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Claire Aitchison

Can you see me?  She’s muted, she can’t hear you. Turn up your volume.  Write it into the chat function. Hello – can you hear me? That background is amazing.  I still can’t see you.  Down on the bottom, on the left, the picture of a microphone: press it.  And, so it goes – even still, even 100s of zoom meetings later…

Before Corona, whether in the laboratory or the office, by chance or scheduled, most supervisors met with their students face to face on campus. With students readily on hand, the expectation was for synchronous, physically co-present meetings – and for most, there was simply no need to consider alternatives. However, virtual supervision had been increasing with the growth in transnational doctoral study options and to meet the need for student and supervisor flexibility more generally. With the Covid-19 pandemic, what was a trend, now seems quite routine.

So, how do we best operate in this new environment? What are the etiquettes, traps and advantages of virtual meetings and of giving and receiving feedback on virtual platforms such as zoom?

How equitable is meeting online? 

Zoom can dismantle the separation of personal and public sometimes way too much, and way too early in the supervision. When physical meetings occurred on campus, the supervisory relationship would evolve quite separately from the personal and the domestic – it was a rare thing to go into the homes of students, let alone see their messy room, housemates, pets, domestic lives, partners and kids. On the positive side, virtual kitchen table meetings can be fun and enrich our connections, making us all more human.

However, this is not an even playing field – not everyone has the luxury of good internet connection, a home to show off, a private workspace, or amenable housemates. One survey of rural and remote students in Australia suggested “two-thirds had home internet speeds insufficient for their studies.” (Campus Morning Mail 17 June 2020).

And let’s not forget that many doctoral students fought hard to get dedicated space on campus, to get away from domestic embroilment. It’s likely there’s a gendered and carer twist also – when there are home-based caring responsibilities, chances are, it’s women who are more likely carrying the greatest burden. It’s hard to concentrate on discussing chapter feedback when a baby is crying or kids and dogs are racing around the room. Some domestic situations are more easily controlled than others; we’d hope there’d be greater acceptance and tolerance of people’s circumstances as we all navigate the working from home challenges.

Virtual backgrounds can be great to hide the real space you are working from – and can be better than sharing a view of your ceiling or bathroom door. It can also be fun sharing pics of holidays, paintings, museums and so on.

Decide what you really want to share – How personal is too personal?

In addition to the contextual reasons above, there may be other psychological and communicative factors. When the camera is on, we can feel very exposed. Somehow power dynamics can play out differently, perhaps facial expressions are more heightened when the camera delivers them close-up?  Students may not wish to be seen so close-up when meeting with supervisors because it can feel confronting and intimidating, especially if they already lack confidence, or their cultural norms preclude easy or prolonged eye contact. Even in group zoom meetings we’ve all see the raised eyebrow, the quizzical glance, expressions of disagreement or smiles of entertainment – in small virtual meetings these unconscious expressions can feel more acute. When the camera is on, there’s nowhere to hide, perhaps further altering behaviour and perceptions; making some more nervous of speaking, while talkative others can appear to dominate.

Supervisory meetings can be emotional spaces at any time – the stakes can be high as ideas and perspectives are contested; meanings can be misconstrued and feelings can be hurt as discussion, disagreement and humour mingle and overlap. It can be hard to keep up and to navigate the social communicative rules of banter and scholarly debate. When supervisory teams are relatively new, students may feel uncertain about how and when to speak up – and this can be even more intimidating in virtual environments. As supervisors, we need to be extra-vigilant because we can’t see the usual whole-of-body signs; withdrawing, turning away, shielding and shutting down that signal vulnerability and threat. I have yet to discover the virtual box of tissues. No wonder zoom meetings are exhausting!

Camera on or off?

The right choice will depend on how well established your relationship is. Mostly I think we should have our cameras on for supervision meetings. Notwithstanding the caveats above, being able to see the facial reactions and expressions of those we are talking to can be critical to building relationships, as well as for monitoring mood and well-being. Having said that, there will be times when we and/or our students need privacy – times when anxiety or vulnerability needs to be accommodated sensitively. If you are talking through feedback that is unexpected, or delivering a difficult message, discomfort can be exacerbated when the camera is switched on – and risky when it’s off.

If possible, begin meetings and greetings with camera on, and thereafter I think it’s fine to seek permission to switch it off and instead share the screen to focus on the text being discussed. When you aren’t on camera – consider having a picture of yourself rather than a black screen or a generic background.  At least this way others are reminded of who you are.

But is it OK to be the only one not sharing your face and space? When people don’t know each other, well, it can feel awkward not being able to see everyone.

Be presentable You don’t need to look like a movie star, but you do want to look presentable – the bother we take with our appearance can be interpreted as respect for the work we do and for our students. I will never forget the shock of joining a zoom meeting to see my meeting attendee in bed eating her breakfast cereal. Now I can laugh, but at the time … way too much informality!

The other thing people often complain about is the camera angle – yes, it can be disconcerting to talk to your supervisor with a view of their chin or their ceiling.

Real backgrounds If possible, place the camera so that it shows you and your physical space in a good light. Bookshelves are hard to beat – provided they are filled with the kind of work you want to be associated with!

Death by zoom If you do need to cover a lot of territory in your supervision meeting, consider breaking the session up – stop for a tea break, schedule a break to chat about ordinary things as you would in face-to-face encounters.

Finally, one of the lovely things about our new online lives has been the social commentary about working from home and the  Covid-related humour. There’s joy in having a laugh at ourselves through the predicaments we’ve had to face. From these I have sourced a few tips for minimizing the unpleasantries of zoom meetings:

  • Keep an animal on hand – they’re perfect distractors; call them in when things are getting too heavy.
  • Keep your eye on that mic – switching it on and off can lead to awkward situations.
  • Feel like a drink during meetings? Just make sure it’s tea.

Please feel free to share other tips or fun advice.