Feb 17th, 2021, 06:35 PM

Through the Looking Glass: A Digital Perspective

By Sarah Affonso
Virtual class. Image credit: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash
Are Alice in Wonderland and the virtual freshman class of 2020 all that different?

This spring 2021, several freshmen sat for the first virtual orientation ever conducted by The American University of Paris. Just as young Alice from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland found herself stepping through the looking glass into a bizarre new world, each one of us was ready to expect the unexpected. As I logged onto the very first meeting, I remember being overcome with all kinds of emotion ranging from anxiety to excitement.

It was overwhelming to be able to see each of my classmates all at the same time, neatly organized into little boxes on my laptop. As I ran my eyes across the screen it was hard to focus on the person speaking, when I could see six other people simultaneously. The entire experience felt altering as I hovered my cursor over a girl's icon whose name had slipped my mind seconds after she introduced herself. In a regular conversation, I would be more than embarrassed to ask her her name more than once. But as I sat there in my neatly ironed shirt, and pajama bottoms, I came to terms with the fact that this was the new normal.  

As each person began to introduce themselves, I realized how very personal this experience was. AUP freshman Anna Post giggled as she said she, "even found myself cleaning up my bedroom to make sure the background for my Teams calls wasn't too messy". At times, it almost felt intrusive as I caught glimpses of their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms in the background. Not only were people telling me where they were from and why they chose to study in Paris but on this very first introduction I got a rather personal insight into the music they listened to or the films they watched based on the posters hung on their walls. Sports memorabilia, graduation pictures, and fairy lights adorned their bedrooms in the background. I was meeting them for the very first time but had already learned more about their lives than they would have supposedly wanted. 

Student in dorm room. Image credit: David Schultz/Unsplash

Freshman year has always been considered to be one for new beginnings but I struggled to make new friend connections with a faulty internet connection. Moreover, it was a challenge to organize calls when everyone was in different corners of the world. As nighttime rolled around for me, many of my friends were starting their day and the chasm between us grew wider. We were missing out on the stereotypical expectations for freshman year like the parties, exploring our new campus together, and making memories that would last a lifetime. For some freshmen like Sadie Braun, the experience of living in Paris is what drew her to The American University of Paris. However, she mentions that, "With remote learning and Paris constantly moving in and out of lockdown, it's a struggle to make the most of our first year at university in this beautiful city". 

Professors tried their best to keep us engaged but it was never easy with the doorbell constantly ringing, the dogs barking, and the neighbors above choosing to rearrange their furniture rather often. While I tried my best to stay attentive, the monotony of online interaction began to bore me, and I felt robbed of true human connection. I craved the heated class debates, the crowded metro rides to campus, and the discomfort of classroom chairs. Just like young Alice, remote learning sent me deeper and deeper down this digital rabbit hole made of ones and zeros.



While it's easy to assume that we as students were the only one's struggling with online classes, we tend to forget about those on the other end of the call. The ones organizing the meetings, uploading the texts to Teams, and passionately teaching lectures to a blank, often non-responsive, screen. Yes, our professors.

In an interview with Jayson Harsin, the Associate Professor and Department Chair for Communication, Media, and Culture at AUP, I got to learn about online schooling from a different perspective. I finally understood that when professors ask us to keep our cameras on it isn't purely to spite us, but, as Professor Harsin put it, it is for them to read our facial expressions. It allows them to get a better understanding of whether we are, "paying attention, interested, amused or even confused". He emphasizes that, "these signs are fundamental to the social relations between students and professors".

However, in his perspective, the biggest challenge of working with students online was helping them separate school online with their personal lives online. They are in the same setting in their homes and using the same technology they are using for lots of other things, like Netflix or play video games. He explains how when students are at home, they are habituated differently and therefore struggle to distinguish the difference between spaces. He states, "This is a real challenge to the sustained attention that learning, and the professors, require in order to facilitate student learning". 

While I know this is a time that will go down in history and younger generations will eagerly listen to stories we have to tell about how we 'survived the pandemic', I look forward to stepping into the future and life returning to 'normal'. This was an experience like no other and the possibility of this lifestyle being 'the new normal' haunts me. So I do hope that sooner or later, just like Alice, I will wake up and realize it was all a bad dream.