Academic backgrounds

Over the last couple of months or so, I’ve been talking to many students on-line. It’s struck me that such a mode of communication offers me and (possibly) them insights into our lives we tended not to have.

When teaching went online, I looked at a number of teaching guides, some more helpful than others, and most advised me to show my face. Yet, none I found offered advice on what to show behind the face, what should be the background. As I assume the ‘show your face’ advice doesn’t mean showing your face 5 cm from the camera, what’s seen behind you becomes an issue. Indeed, the problem is both ours and our students’.

There are three kinds of computer-mediated consultations, I think. First, there are those when you only hear the person, second, there are those where you do see the student, but they made an explicit effort to show as little as possible of their surroundings, and third, those for whom the background is the place where they are, mostly, I would imagine, it’s their home.

Let me start with what I show. I make an effort not to show my surroundings. This is because I assume that I should maintain the professional identity as much as possible. I sit in front of a plain wall (it is in fact the dining area in my house), but on a number of occasions a tilt of the laptop revealed a small fragment of a large painting to the right of me (for my interlocutors).

This is roughly what could be seen

and the question that is immediately raised is whether it says anything about me. And if so, what? As it happened, on a few of occasions my cat decided to present itself to the camera, on considerably more occasions it decided to meow dramatically. It made me hush it (sometimes calling it names), to the merriment of those I was speaking to. These little moments shifted the footing of the interaction from a professional conversation about discourse analysis to a conversation with an irritated cat owner.

I agree with the advice to show yourself; I tend to think that seeing each other on the computer screen when having a conversation with one student or a small group of students makes the conversation easier. And so, I always ‘go visual’ (depending on the current internet provision) when a connection is made. Some people immediately appear on the screen, some don’t and a brief negotiation ensues.

I’m always interested in the reasons offered for not turning the camera on. Most simply say they don’t have the technology (a working camera or a connection fast enough). But it’s the others that I find interesting. And so, some people say it’s just ‘today’ they can’t show themselves, some say they were not prepared for ‘going visual’. I always assume that a sound-only conversation offers the opportunity to be in a dressing gown (I probably should not reveal it, but I do wear tracksuit bottoms and a pair of slippers, which, luckily, can’t be seen on the screen). While I do not make a particular effort to look dapper, I do tend to put on a t-shirt/top I would be fairly happy to go to work in (thank goodness for the casual academic!).

The sound-only conversations are not completely unrevealing though. As the students are likely to hear my meowing cat, I occasionally hear whispered voices or someone doing the dishes. This is the lived version of the blogpost on online classes I wrote about earlier. Basically, not all our students have the privilege of putting the computer in their own room and talk to the tutor unfettered.

Here is a little diversion. My favourite story of online teaching so far (unlikely to be beaten I think) is a story of student who after logging into the class, went to make loud sex. Alas, he had not switched the microphone off, so his amorous endeavours were shared with the entire class. All attempts to contact him failed (he was otherwise engaged after all!) and the class had to be abandoned. The second favourite story is one of another live microphone which transmitted toilet activities of one of the participants. Dogs barking, cats meowing (or walking on academics), children shouting and coming into the camera view all seem quite insignificant in the perspective.

The conversations with carefully managed background are perhaps the least interesting (though the chair, the drape all tell their own little stories). Some are clearly very carefully managed. And then there are those conversations where I see the students’ surroundings. All of a sudden, I have access to students’ lives which, if it were not for the extraordinary situation, I would not have access to.

Quite a few years ago, I made a Skype appointment to see a colleague. When we connected, I must admit that I was somewhat surprised to hear her say: Welcome to my home. I had never thought about it in such a way, but yes, I was able to see the large room, with wall ornaments. The Skype session offered me some insight into how the colleague lived. And so, do the students who turn the camera on.

And so, I see all sorts of accommodation. Small and large, decorated and almost barren, houses and flats, tidy and untidy. I see what looks like former children’s rooms with remnants of childhood strewn around, I see living rooms, sometimes modern, sometimes no so much, sometimes simply like my parents’ flat with the communist wonder-furniture, the ‘meblościanka’ (a large of multi-purpose piece consisting of a number of joined-up cabinets/sideboards on which a TV set, books, some display dishes would be kept) – a piece that could be fitted into a flat the size of shoebox.

As I travel through those accommodations or empty screens, I started to wonder about their meaning. But I don’t want to write about the meaning of individual objects, the image, the teddy bear, or something else. Rather I was wondering about the interaction potential of the background we show. There are two points I would like to make.

First, the control of the visual channel of communication offers an interesting resource for image and relationship management. The linguist Michael Halliday proposes that every act of communication has, among others, an interpersonal function. That is to say, every act of communication in one way or another sets up a relationship between the interactants. In online consultations, it is done at the very basic level of the channel of communication. By controlling the visual channel, I control (at least partly) the (communicative) relationship I enter into.

Moreover, such control can (though, obviously, doesn’t have to be) strategic. Online consultations can be used, much like in political interviews, for image management. A widely commented recent failure of a Polish politician to enhance his image by sitting in front of a wall of books shows both what is a desirable background and its potential effectiveness. Indeed, I have no doubt that my hushing of the cat, as well as the cat’s intrusion into the camera view, could be seen as a strategic (cheap?) attempt to soften my own image.

As I write this, I am reminded of a BBC interview with the academic Robert Kelly which was interrupted by his two children:


I can never decide what’s more endearing, the children’s freedom to walk happily about the house, the children’s mother shooting into the room to scoop the kids out, or the academic’s attempt to maintain his professional identity. I must admit I would have loved to see him pick up the child and finish the interview with them on his lap. As we see Robert Kelly in his study, which exudes his academic credibility, the sudden change in the environment changes the footing on which he communicates. Suddenly, he also becomes a father.

To an extent this is what happens when online consultations are using a full visual mode. We don’t only see a student, a person whose identities beyond studentship are only more or less implied. Now we also see a record collector, a daughter, a sister (hushing her other sister), or a cat owner. To a considerable extent, those identities are performed for us, as they are imposed on us by others, or by our surroundings. Those identities happen alongside those which are demanded by the field (again a reference to Halliday) of an academic consultation.

The point of this blogpost is not to offer advice or to suggest that we should or should not engage the visual channel and how to do it. Rather it is a result of the imposition of a new context by online consultations. We started communicating well outside the academic space.

Except, perhaps, we are not outside the academic space at all. Perhaps the academic space has just moved. Not only has it moved to the homes of academics (It’s often been commented that our homes, services, computers have been commandeered in the service to our employers), but it has also moved to the homes of our students. In the process, their choices how to communicate might be becoming their ‘educational choices’. This will mean that the question who exactly I am talking to as I look at the blank computer screen will be of more and more significance. We might also start insisting that the students’ private rooms are tidy lest the student be deemed ‘unprofessional’.

This blogpost was supposed to share the fact that I have been travelling virtually across students’ flats and houses. I actually quite enjoyed it, often it was a journey into my own past, so to say. Unfortunately, the ending of this post is fairly dystopian. I do hope therefore that in the new normal after the pandemic, we’ll be able to return to class. With all its shortcomings, it is still, I think, the best way to engage in teaching and learning.


1 Comment
  1. Many of the video conferencing tools allow you to use a virtual background and I find it interesting how my co-workers make use of them (as well as how frequently they do; it is the norm). Virtual backgrounds recontextualize people into a fantasy context. I think the technology providers offer features like this to manipulate the discursive context between the participants and obfuscate things like class. Some of these tools even do facial touch-ups, eliminating wrinkles and blemishes and enabling us to imagine that we live in an ageless and classless world, even one without ugliness. I found this feature enabled by default on the app my team uses.

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