24 Feb 2023

Starter Pack

I now have a starter pack I send to welcome BIPOC people, especially femmes, who are questioning whether they might be autistic, filled with essays, memes, hashtags, and online assessment tools. Many people with all kinds of disabilities are doing the same thing, even when we also pursue an official diagnosis—the first hints we had POTS or EDS or fibro or Chiari formation or OCD often came from other disabled people with those body/mind conditions.

–Leah-Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, The Future is Disabled (14)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote lately and the idea of a “starter pack” for disabled and chronically ill friends, colleagues, students. Since Diminished Faculties has come out I’ve had a steady stream of emails from readers. By virtue of teaching disability — as a course, as a topic in courses, and just being out in the classroom — I also regularly hear from students who are thinking about their experience in new ways. I’m slowly assembling a modular starter pack. Right now it’s more on the academic side of “disability studies 101” — my latest undergrad syllabus if they’re not already students in the course, recommendations for some basic readings (Kafer, Price “time harms,” Samuels if they have an invisible disability or chronic illness, Piepzna-Samarasinha, Mia Mingus, etc), and then it depends on the person. New “cancer friends” who are also profs often want career advice or need to navigate the institution; some people want to know where the “community” is (I don’t feel like there’s a single community here); others need to sort out dealing with the local medical system.

If you’ve got something like a “starter pack” I would love to hear what’s in yours.

Killing Prosthetic Metaphors Dead

This came up in my grad seminar this week. Media studies is still full of prosthetic metaphors: where technologies “extend” senses or agency in one way or another. Writers also occasion use the opposite–amputation. The problem with all disability metaphors (see “blind” “deaf” etc) is that they metaphorize stigmas attached to the positions, not the actual experiences of people who use prosthetics, are blind, or are d/Deaf. So what does one do? The answer is of course find other metaphors. Labour metaphors are great because often we are talking about semi-automated processes that have a labour component in them. Writers like Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour will talk about “delegation” which is also interesting (though in Latour’s case separated from real labour politics that perhaps should be considered). There are plenty of other metaphors out there in the sea–go troll for some.

Hybrid Education, or, why I miss the media cart

I receive a pitch from business students who are starting a company to offer students the opportunity to attend class remotely while wearing VR headsets. I am very strongly in favour of hybrid education and have been doing it since before the pandemic. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. We need better infrastructure in classrooms–especially around sound–as well as better technical support. People with real access needs should be the priority as well, which has not been the case thus far, at least not at my university.

This term I’m teaching two seminars, and I’ve been using a Meeting Owl that the dept was able to buy with some funds from an associate dean. It sits in the middle of the seminar table, plugs into my laptop as the camera, mic, and speakers, and the remote students are visible to me but I don’t project them on the screen. One could, but the projector in my classroom has a loud fan that I don’t want to listen to for 3 hours, and it also shines a blue light in my eyes. (It would also require connecting what I have come to call “the media hose,” which barely reaches my computer). It’s not perfect, and like many such devices, the Owl’s video is better thought through than its audio, but it has been very helpful. I haven’t magically become not immunocompromised since returning to campus and this allows me to tell students to stay home if they’re sick. Also, sick students can attend class.

Fall’s lecture course used a classroom recording system that’s ok. The only problem with all this tech is I have to set it up and take it down. I am the wrong generation for the “media cart” with a giant CRT TV and VCR on it, but I had teachers roll those things into classes, and I kind of wish it was that simple to set up.

Anyway, here’s my reply to the VR query.

I’m very curious about the university administration’s response to this.  A number of immunocompromised students sought continued remote learning accommodations due to the ongoing pandemic and were refused.  Will the admin even allow this kind of remote learning, when existing and adequate Zoom options are currently policed and disallowed?  It seems like if there are tech issues with this setup, you’re also putting extra troubleshooting on the shoulders of faculty in the absence of any kind of institutional support for it (see also: online teaching during the pandemic).  The problem isn’t getting the tech into classrooms.  The problem is keeping it working.  W120 Arts was a shining new example of cutting edge instructional design a few years ago.  A student told me the speakers all crackle and some of the mics are broken.  What’s your plan for infrastructure and maintenance?

I should be the target audience for something like this — I’ve been an early adopter of new instructional tech since the 1990s.  I was at conferences with Second Life in the 2000s when they were trying to get profs to have online classrooms full of avatars.  (Look them up — they tried your business plan).

Honestly, I can’t imagine anything I want less than a VR classroom.  I love my students, but I have less than zero interest in teaching in a VR headset or seeing my students as shitty airbrushed-looking cartoon avatars with no legs.

If I can’t see my students, I’d rather they just put pictures of their pets in their Zoom windows, which this is what we actually did during online teaching in the pandemic for those who did not want to appear on camera.

Sometimes lower tech solutions are better solutions.

Invented Scales

One of the fun things about Volte, my instrumental post-rock band, is that sometimes we write music in “invented scales.” I mean, we probably didn’t invent them because I imagine there’s music in pretty much every arrangement of 12-tone-equal-temperment notes by this point. But sometimes the notes of a piece will not fit on any particular scale I know. We’re heading into the studio in early April, so I need to nail down a solo I have been playing, as I haven’t been happy with what I am doing. So I sat down and just tried to figure out all the notes I could use with it to construct some new melodies, and had one of those “wow, so I guess I’ll just use this weird jumble of notes for it and they sort of work” experiences. Now to actually make the melody.

Capitalism is Theft (this category used to be called “Impotent Rage at Telephone Customer Support”)

We were zonked last night and ordered a bunch of food from Chu Chai through Skip the Dishes. Somehow, the app decided we wanted it delivered to an address in Outremont, even though we live in Villeray. I was very tired so I didn’t catch it until the order went in. There was no way to contact the driver through the app to fix it. I couldn’t get through to tech support. So it was delivered to someone in Outremont. Carrie hops in the car to go get it. When she gets there, the person at the address says “I refused it, and the driver took it away.” The driver never even tried to call us. Meanwhile, I finally get through to support (an hour or so after the first try) and am told “it was delivered, if it wasn’t delivered, it was your own fault, and we have a picture of the food on the porch.” So they gave us 50% of the price in “Skip Credits.” I’ll be contesting the charge on the credit card when it shows up, but it should not have been that difficult. We wound up just making the same order and Carrie picked it up from Chu Chai (we had to pay again but it’s not the resto’s fault). Obviously, we would have had an easier time if we’d just cooked something.


Last week I was in Minneapolis visiting family — I basically stole time away for the trip since we didn’t go over the holidays. Next week I’m on vacation at an undisclosed sunny location for spring break, so this space may be quiet again.

10 Feb 2023

New Text

Here’s a new interview with me about Diminished Faculties.

And I have a newish piece with Mehak Sawhney on machine listening and the will to datafy. I’ll get it up on the site, but if you’re at a university, your library should get Kalfou. Happy to email PDFs to people, too. Just ask.

“I’m so busy”

In my experience academics love to talk about how busy they are. It can be a sort of performance/or olympics thing on social media or in conversation, a kind of protestant/grind culture thing (“spring break is a great time to get caught up on my email”), or a status game. Sometimes people are genuinely excited about what they’re doing and just reporting that (on social media this can be read in an unnecessarily hostile manner). We’re not unique if you look at hours logged in some corners of the tech industry, law, medicine, and other professions.

But there has been a shift since the pandemic. Now, more often, among many faculty and staff around me, protestations about busyness have taken on a tone of desperation: “help! how do I make it stop?” This is a labour-management problem. As administrations fail to replace staff and faculty, or do so with contingent or outsourced labour, more work gets dumped on everyone. It also seems admin jobs have shifted and in some cases also doubled–for instance, deans didn’t always spend so much time on fundraising. In my faculty, staff jobs have doubled and in some cases tripled in terms of responsibilities in the time I’ve been here. This has ramifications for everyone.

The solution to this problem is not complicated, but it is hard: labour organizing. Generally academic unions fight for tangible things: wages, benefits, etc. Management may concede some of these things, then create workarounds (like new job classes outside the bargaining unit). But I am curious what a quality of life academic union movement would look like.

h/t JRo

No, click here, not there.

I’ve also become fascinated with the increasing reliance on software-managed work processes over the last few years. They are, quite simply, everywhere. They also add needless cognitive load and box-ticking.

In the 2010s I spent a lot of time talking with people who design software for musicians and sound artists. To the one they identified with the group they were serving, and often used their own tools. When I look at the software systems universities and grant agencies ask me to interact with, it seems they are almost never designed by — or with — the actual people who use them.

Again, I suspect this is a labour-management issue, though you’d also have to add consultancy and conglomeration to the mix. There is a tangible difference from bloatware like MS Word. It’s design actually makes no sense from the standpoint of the people who have to use it the most. (See also: Canadian Common CV.)

The joy of rereading old work

This week I taught Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker’s “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts” in my grad seminar. It’s interesting how things age, and what stories do and don’t get told about them. It had been a long time since I had revisited the essay. I forgot, for instance, how tentative they were about “relevant social groups” — famously sent up by Langdon Winner with his “irrelevant social groups” — and how clear they were that SCOT wasn’t just a model to stamp on everything.

Also, I could totally hear Trevor’s voice when, talking about the black boxing of scientific and technical processes, he wrote “they might as well be making meat pies.” I was supposed to be on a panel in 2004 discussing the 20th anniversary of that piece but something came up and I couldn’t go. For all the talk of FOMO, this is one of the few events I actually remember having missed.

Effortful Mastery

In the same seminar, we had a nice conversation about people encountering new ideas and going running for their bookshelves as a kind of defence mechanism. We’re used to being good at stuff and get impatient when we’re not.

See also: me muddling through Hard Red Spring songs on touch guitar in Tuesday’s practice. At least in Volte practice on Thursday I felt in command of the instrument and all was right in the world.

This comment is not promoting a product; oh shit it is

The Swedish design house Teenage Engineering, famous among musicians for a small synthesizer they make, announced a $1500(US) work table. All I can think of is the Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalogue.

Power and Power

Last weekend we lost power for about 19 hours. On the second coldest day of the year. I did not like it. We should have crashed with friends (we had offers) or gone to a hotel. Instead we white knuckled it and slept in our clothes. Thanks to decent insulation it only got down to 13 degrees (celsius, people) but that’s pretty cold. I was very angry with the power company. I’m sure the people in Parc Ex, who were without power longer than me, had it worse. And it just shows how entitled people like me feel to infrastructure that works all the time and generally stays in the background. Everyone should have that entitlement; relatively few actually do. On the plus side, our fridge is now very clean and well-organized.

Not Doin McLuhan

A lot of people have a lot of feelings about the McLuhan Centre not being the McLuhan Centre anymore. Just please always remember: some of McLuhan’s most important ideas were really racist. Here’s a good thread.

Twitter Post condemning the McLuhan Estate’s childish behaviour and reactionary whining.

3 Feb 2023

Let’s get back to it. There’s catching up to do but in the meantime, I invite you to join me in the middle. Here are some thoughts from the past week.


As part of my Interfaces seminar this term, I am having students do their projects around a process I called “hermeneutic reverse-engineering” (this term is stolen from Anne Balsamo and Heather Love; the process is partly stolen from Chandra Mukerji and Josh Kun). The basic idea is that humanists need to be intentional about what parts of others’ research we reproduce and how. Too often it’s a simple citation, a reproduction of findings (I call this “shopping for panopticons” ) or the profusion of a single metaphor or stylistic tic of an author’s influence. If we are, instead, intentional, then even scholarship we disagree with is available as a rich intellectual resource. And as a bonus, we also have a much more critical relationship to reproducing the methods, findings, or politics of other scholarship.

Meanwhile, the social sciences continue to demonstrate that putatively “scientific” research on culture and society is very very hard to replicate in anything approaching a laboratory manner.

If you are curious about the Hermeneutic Reverse Engineering exercise, here is the handout.

Chat GPT Hot Take

I am so tired of the hype cycle of ChatGPT filling up my social media feeds. I sort of agree with the glib “Mansplaining on demand” meme about it. If it actually worked to produce something accurate and factual, it would be like when calculators showed up in math, science and engineering classrooms. I would consider that useful, not a crisis.

I was teaching part of Alex Galloway’s Interface Effect this week and he has this line about the “paradox” of mediation (I don’t think it’s a paradox): media tend to erase themselves in use but that fact makes them spectacular. People are being blown away that a robot can mimic prose styles and sound confident doing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s good or accurate. For instance, a colleague in science sent me this as an example of how “good” ChatGPT is:

A Twitter post where someone asks ChatGPT to explain how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR in the style of the King James Bible.

This is very funny, but it’s actually terrible advice for removing a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR. It makes the task seem way simpler than it actually would be. I think the author is implying that the sandwich is IN the VCR. Chat GPT assumes the sandwich is ON the VCR, which makes it a much simpler problem than intended.

ChatGPT is not very accurate about things that I care about (which oddly does include peanut butter, sandwiches, and even VCRs), it does not do critical thought or interpretation, and worse, if you don’t know, you can’t tell when it’s being shitty. So, in sum, from a pedagogical standpoint, this is like handing out shitty, glitch-ridden calculators to undergrads.

Speaking of which, I asked my undergrads about it–keep in mind these are Liberal Arts majors in a senior seminar so not a representative group–and none of them took it very seriously as a writing tool, and some didn’t even know what it was. I will eventually have more to say about it but right now my position is similar to Cathy Davidson’s: make better assignments.

Meanwhile people are busy designing software to detect if writing was produced by ChatGPT. I do not want to be the police.

We’ll see where we’re at in September when my big lecture course starts up again.

Teaching Highlight of the Week

We are doing a compare-contrast sort of assignment for the first short paper in my undergrad disability seminar. A student comes to meet with me to pitch her idea.

“I want to start with Hamraie’s knowing-making and Piepzna-Samarasinha’s idea of crip wisdom.”

I say ok.

“I’m thinking of this as a sort of disability knowledge management thing.”
I am confused, but I say, ok, continue.

“I want to write it as an actual dialogue.”

I say ok.

“And I want them to be designing a spaceship.”

Yaaaaaaaasssss! My work here is finished.

Art and Pain

Again, there’s lots of music news since I last wrote, let’s just start in the middle.

Hard Red Spring is the only band where I still play bass. Hand pain from my cancer meds has led me to switch from bass to touch guitar as my main instrument. Touch guitar is just less painful (I still wear gloves to play most days); I’ve also spent a lot of time with synthesizers. At Tuesday’s HRS practice, for the first time ever, even with gloves, it was too painful for me to play finger style. So I played everything with a pick and it was better. This leaves me with a decision: do I try to learn all our music with a pick, or do I try and convert all of my basslines to things I can play on the touch guitar? The pick is the technically easy choice since I can already almost do it, but there is still some pain. The touch guitar choice is less painful but more technically difficult because what’s easy on bass (especially that post-punk thing of repeating 8ths) is hard on touch guitar and what’s hard on bass is easy on touch guitar. Over the pandemic I relearned the Volte repertoire on touch guitar but this is a different kind of playing.

I hate substack

If people can do substacks that are basically compilations of short takes from the week, I can do a blog that is short takes from the week (or an amorphous but regular period), AND I can do it while NOT letting a corporation ask you for money. I’ll be fishing around for newsletter plugins sooner or later.

It’s been awhile

Today I returned to my office at McGill for the first time since February 2020. There was stuff in the fridge that I’d left in 2020. The most frightening thing was some store bought hummus that had not developed any visible weird molds on it. I did not taste it–it is almost more disturbing that it just looks fine than if it add all sorts of funky colours on it. I will also not be buying that brand again anytime soon. It, and everything else in the fridge went in the trash, along with expired medications, print copies of journals that I don’t want (when will they learn?), and so much mail.

There were letters and books that arrived in 2020, 2021, and 2022; I took a little time to write thank you notes (and belated congratulations) for some complimentary copies sent by authors.

And there was dust, oh so much dust everywhere. The office had been cleaned, but not fully and mostly in the areas that were being regularly used. I think McGill now employs a single porter per three buildings, so I don’t blame them.

I spent most of the day cleaning, decluttering (a bit) and putting things right. My museum of quirky/obsolete communication technologies is looking a bit worse for wear and may need some refreshing. The walls definitely need some new decorations. I need a new desk chair.

I was in because I had an appointment with an instructional tech person to try out tech in a classroom because it looks like–Covid willing–I will be teaching on campus in the fall. I also needed to check out the classroom in case I had to address other access needs before the term starts. My approach to dealing with the pandemic is simply to follow my doctor’s instructions. I outsource my thinking to him, because he seems to have a good balance between “be careful” and “live your life.” He thinks I can do it and that I won’t be in serious danger (though of course I could get sick and probably will).

It’ll be me and 200 undergrads in a crowded lecture hall, so I wanted to make sure the lecture recording system works with the audio setup I want to use. I want to be able to tell students not to come to class if they are feeling sick, which means providing decent recordings.

Campus is usually pretty deserted in July. In fact, I almost never go in during July, but it’s been a weird month. We pushed off most of our vacation to August, and that’s meant an uncannily busy summer with only 10 days off to go see family (plus nights and weekends). I have never had so much to do in July. I don’t know if it’s because I lost a month to Covid in April and feel like I’ve been playing catch-up ever since (another reason why this space has been all crickets), or if it’s something about the outside world.

The office visit was so incredibly banal, but also somehow punctuated time for me. Things were really different in so many ways when I last set foot there. To say I didn’t know what was coming was an understatement–not just the pandemic but so many other things. I catch myself talking about pre-pandemic time as if that’s “normal” and everything since then is exceptional, but people have started and finished master’s degrees in the time since I last walked in that room. They’re different, and so am I.

McGill faculty: if you don’t provide Covid accommodations to your disabled, high-risk, or ill students, nobody will

Here are some things concerned faculty ought to know about McGill’s return to campus happening next week (or in three weeks, depending).

Faculty need to step up and be the ones to provide accommodation for students who need it. The university is NOT currently accommodating students who are high risk or who live with people who are high risk. (This may change but currently it does not seem to be the case.)

Chairs and faculty are being told that students will be accommodated and to refer them to OSD. THIS IS NOT CORRECT. As this Twitter post from Emily Black explains, OSD is not presently authorized to provide, facilitate, or mandate remote accommodations for students who are high risk or someone who lives with high risk. This is not a criticism of OSD, but rather the executive decision not to allow remote learning as an accommodation. Apparently, students can apply to the Dean of Students, but as of now, there is no announcement as to what accommodations may be available, what support there will be for instructors to make those accommodations, and when people will hear back.

A Twitter post showing correspondence with the OSD. It says in part that the OSD “does not hold the authority to provide remote education as an academic accommodation.”

This means that faculty DO have the discretion to accommodate students, and do not need permission from OSD or deans to decide how to accommodate students’ access needs.

But wait!

It is easier than you think to accommodate students who want to be remote. Last fall I posted a simple guide to hybrid classes (also called hy-flex). It’s not perfect and it’s a skill people have to learn, but you do not need tremendous technical facility to do it. If you are teaching a large lecture course, even just recording it and making it available online, is a good option. If your classroom is not set up for recording, use your phone and upload the recording and your slide deck to MyCourses, or ask one of your students for help. Then, if there is a demand, you could take an hour of class time every couple weeks and do a Zoom meeting for the online students to check in with them.

This can also go in reverse. I am immunocompromised and am teaching online this term, at least until such time as my oncologist says it’s safe to go back to campus. However, I will be arranging for the students who want to be present together in class (or who have to be) to be able to meet in the classroom together and to have the shared experience they want. This is exactly as complicated as doing it the other way around. IE, not that hard.

Students, like faculty, are divided about the best course of action. Though I can’t go back right now, I really would like to and am tired of being on Zoom, so I get it. In an ideal world, we’d have a situation where the people who want or need to be on campus can be, and the people who need to stay off campus could also do that. We’re not going to get to that ideal world in two weeks, but we can do a hell of a lot better than we’re doing right now.

Translation of McGill’s Return to School Announcement into English

For most years since 1997, I have taught a first year university intro to communication studies course. While I don’t often focus on interpretation of media messages or public relations–there are lots of other things to cover–sometimes it’s a good exercise. To keep myself in shape, I thought I would practice on McGill’s latest announcement about our return to campus in the middle of a raging pandemic and a failing public health infrastructure in Quebec.

Following George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English Language,” I have translated Fabrice Lebeau’s message that went out yesterday to the McGill community into English.*

As announced during Premier Francois Legault’s press conference on Thursday, universities and CEGEPS will be allowed to resume full in-person academic activities starting on January 17. The curfew will also be lifted January 17.  

McGill will therefore follow its plan to transition to in-person classes for most teaching activities on January 24.  

Most lectures with more than 200 students will remain online, as announced previously.  

All faculty, staff, and students will need to be in Montreal.  

For administrative and support staff: 

Staff who need to be onsite to carry out their job functions will continue to come to campus, including staff carrying out administrative activities in support of on-site operations.  

Staff who need to be on campus to provide the best support to students or to in-person academic activities (learning, teaching and research) will also be asked to return, with the schedule determined by their supervisor. 

Other administrative and support staff will begin to return in the coming weeks, with a timeline for return to be announced soon.  

You have to go back to campus on the 24th. Staff with immediate supervisors who believe more fervently in science than bureaucratic directives may have somewhat greater flexibility in their working arrangements, at least in the short term.

New government projections show that Quebec may have hit its peak in cases and hospitalizations will likely soon begin to stabilize, though the situation in the health care system remains difficult. Thank you to all McGill faculty, students and staff contributing to the fight against COVID. 

The government has stopped testing people for Covid and our hospitals and emergency rooms are full beyond capacity. Our premier would like it if the rate of infection were to decline soon. There is no need to wait and see if their projections pan out. Now is the time to return to campus.

Thank you to all our hard working employees.

We have been receiving many emails and getting other feedback. People are divided in their opinions about in-person activities. While online learning has its place, many are exhausted by it and feel isolated. Many students and instructors are very eager to come back in-person. But some people are very anxious about in-person activities because of the transmissibility of the Omicron variant.  

People are talking. Some people are saying that they very tired of being in a pandemic and are tired of all the safety measures. Other people are saying that they are very tired of being in a pandemic and tired of all the safety measures, and are also concerned about dying or becoming permanently disabled from–or infecting a loved one with–a virus that is not currently well understood or under control.

We understand these concerns.

Both sides have valid concerns.

We will be communicating throughout next week to answer various questions, discuss our safety measures, and address your concerns.  

Omicron is indeed highly transmissible and presents differently than previous variants, but vaccination still provides strong protection against severe illnessIf you are worried about yourself or those around you, get your third dose as soon as possible. Three doses of vaccine prevent upwards of 70% of transmission. Nearly all COVID cases in triply vaccinated people are not severe.

Even double vaccination provides a strong level of protection against severe illness requiring hospitalization, and more than 96% of our students are now vaccinated with at least two doses.  

The risk to a small number of our staff and students is a risk we have to take at this time because we are tired of being online. Since there is very little research on long Covid from Omicron, there is no reason to worry about it at this time.

A high level of vaccination, plus the many other layers of protection McGill has in place, makes us confident that we can continue our commitment to in-person academics and maintain a safe environment on our campuses.  

We will maintain a safe environment for nearly all members of our community.

Booster shots now open for everyone 18+ 

All adults are now eligible to receive a third COVID vaccination if it has been at least three months since your last dose. Santé Québec recommends that you get the booster shot, even if you have recently had COVID. 

Three doses will soon be required to be eligible for a vaccine passport, so we advise you to get your booster shot as soon as possible. More information here

Rapid testing available for symptomatic individuals living in residences 

As the government is now restricting rapid tests to people with COVID symptoms, we have transitioned to testing symptomatic individuals living in downtown residence buildings. Three rapid test sites are opening today.  

All residents should have received an email with further details and how to book a test. Testing will expand to Macdonald campus residences in the coming weeks. 

We are restricting the rapid tests to symptomatic people living on campus, as we do not want to encourage members of our community to travel to the University if they are symptomatic. If you have COVID symptoms, self-isolate and follow these instructions.  

Get a booster shot.

Do not test if you might have been exposed. It is important to conserve tests. Even though this virus is extremely contagious, only test if you have symptoms.**

If you have been exposed to the virus, but are asymptomatic, you can come to campus.

Extracurricular activities must be virtual 

Danielle McCann, Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, announced via Facebook that, for the moment, extracurricular activities would need to take place virtually.  

Report your symptoms or positive COVID diagnosis to the Case Management Group 

Call 514-398-3000 if you have had a positive test OR if you are self-isolating because of COVID-19 symptoms AND have been on campus in the 48 hours before your symptoms began.  

Reporting is extremely important in helping us identify and manage any possible outbreaks on campus.  

The case management staff will also provide information to you about next steps and resources.  

[This section appears to be written in English.]

Take care of your mental health 

It is your responsibility to take care of your mental health.

The uncertainty and isolation from the COVID pandemic can take a toll on your mental health. We all need help sometimes. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, resources are available to help students and staff.  

Because we believe mental health is important, we launched a program called “My Healthy Workplace” in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a web portal.

In the midst of this uncertainty, please remember to take a break and do something relaxing that is not in front of a screen. Go outside, call a friend, meditate – whatever works for you.  I hope to see you very soon.  

Do not rage at doublespeak appearing on your screens, or the fact that your employer, who also employs some of the world’s leading epidemiologists, is not taking an extra week or two to see if the infection rate is actually ebbs. That would not be good for anyone’s mental health.


*Since I’m writing in Quebec, here’s your obligatory clarification that this isn’t about the quality of anyone’s English fluency. In fact, the announcement shows the deft use of English to, in Orwell’s words, defend the indefensible.

**The province has ceased offering PCR tests to most of the population and therefore can no longer accurately track Covid rates.

Read more here for the context in which McGill announced that everything was about to get better:

Aaron Defel tweet thread explaining how Quebec deaths are rising–click it to read it on Twitter.

Zoom Teaching: Omicron Edition (or, the ballad of Mr. Twinkles)

We are in what feels like semester 1 trillion of Zoom teaching. I don’t know about you, but I’m still talking with people about engaging students online. Here are a few things that have come up. It’ll be elementary for some readers but useful for others.

This post is adapted from a conversation I was having on Facebook and a Zoom call with a friend coming off sabbatical that happened yesterday. My Facebook friend was frustrated because students weren’t turning on their cameras; my Zoom friend was just worried about doing a good job and not getting tripped up in his performance. I’ve added in stuff and developed a few things.

  1. If they are going to have their cameras off, I ask them to please have an avatar–a picture of themselves, a pet, or a beautiful place. That way I’m not looking at black boxes. It’s actually really nice. I always take a few minutes the first day and let one of the students who knows how explain to the other students. I still associate some of my students with their pet pictures from last term.
  2. McGill students LOVE to be polled. This is an easy way to get things happening in class. I poll them on serious things, I poll them to see how they’re doing, and I poll them on jokey things. This also gets them involved. There are other collaborative things we can do too: google docs, jamboards, etc. It’s not think-pair-share, but this fall I did a couple generative exercises on jam boards and referred back to them all term.
  3. The chat function also works very well as a backchannel. The chat has been a revelation. I tried a Twitter backchannel one term years ago and didn’t like it at all, but this is somehow different. In my lecture course a few students who rarely spoke supplied a steady stream of emoji and text reactions. It was great. If you have a TA, they can monitor the channel and interrupt proceedings every so often. If you don’t have a TA, stop every so often and respond to the channel if something good is in there. NOTE: there will always be someone who needs to be trained. I had to explain a couple times that the chat wasn’t for asking off-topic questions (requirements, procedures, etc). That’s what office hours is for. Keep in mind that they may just not know and it’s not necessarily intentionally being rude. (Though you’d hope by now that wasn’t the case.)
  4. In my case, letting them see my sense of humour even more than usual has been a godsend and encouraged them to bring levity to the proceedings, which keeps it fresh for me. Maybe this is an “I’m an extroverted white dude” thing but there is probably some slightly exaggerated part of your personality that could be helping out with classroom hospitality. I have a giant stuffed unicorn in my background at all times. His name is Mr. Twinkles The Destroyer. (He’s a gift from Carrie and he is a Covid unicorn.) I also use other props from time to time. Your mileage may vary with that sort of thing.
  5. You have to consider that there may be reasons they don’t want the camera on. Some people don’t know how to hide self-view on Zoom and seeing themselves all day on camera is super stressful. PRO TIP: hide yourself as well. You haven’t spent your career watching yourself teach–why start now? Social class issues come up depending on where they’re connecting from, and that can also affect whether they can talk. Last term, I had a bunch of students logging in from places like the library as well. For discussion and Q&A I let people type into the chat.
  6. Some will just check out–at least from your perspective. Teach to the ones who are there for it and make it as great as can be for them, but also for the people who might watch later or who can’t interact for whatever reason. Nick Seaver pointed out on the thread that it’s more like the performance of a dialogue for the other students, and it is very helpful for students to hear multiple people talking about ideas and not just you. That’s all you can do but it’s also a real thing. Students will go back to the recordings, and people who weren’t there will listen as well.
  7. Remember that you’d just not going to cover as much. I decided I was going for trying to reproduce the depth of engagement, but to let go of covering as many topics. That’s just how it is.
  8. One thing that I’ve noticed is it’s somehow harder to go “back to the text” in Zoom. This is because often students are using the same device to connect to Zoom and to look at the text. I am talking about it with my students this term and we will try different things: putting passages up on screen for everyone (if they’re visible), getting people to use multiple devices, collectively switching from Zoom to the text, or doing it in audio-only.
  9. Bonus round: audio and video media. Yes, I know, visual culture blablablabla. Trust me, sound is what matters on Zoom. This is a little more technical. In my lecture class, I play them music on breaks. I use a Loopback function with my audio interface. If you’re on a Mac, loopback also works well for this. If you’re going to play music for them, go into your Zoom audio settings, and set them up as in the image below. You don’t want to turn on stereo as that doubles everyone’s bandwidth consumption.
A picture of Zoom's audio settings, with the following boxes checked: "low" for suppress background noise, "show in-meeting option to enable "original sound"; "high fidelity music mode" and "echo cancellation."

Once you’re set up this way, there will be an option in the upper left-hand corner of your Zoom window to turn on original sound.

To play music, it’s best to have it on your computer rather than to stream it (otherwise you get compounding compression artifacts). THIS IS ALSO TRUE FOR STREAMING VIDEOS. Turn on original sound, hit play. When you’re done, turn off original sound. Otherwise, they’ll hear every time your hand hits your trackpad.

Many of my friends in film studies just send the students to the video directly, rather than streaming it in class. This also works, and you can leave the chat function on in Zoom while everyone is watching.

Some additional thoughts: In fall 2020, I initially erred on the side of breaking down big assignments into too many small components. It felt, and was, micromanagey and destroyed the intellectual flow of some of the work. But in winter 2021 I overcompensated and found by the end of term some of my students were a little lost on the semester project–they just didn’t have it in them to impose that level of structure after 18 months on Zoom. A semester long project is really going to need some careful guidance to work for most students.