When it comes to Zoom etiquette, there’s no rulebook

From makeovers to mic problems, virtual learning at USC has been full of surprises.

Nearly an hour into his virtual lecture on World War II propaganda, Josh noticed something on his porch table, next to his computer: a half-smoked joint.

Being careful not to reveal his transgression to the class, he went inside, grabbed a lighter, and lit up off-camera. He continued to smoke out of frame while the hours-long class continued.

“I would smoke a joint in class again,” said Josh, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “It’s fun to reinforce the idea of how much of a joke Zoom class is to me.”

As students settle into an unusual semester taught only on Zoom, the online video conferencing platform, questions have started to emerge from professors and students alike about how the community is going to conduct itself while navigating uncharted territory.

Professors and staff have been developing makeshift rules and procedures for conduct, but the conundrum of working and studying while being at home is raising a lot of unforeseen debates. Some professors aren’t allowing food or drink, some might require students to always have their camera on, and some even have to grapple with students smoking marijuana or changing their looks during class.

Just a few weeks after the first switch to virtual learning in March, junior Marshall Demirjian, a student in the Iovine and Young Academy, found himself taking on an interesting challenge during a Zoom class session.

“If I’m ever gonna shave my head bald, this is the one time to do it,” Demirjian said.

According to him, his class of about 20 students didn’t know how to react, but his professor only responded with a quick, “Marshall, this isn’t the time,” before moving on with the lesson.

Beyond cosmetic makeovers, some students have struggled with more intimate privacy issues. Sydney Starkes, a senior majoring in cinema and media studies, took issue with the camera policies enforced by her professors over the past few weeks.

“Our teacher is very like, ‘You have to have your cameras on at all times and you should never really turn it off,’” Starkes said. She worries that some students, including herself, may have something personal happening in the background of their call.

These Zoom policies differ from professor to professor. USC does not have an official Zoom policy, only creating guides for staff regarding harassment and “Zoombombing,” when uninvited “Zoombombers” join publicly accessible Zoom sessions.

Students have also expressed frustration regarding stories of discrimination they’ve faced while using the platform. An anonymous post from the Black at USC Instagram account states that a professor asked a student to remove their head wrap during class.

Some professors have turned to their students for help creating policies that make everyone comfortable. Vamsi Abburu, a second-year student majoring in communication and intelligence and cyber operations, said that his COMM 311 class discussed as a group how they would proceed over Zoom.

“The guidelines were mostly suggested by students (the professor told us to come up with them so she can look into implementing them),” Abburu said over text message. “As of right now, every class I’m in still has the option of turning cameras off in the case of distracting environments.”

Even when students want to have their cameras on and turn their microphones on to interact with their fellow students, technical difficulties present an additional barrier. Poor quality microphones and lagging videos sometimes make it impossible for students to participate in the ways they intend.

“I was in a meeting once and when I spoke for like a minute and a half I found out my mic was acting up and when it does that it sounds like I’m underwater,” said junior Yasmin Gil, who is majoring in applied math.

As for Josh, he believes some professors are asking too much of their students to stay engaged for hours on end. He said that, in his opinion, virtual learning is most effective in a “Khan Academy” format, which allows students to watch lectures at their own pace.

“I think it’s a lot to ask students to remain focused and practice ‘etiquette’ in Zoom class, when at the end of the day you’re just listening to someone talk,” Josh said.