 2020, it’s fitting to reflect on Juniata’s first semester of hybrid-flexible learning. I’m sure I’m not alone in my feeling that hoo boy. It has been a ride.

In general, I’ve been inspired by the innovation that our COVID-induced, hy-flex fall semester has occasioned. Faculty, leadership, and administration alike have asked themselves: “What really is the essence of education?” They’ve acted on the answers with revamped and revised digital pedagogies, mental health Mountain Days, and the planning of a virtual Bailey Oratorical in the spring.

In addition to many positive developments, naturally I’ve also heard the frustrations of my colleagues. Chief among them is the problem of the black boxes: when, during Zoom classes, students opt to turn off their cameras, leaving the instructor confronted by a grid of named rectangles.

I will admit, black boxes sometimes make it hard for me to deploy the time-honored classroom technique, the “vibe check.” What can we make of the dreaded black boxes? What are students doing, and how should we interpret their choices? Here’s my current list of possibilities, which is not a comprehensive one.

Students may be trying to:

1. Put less strain on the wi-fi connection. At the beginning of the semester, classes canceled due to temporarily overloaded connections, and one solution was to have students Zoom from odd locations with access to better routers, their cameras off. From this perspective, the black box is a respectful behavior, enabling class to go forward.

2. Retain their privacy. Students may be shielding a bad hair day, a messy room, or even the presence of a younger sister or nephew in their care. Understandable. I often use the chat function or other forms of participation to hear students’ voices.

3. Lessen the pressure of being visible through Zoom’s visual apparatus, allowing themselves to think, be, and engage with class content in different, idiosyncratic ways. This is also understandable, and maybe even preferable. After all, there’s no one right way to enact studenthood. Zoom’s “breakout rooms,” or other forms of digital gathering, often prove fruitful in these cases.

4. Here’s the sticky one: It is indeed possible that a black box hides disengagement. An off-turned camera may provide a way for a student to stay silent and avoid taking responsibility for their own learning.

We have to trust that option four isn’t often the case.

Well, to teach writing also requires trust. My students and I need to trust each other to treat the stages of the college writing process, often rife with confusing new contours, with respect and patience. Further, effective writing is all about cultivating readers’ trust in us as authors, as  voices on the page worth listening to.

In these ways, I feel I’m versed in trust. And sometimes, the power of practicing trust can crystallize unexpectedly.

One day, I commented on a troll toy in a student’s turned-off camera picture—you know the kind, neon, vertical-standing hair with a rhinestone belly-jewel. In the chat, another student wrote: “Nice! I think I have a stuffed Appa around here somewhere.”

I ground class to a full stop. A stuffed Appa, as in the snow-white, flying buffalo that carries the protagonists—and arguably the whole plot—of my favorite animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender? “I think you need to go find him,” I said.

With that, a switch was flipped. Suddenly, cameras flashed on and stuffed friends of all shapes and sizes came into view, seemingly all within arm’s reach. “This is Celementine-y,” one student announced, holding onto a round armful of bright orange fuzz.* Appa appeared. I went and got my own Lamby down from a shelf in the closet. It was transcendent.

Eventually, we got back to our lesson on proposal-writing, and a few cameras switched off again. But the black boxes have never quite been the same to me since.

Over time, individual and institutional policies regarding cameras will likely solidify. But we live in a time when nothing much is solid. If the fall of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that in uncertainty, we can only go forward with trust in one another. This fall, trust has helped me connect with my students beyond the black box, and I’m eager to do so again in semesters to come.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.