Early on in the pandemic, Brown University President Dr. Christina Paxson insisted that campuses had to open in the fall for universities to remain financially solvent. To inspire hope for the future, she painted a picture of a resilient and adapted campus life, writing, “Imagine athletics events taking place in empty stadiums, recital halls with patrons spaced rows apart, and virtual social activities replacing parties.”
Five months later, welcome to September 2020. Empty stadiums but no athletic events. Recital halls with patrons and performers spaced buildings apart. Virtual social activities on top of in-person parties. I laughed when I read her last prediction for the first time. It was clear then, and it is clear now that big Zoom parties cannot provide a substitute for the social engagement needed for a healthy mental state. It is natural and understandable for humans to seek out personal connections, and people will often choose selfish and reckless risks when they cannot meet that need.
That leaves only one conclusion: we as a community will fail at keeping a safe and socially distanced campus life if we chastise those who aren’t getting the social engagement they need without actively working to build sustainable and realistic alternatives to normal activities.
Have you ever attended a Zoom party where you know very few people? I did, about two weeks after Dr. Paxon’s piece was published. If she had only done her research, she’d understand that most “virtual social activities” as we currently envision them are purgatory incarnate.
Attending a Zoom party with strangers is like sitting in on an advanced lecture every week having never done any reading without the ability to whisper. Want to ask a TA question after class? Chat with the person sitting next to you? That’s great! All you’ve got to do is scream, so the whole class can hear your idiocy. Who needs personal attention anyway?
Speaking through a screen isn’t as enlivening as face to face interaction. We all get that. But what’s equally important to understand is that conversations feel unfulfilling when you can’t talk one-on-one or two-on-two. When you can’t turn to the person next to you and say hello. When you can’t move around the room, drifting from group to group.
Talking on Zoom can often feel like shouting into the ether; it’s hard to feel heard no matter how hard you push for engagement. And when that is presented as the only way to engage with new people, most are going to feel a pull to find another way. It’s much too daunting to build new relationships in the virtual world.
We often like to highlight witty seminar discussions or late-night soul-searching debates as what makes Yale special. We brag about how Yale puts us in contact for the first time with some of the most brilliant and thoughtful minds in academia. But those connections start with the small moments that serve as the first building blocks of new relationships. Moments like lingering ten minutes after class to talk about the lightbulb that went off in your head, laughing on the way down Science Hill about a ridiculous moment from class, and pulling that one person and only that person aside who catches your eye at a party. That magic is gone.
The optimistic reader might say you can reclaim those moments outside of parties. Sit outside, bump into someone at a store, the moments that launch friendships are fewer and farther between, but they’re there. And to that I ask, what happens when our fingers turn purple in the cold? When everyone huddles inside? When bumping into someone new becomes improbable? Do we expect people to sit alone in their rooms and log onto virtual social activities?
If we have to stay virtual to keep those around us safe, then that is what we need to do. But many won’t comply if they don’t find a way to reclaim the moments we came to Yale for in this new world. Rebuilding them is going to require active support and action from us all.
Professors: Don’t hang up the Zoom so quickly. Encourage students to linger before and after class time on Zoom to simulate those lost moments. Set up small group office hours or informal chats with students, no more than a handful at a time, to help get everyone acquainted. Use breakout groups where you can and give students a little bit of space in class to connect without an overarching eye.
Students: Be bold. Be awkward. Be open. Reach out directly to people you’ve never spoken to before but think you might get along with. Use breakout groups for extracurriculars to break down the call size and create a greater sense of intimacy. Hang around on Zoom a little before and a little after your event.
Our needs will not go away even if we’re taught fulfilling them is dangerous. So, we better figure out how to engage safely and create spaces for natural and new personal interactions online.
JACOB HUTT is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .