A few years ago, the idea of “power poses” — that is, physical stances that increase the dynamism of one’s personality — gained a great many adherents in a very short time, but not long thereafter emerged doubts as to its scientific soundness. Nevertheless, while standing with your hands on your hips may not change who you are, we can fairly claim that such a thing as body language does exist. And in that language, certain bodily arrangements communicate better messages than others: according to the presenters of the talk above, keeping your hands power-poseishly on your hips is actually a textbook bad public-speaking position, down there with shoving them in your pockets or clasping them before you in the dreaded “fig leaf.”
Working as a team, these students keep it short and simple, accompanying their talk with takeaway-announcing Powerpoint slides (“1. Posture breeds success, 2. Gestures strengthen our message, 3. The audience’s body matters too”) and even a video clip that vividly illustrates what not to do: in this case, with a fidgety, rotation-heavy turn on stage by Armageddon and Transformers auteur Michael Bay.
Though we can’t hear what Bay is saying, we couldn’t be blamed for assuming it’s not the truth. That owes not so much to the Hollywood penchant for dissimulation and hyperbole as it does to his particular stances, gestures, and perambulations, all of a kind that primes our subconsciousness to expect lies. “We all want to avoid our own Michael Bay moments when we communicate,” says one of the presenters, but even when we take pains to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the defensive postures into which many of us instinctively retreat can undercut our efforts. “Decoding Deceptive Body Language,” the talk just above, can help us learn both to identify the impression of dishonesty and to avoid giving it ourselves. Not that it’s always easy: as the example of Bill Clinton underscores in both these presentations, even master communicators have their slip-ups.
The technology we put between ourselves and others tends to always create additional strains on communication, even as it enables near-constant, instant contact. When it comes to our now-primary mode of interacting — staring at each other as talking heads or Brady Bunch-style galleries — those stresses have been identified by communication experts as “Zoom fatigue,” now a subject of study among psychologists who want to understand our always-connected-but-mostly-isolated lives in the pandemic, and a topic for Today show segments like the one above.
As Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson vividly explains to Today, Zoom fatigue refers to the burnout we experience from interacting with dozens of people for hours a day, months on end, through pretty much any video conferencing platform. (But, let’s face it, mostly Zoom.) We may be familiar with the symptoms already if we spend some part of our day on video calls or lessons. Zoom fatigue combines the problems of overwork and technological overstimulation with unique forms of social exhaustion that do not plague us in the office or the classroom.
Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, refers to this kind of burnout as “Nonverbal Overload,” a collection of “psychological consequences” from prolonged periods of disembodied conversation. He has been studying virtual communication for two decades and began writing about the current problem in April of 2020 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that warned, “software like Zoom was designed to do online work, and the tools that increase productivity weren’t meant to mimic normal social interaction.”
Now, in a new scholarly article published in the APA journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Bailenson elaborates on the argument with a focus on Zoom, not to “vilify the company,” he writes, but because “it has become the default platform for many in academia” (and everywhere else, perhaps its own form of exhaustion). The constituents of nonverbal overload include gazing into each others’ eyes at close proximity for long periods of time, even when we aren’t speaking to each other.
Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time. Even when speakers see virtual faces instead of real ones, research has shown that being stared at while speaking causes physiological arousal (Takac et al., 2019). But Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking. From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze.
On Zoom, we also have to expend much more energy to send and interpret nonverbal cues, and without the context of the room outside the screen, we are more apt to misinterpret them. Depending on the size of our screen, we may be staring at each other as larger-than-life talking heads, a disorienting experience for the brain and one that lends more impact to facial expressions than may be warranted, creating a false sense of intimacy and urgency. “When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life,” writes Vignesh Ramachandran at Stanford News, “our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.”
Unless we turn off the view of ourselves on the screen — which we generally don’t do because we’re conscious of being stared at — we are also essentially sitting in front of a mirror while trying to focus on others. The constant self-evaluation adds an additional layer of stress and taxes the brain’s resources. In face-to-face interactions, we can let our eyes wander, even move around the room and do other things while we talk to people. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” says Bailenson. Zoom interactions, conversely, can inhibit movement for long periods of time.
“Zoom fatigue” may not be as dire as it sounds, but rather the inevitable trials of a transitional period, Bailenson suggests. He offers solutions we can implement now: using the “hide self-view” button, muting our video regularly, setting up the technology so that we can fidget, doodle, and get up and move around…. Not all of these are going to work for everyone — we are, after all, socialized to sit and stare at each other on Zoom; refusing to participate might send unintended messages we would have to expend more energy to correct. Bailenson further describes the phenomenon in the BBC Business Daily podcast interview above.
“Videoconferencing is here to stay,” Bailenson admits, and we’ll have to adapt. “As media psychologists it is our job,” he writes to his colleagues in the new article, to help “users develop better use practices” and help “technologists build better interfaces.” He mostly leaves it to the technologists to imagine what those are, though we ourselves have more control over the platform than we collectively acknowledge. Could we maybe admit, Bailenson writes, that “perhaps a driver of Zoom fatigue is simply that we are taking more meetings than we would be doing face-to-face”?
Earlier this month, Stanford’s Online High School offered (in partnership with Stanford Continuing Studies) a free, five-day course “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials.” With many schools starting the next academic year online, this course found a large audience. 7,000 teachers signed up. Aimed at middle and high school teachers, the course covered “general guidelines for adapting your course to an online format, best practices for varied situations, common pitfalls in online course design, and how to troubleshoot student issues online.”
The videos from “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials” are all now available online. You can watch them in sequential order, moving from top to bottom, here. Or watch them on this Stanford hosted page. Day 1 (above) provides a general introduction to teaching online. See topics covered in Days 2-5 below.
Please feel free to share these videos with any teachers. And if anyone watches these lectures and takes good class notes (ones other teachers can use), please let us know. We would be happy to help share them with other teachers.
Finally, just to give you a little background, Stanford’s Online High School has operated as a fully-online, independent, accredited high school since 2006. Stanford Continuing Studies provides open enrollment courses to adults worldwide. All of its courses are currently online. For anyone interested, Coursera also offers a specialization (a series of five courses) on online learning called the Virtual Teacher. It can be explored here.
Getting Specific: Situations and Tools
Science: Labs in Online Pedagogy
Online Classroom Example Clips
Building and Maintaining a Classroom
Review of Submitted Sample Lesson Drafts
Troubleshooting Obstacles to Success in the Online Environment
Math: Using Writing Tablets and Whiteboards
Modern Languages: Tips for Highly Interactive Class During Which Students Actively Speak and Write in the Target Language
Humanities: Productive Classroom Conversations About Challenging Subjects
As every American knows, February is Black History Month. And as every American also knows — if the events of 2020 haven’t warped their sense of time too badly — is isn’t February right now. But thanks to online learning technology, we all have the freedom to study any subject we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, irrespective of the time of year. Sources of internet-based education have proliferated in the 21st century, but long-respected institutions of higher learning have also got in on the action. Yale University, for example, has produced the online course African American History: Emancipation to the Present, whose 25 lectures by history professor Jonathan Holloway you can watch on YouTube, or at Yale’s web site. The first lecture appears above.
Originally recorded in the spring of 2010, Holloway’s course examines “the African American experience in the United States from 1863 to the present,” involving such chapters of history as “the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction” and “African Americans’ urbanization experiences.”
It also includes lectures on the “thought and leadership of Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X” — all writers and thinkers Open Culture readers will have encountered before, but a course like African American History: Emancipation to the Present offers the opportunity to consider their lives and work in clearer context and greater detail.
Black history has deeper roots in some parts of the United States than others. But that doesn’t mean the universities of the west have nothing to offer in this department: take, for example, Stanford University’s African-American History: Modern Freedom Struggle, taught by the historian (and editor of MLK’s papers) Clayborne Carson. Available to watch on YouTube and iTunes (or right above), its 18 lectures deliver an introduction to “African-American history, with particular emphasis on the political thought and protest movements of the period after 1930, focusing on selected individuals who have shaped and been shaped by modern African-American struggles for freedom and justice.” Taken together, these online courses offer you more than enough material to hold your own Black History Month right now.
Quick fyi: I spend my days at Stanford Continuing Studies, where we’ve developed a rich lineup of online courses for lifelong learners, many of which will get started next week. The courses aren’t free. But they’re first rate, giving adult students–no matter where they live–the chance to work with dedicated teachers and students.
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