rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel”

Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.

We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.

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In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).

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Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).

A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.

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Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.

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Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)

BUT

maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?

I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.

When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”

I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.

I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.

BUT

such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?

I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.

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When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.

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Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.

Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.

Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)

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Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?

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Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?

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That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)

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