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Column: Zooming through the loneliness of isolation

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 11/21/2020 10:20:22 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 10:20:06 PM

At some point last spring — I believe it was early May — I realized that the pandemic was more than a lurking beast just outside my door, and I finally resigned to the long-term disappointments of the shutdown: no more stage plays or literary readings, no more dinners with friends, and no lacrosse games where I could see my grandsons play. Innocent as it now sounds, I imagined these privations might be over by fall. I dreamed that safe travel would resume, that schools would open, and that the word “quarantine” would return to quaint usage.

Six months later I am so conditioned by the pandemic that I wonder if we will ever return to normal, even when a safe and effective vaccine is available to the whole world. When my wife and I watch a film at home or stream a series, I am startled by the sight of maskless people riding subways or whispering secrets in a candlelit restaurant. Lucky as I am to be retired and to live in one of the safest parts of the country, my children and grandchildren just a few miles away, I am feeling the word’s fatigue.

But thank goodness for technology. I serve on a local board that meets once a month on Tuesdays, and last winter we had to miss two meetings thanks to afternoon snowstorms. Now, in the pandemic, we meet remotely via Zoom, and attendance has never been better. I wonder why we would ever return to live meetings.

Even more surprising has been the Osher@Dartmouth class I just completed, also on the Zoom platform. (This is no commercial for either Osher or Zoom; in fairness, I should say there are other platforms — Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting, to name just two — that likely work just as well, and many organizations have turned to these platforms to keep going.)

Before retiring in 2010, I taught high school English for 43 years, and for the past 10 I have been leading literature classes for Osher. You will never hear me say that online classes should replace live ones, particularly when the aim is for lively discussion. Still, I was pleasantly surprised.

Last December, a friend and I began talking about working together to create a course for the fall of 2020 on the British novelist David Mitchell. This was before COVID-19 had entered our consciousness, and naturally we were imagining live classes. Two months later the virus had our attention, but we still believed our class would be meeting in person. By April, we knew we would have to abandon our project or teach remotely. We were too excited to quit, and over the next four months we brainstormed and planned. We both took some online training for Zoom, but the day before our first class we really had no idea what to expect.

In case you are unfamiliar with Zoom or Osher, some context will help. Most Osher classes meet once a week for two hours with a short break halfway through.

Our particular class ran for eight weeks, and we read three dense and complex novels. For class, we arranged our screens in what Zoom calls “Gallery View,” meaning all 19 of us appeared in boxes stacked in rows like the old game show Hollywood Squares. Now try to imagine fruitful discussion emerging from this bizarre structure.

In a classroom I know how to read body language to sense when people want to speak. Hand-raising is not necessary. But in a virtual class these cues are unavailable. The Zoom platform offers some devices to help discussion — members can light an icon of a raised hand or send “chat” messages to the leader to indicate they want to talk — but we found them all balky and cumbersome and abandoned them after our first meeting. We tried instead to operate like a live classroom, and the results were surprising. Class members simply waved when they wanted to speak, some jumped in spontaneously, and gradually we developed an ethos. During the short break, my co-leader and I talked by phone to review the first half and make adjustments for the second.

A virtual class is at best about 80% as effective as a live one, but in a pandemic these odds are pretty good. You give up some of the banter that crackles through a live class, and the timing for humor suffers. There are moments of silence when the study leaders need to jump in with a question, but silence can chill a live class as well.

There are a few plusses to remote classes. Class members have to choose somewhere in their homes to sit, and what we see behind them adds personality and savor. One member set up outdoors for all but two of our classes, and another beamed in all the way from Baltimore. At some point in each class we knew we’d see Eloise the cat, passing like a sensuous shadow on her owner’s couch; and because all our classes were recorded, a member who had to miss one for a doctor’s appointment could stream it later.

I know we will return to normal one day, but it’s hard to know exactly what that will look like. Crowded tables at popular restaurants, for sure. Live classes and raucous cheering from bleacher seats. But what will we retain from what we have learned? Face masks, I’ll bet, stored in a hallway drawer with winter gloves, for protection when the flu comes around. Judicious hand-washing whenever we return home from errands. Most likely, we’ll hang onto some of the technology that has made the loneliness of isolation bearable. I like to imagine that I’ll never have to cancel another winter class because of weather.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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