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Who's Zoomin’ Who?

By Alan Resnick

Like millions of other people with too much unanticipated free time on their hands, I’m participating in online educational activities like Ted Talks, Coursera programs, and free cooking demonstrations. So, when a friend told me recently about an upcoming class on great humorists over the last 50 years, I was all in.

This was my first Zoom-based educational program. But I think I’ve seen enough. After logging on Monday (August 31) using the meeting entry key that been emailed to me earlier in the morning, I saw that over 300 people were participating. The instructor introduced himself and announced that the session would be focusing on three humorists, Mort Sahl, Art Buchwald and Fran Lebowitz. He explained that our microphones had been turned off, and unwisely encouraged us to use the “Chat” button at the bottom of the Zoom screen to either ask questions or to respond to queries he would be posing during the presentation.

He began with Mort Sahl, the political satirist. As the instructor began an overview, a picture of a young Sahl being interviewed by a young Regis Philbin appeared. The “Chat” button on my screen quickly became illuminated. I was expecting to see questions like when was Sahl born, was he still alive (he’s 93), or what led him to political satire. I was wrong. Instead, the following comments began to pop up: “Is that Regis Philbin?,” “How old do you think Regis is in that photo?,” and “I never cared much for Regis Philbin.”

It got better (worse?). “Does anybody remember Sam Levinson? Why wasn’t he included among the humorists being discussed?” (Sam Levinson was a schoolteacher turned humorist whose heyday was in the 1940 ’s and 50’s.) “I remember Sam Levinson. He once came to my sixth-grade class.” Finally, one of my classmates got us back on track: “I once bumped into Mort Sahl in a restroom.” Please, tell us more!

I felt myself beginning to twitch and had to restrain myself from reaching for my keyboard before posting a comment that I would likely regret. Fortunately, our instructor found these remarks equally distracting and irrelevant, and announced that he would appreciate it if comments were restricted to the subject matter. Surely this admonishment would keep my fellow learners more focused.

We moved on to Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his column in The Washington Post that was syndicated in over 500 newspapers. Our instructor showed one of Buchwald’s columns and mentioned that it was published in 1968. It was a satirical column about the Women’s Liberation movement. Part of the column was devoted to bra burning. Once again, my screen lit up as participants began to chat. “Women of a certain age hate bras.” “Bras cost too much to burn.” “This is so dated.” Well, yes, perhaps because, as mentioned at the outset, Buchwald wrote the article more than 50 years ago?

This was like being in a movie theater and finding yourself sitting in front of a couple who just won’t stop talking. Over-the-shoulder dirty looks and shushing noises have absolutely no impact on their conversation: “Isn’t that Seth Rogan? I really liked that movie that he was in with Katherine Heigl. What was the name of it again?” (Knocked Up. Can you please lower your voice now?)

Our attention then turned to author Fran Leibowitz, known for her sardonic social commentary on American life. We were shown a snippet from an interview with Ms. Leibowitz in which she commented that, although she hates musical theater, she loved the play Hamilton. As she began her explanation for purposes of setting up her punch line, my screen became flooded with commentaries. “I’ve seen Hamilton five times.” “I’ve seen it six times, twice with the original cast.” “I don’t have the money to afford tickets.” While heartbroken to read of this classmate’s financial plight, I was thankful that her comment served to bring this competition to a screeching halt.

In the hopes of sparing others the frustration I experienced, I have created a basic etiquette guide for participating in Zoom educational sessions. Alert: these suggested rules are appropriate for educational meetings in which the majority of participants do not know one another; they are not applicable to Zoom-based family get togethers or gatherings organized by mutual friends.

  1. Don’t apologize for being late – It’s not required to announce your arrival, particularly so if you happen to join the session after it started. Your tardiness will go unnoticed unless you choose to bring it to everyone’s attention. There is no door to the auditorium that will creak open, and light from the hallway will not stream into the room. The only distraction is your statement itself.

  2. It is not necessary to announce you are leaving the meeting – This is a corollary to the first rule. If you want to leave the session early, be it from boredom or a conflicting activity, just do it. One participant in my session, either out of courtesy or self-importance, announced: “Sorry, but I have to run.” I wonder if they expecting other participants to acknowledge their departure with comments like “Take care” or “Is everything okay?” Simply hit the “Leave Meeting” button on your screen. You won’t be disrupting anything. It’s not as if you’re getting up from your seat and asking the people sitting next to you to stand up so you can pass in front of them.

  3. Hide your screen shot – This is particularly important during sessions that occur around typical eating hours. It’s not terribly appetizing to watch others eat, brandish a toothpick, or floss. Your commitment to oral hygiene is laudable, but best done privately.

  4. Keep side conversations offline – It was clear that, in my class, there were a number of “regulars,” or people who had attended other sessions hosted by this particular instructor. This apparently created a certain bond among these participants, and resulted in them having side conversations with one another via “Chat.” Either they forgot, or perhaps simply didn’t care, that their exchanges were being witnessed by the whole class. While it was certainly interesting to learn of one participant’s harrowing struggles with restless leg syndrome, it left me feeling something like a voyeur. So, if enrolling with some friends, carry on your private conversation via a text thread.

  5. Respect the “Chat” button – It is intended to be used for asking content-related questions or responding to them. It is not intended to serve as a depository for random thoughts.

I sincerely hope that these simple tips will help you both model good student behavior should you enroll in a Zoom educational event, as well as keep your own sanity. I think I lost a good portion of mine before I logged off.


Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.

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