It’s Not Me, It’s Zoom - A conversation analyst reflects on remote synchronous teaching and learning.

Zoom screen
May 5, 2021

Nothing has made me appreciate being in a classroom with students more than not being in a classroom with them. What’s so special about being physically together? Why does being together online feel so different?

Trying to teach while surrounded by our families (who are also trying to teach, learn, and/or work) is part of it, but even if we tune out other distractions, we’re unable to tune into the small details of interaction because, regardless of video availability, we are no longer co-present with our students.

Researchers of social interaction talk about being together as co-presence: a state of affairs where we can use our senses to perceive one another, to see where other people are looking, to hear their talk, their laughter, and, in some cases, their breathing. What’s so special about that? Conversation analysts care both about recipiency, whereby you demonstrate that you are not only co-present but also are listening and receiving the other person’s turn at talk, and incipiency, whereby you show that you are about to speak. The technological limitations and affordances of remote synchronous teaching both prevent us from perceiving the cues of incipiency and recipiency our students normally give us and also put a spotlight on us that we never experience in naturally occurring social interaction. 

In my forthcoming book Multimodal Participation and Engagement: Social Interaction in the Classroom, I examine situations where students look like they are participating but actually aren’t (what I call “studenting”), and those where students appear to be disengaged when in fact they are closely monitoring the classroom interaction. As someone who is preoccupied by participation and engagement and the challenges of teasing them apart, I feel the difference between true participation and engagement and the mere appearance of them myself when I hold my phone under my computer camera during meetings to check text messages, doing my own version of “studenting” by appearing to carefully attend to the speaker. The cues that indicate someone is listening (or not) include eye gaze, posture, and writing, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to monitor these cues online. 

In a regular classroom, we see students eagerly raising their hands by fully extending their arms (or half-heartedly opening their palm) or leaning forward just before they take a turn (or leaning away or even sleeping). On Zoom, however, the cues are different. One of my students this fall never turned on his video, but he was quite adept at using the “reaction” options within Zoom to demonstrate his recipiency during class, posting a thumbs up or hands clapping emoji in reaction to my talk. Other students would write in the chat box during class. This was rare, however, and I mostly looked at a screen full of black boxes, unsure if anyone was actually there, let alone listening. Speakers adjust their turns-in-progress based on listeners’ response, and without being able to see such recipiency cues as gaze and posture, I couldn’t make such adjustments, and I often felt that I was talking to myself.

Another major loss of remote synchronous interaction is teachers’ inability to tell when students have something to say. While hand raises, chat, and other features are built into most platforms, these features don’t allow for the kind of mass participation monitoring that most teachers subconsciously engage in during face-to-face classrooms: noticing when a student leans forward, or takes an in breath, or starts to raise a hand. A confused face could be the kind of listener response an attentive teacher uses to probe problems in understanding. Even when students have video turned on, it is difficult to perceive cues of incipiency, particularly because the technology lends itself to teacher control. Every overlap feels like interruption because of sound delays, even when we are engaging in cooperative listener response, so students tend to stay on “mute” unless they have “something to say.” In face-to-face classrooms, the student who nods along or shakes their head in disagreement would appear to the teacher as engaged and participating, whereas in remote synchronous settings, many of these contributions are unseen (ditto for their oral equivalents – “yeah” “mm-hmm” “no” and “uh-uh” – which go unheard when all are muted). Pacing of our classes is dictated by our assessment of these listener responses – can we go on as planned, or should we stop and discuss a certain point further? Interaction in online settings is more teacher-fronted than even a talk in a dark lecture hall, with most students muted and the instructor controlling what features are allowed, including abruptly cutting off small group discussions by closing break-out rooms. How much is lost in those few minutes when students wrap up their talk? What is the net effect of these technological constraints on our classroom as a community?

My exhaustion at the end of each remote synchronous class is not only explained by looking for signals I can’t perceive because of the limitations of the technology, however. The culprit here is also the camera, and its unflinching eye gaze. In normal, face-to-face interaction, even in a lecture, no one maintains uninterrupted eye contact with a speaker or a listener. Early groundbreaking research in this area demonstrated that speakers look at listeners who are already looking at them, but generally not at those whose gaze is averted. With our cameras on, we see each other as we almost never do in class, straight on, gaze apparently simultaneously always on us. With multiple boxed faces (and no video for some), how can we know where anyone is looking? The result of this is that each of us, teachers and students, have the sensation of being constantly monitored by everyone else “present,” with the constant awareness that any participant may be recording at any time. Our classrooms, which have always tended toward Foucault’s panopticon, in their remote synchronous form have made the feeling of constant surveillance all the more intense.

While some argue that simply being together in the same space does not necessarily mean interaction is happening, co-presence in a bounded space, like a classroom, gives everyone the possibility to perceive one another. While I don’t foresee a way for the technology to afford us a better perception of our students’ recipiency and incipiency, just naming the things we have lost from our physical classrooms can help. This kind of teaching and learning is not the same, but it’s not us, it’s Zoom.




CHRISTINE M. JACKNICK is an applied linguist who utilizes conversation analysis to examine discursive practices in institutional settings, highlighting the collaborative nature of talk and identifying the exercise of agency and power through interactional practices. Jacknick’s major research focus is language use in the classroom, with publications in Journal of Pragmatics, Classroom Discourse, Language and Sociocultural Theory, and other journals, and a newly released book, Multimodal Participation and Engagement: Social Interaction in the Classroom