Teaching online is more like being on TV than being in a classroom. Think about the TV hosts that you love to watch. One of my favourites is Mary Beard, the history professor, who tramps around Roman ruins. I also love Waldemar Januszczak, the art critic. He stomps around glorious churches and galleries, making the Baroque fun. Here are three things I have learned about Zoom teaching from Mary and Waldemar.
Lean into your nerdish enthusiasm
Mary Beard is extremely passionate about the Romans. They are vigorously alive to her, and so they become alive to me. She tells me what she likes about them – and also what makes her feel uncomfortable. Likewise, Waldemar treats artists as people and avoids the ‘great man’ narrative. We hear all about Titian, Caravaggio and Monet’s personal flaws and failings. Waldemar explains how their turgid love lives, or penchant for getting into debt came out in their art. Both these TV hosts are bursting with enthusiasm to share their passionate interests with us.
One of the great things about being an academic is that we tend to have passionate interests too. Our students might think we are a bit naff for our nerdish excitement, but done right it’s infectious (in a good way for a change). The trick to conveying enthusiasm is to personalise your material. When you are presenting a fact, talk about the first time you encountered this information. Were you amazed? Tell your class why. Do some elements of your material bore you – even though you know you have to teach it? Be honest and tell your students what bits of your subject you hate – but also tell them why you persisted with learning, despite the boredom.
Share your failures or difficulties as well as your triumphs. In other words, model the kind of learner you want your students to be.
Don’t watch yourself all the time.
Admit it, the only little face you look at in the Zoom gallery is your own. I don’t think I am alone in quietly obsessing about my hair or worrying about what the COVID kilos are doing to my double chin. These thoughts are intrusive and distract me from projecting personality into the camera. Being self-conscious about your appearance will make you look stiff and unnatural on Zoom.
A good TV host has to watch themselves to improve their game – but they watch footage after they have shot it, not while they are talking to the camera. You can do this too by using the ‘turn off self-view’ option in Zoom. This option removes your face from the gallery view, while leaving it present for others. What a blessing to be freed of seeing yourself talk! I think you’ll find not looking at yourself will reduce your ‘Zoom Fatigue’ too.
I always have the self-view on at the start of a teaching session, just so I can check that I don’t have spinach in my teeth, but I turn it off to talk. It’s always a good idea to review your teaching delivery and Zoom gives us an unprecedented opportunity for helpful self-critique. I sometimes record and watch myself on playback and take notes about how I can improve my performance. Was my explanation clear on that difficult bit? Does what I am saying distract from what I am showing on a slide? Am I rambling? This pandemic moment is an unexpectedly useful professional development opportunity too (there have to be some upsides, right?)
Be who you are (but recognise this takes work)
How do I put this kindly? Both Mary and Waldemar are not the most attractive human beings who have ever stood in front of a TV camera. Their ordinariness is part of their charm but don’t be fooled. Just because they seem happy to be fat and a bit frumpy does not mean they don’t care about their appearance. Both have worked hard (or had help to) achieve a strong, distinctive on-camera ‘look’. The contrast between Mary’s smart red coat and her somewhat straggly grey hair is carefully contrived. She’s playing ‘the cool crone’, and I am here for it. Likewise, Waldemar dresses in shabby black suits, but his half-mohawk hair tells you he’s a rebel.
If you’re feeling up to it (and hey – no judgment if you don’t) ask yourself: what is my personal style, and how can I accentuate it on camera? My hairdresser gave me a new ‘zoom ready’ hair colour that looked better on camera. I might be wearing yoga pants and slippers most days, but a nice jacket thrown over my ratty thermal top works wonders.
Who is your favourite TV host? Use your watching time to good effect: take notes!