From Hallway Hanging to Home on Zoom: What Happens to a School Ethnography During a Pandemic?
7 December 2020
I used to sit in the back of Ms. Park’s first period class and observe the seniors repeating English III. I perched myself on the HVAC unit by the windows; that way, I could see the whole room without filling a student’s desk. It wouldn’t matter unless all the students showed up, which they never did. Still, I was always wary of taking up “too much” space when I was in the field. Now that the field is virtual, these worries are gone…
I am a sociologist of education, and my dissertation is a multi-year ethnographic study of Hamilton High School. Beginning in August 2019, I spent nearly every school day at Hamilton, for a total of 110 days before the school building closed in mid-March 2020. During roughly fifty of those days, I shadowed people as they went about their days: students, teachers, administrators, security guards, and so on. These days helped me understand what a “typical” day was like for people in the school. When I wasn’t shadowing people, I hung out. I developed a route I’d walk again and again, inevitably — by design — getting interrupted almost every time. My IRB required that my research not interfere with instructional time for students; I could observe classes, and often did, but I was more interested in talking to students than sitting silently beside them. So, rather than risking interrupting their learning, I became well-attuned to where and how students spent time when they were not being taught. Often, it seemed that these liminal moments mattered more than anything that went on in their classes.
I’d pass by the gym and see the students who hadn’t gotten changed into gym clothes to participate in class that day, or those who had changed back into their regular clothes and were waiting for the bell to ring. I might run into Asaad, who always got changed quickly and passed the time before the bell rang hugging girls and exchanging fist bumps with boys. I’d ask him how his day was going, and he’d tell me about how two kids in his math class almost got into a fight.
I’d peek into the in-school suspension room to see who was removed from their classes, working instead on “behavior learning packets.” I might see Marquise slowly dragging his pencil across the paper. To the teacher stationed in the room, he’d appear to be working, although he had no intention of actually completing the packet. I’d make a note to follow up with him tomorrow about why he was in in-school.
I’d check study hall to see who was doing homework, or sleeping, or snacking. TaKiana might notice me and give me an excited wave, a broad smile spreading across her face. I’d wave back.
I’d walk through the cafeteria and see who was sitting with whom. I might find Keandra at a crowded table, even though it wasn’t her lunch period. I’d recall her schedule and jot down that she was skipping English class; maybe I’d ask her about it later that day.
I’d run into students in the hallways, on their way to the washroom or the nurse’s office or wherever they needed to go. I might encounter Emma, trudging slowly towards the washroom as she pecked at her phone. I’d ask how her math test went that morning, and she’d shrug. She’d already forgotten that she’d even taken a test that day.
I’d pass through the waiting area outside of the dean’s offices to see who was waiting to meet with an administrator. This is how I first got to know Carlos, awaiting a decision from his dean about his punishment for selling bags of chips to other students. I’d follow up when I saw him next to find out what the result was.
I’d glance into the security office to see who was waiting to hear whether cameras had revealed who had stolen their phone. I might find Kayla small-talking with security guards during a detour on her way back to class from the washroom. I’d join the conversation and learn that Kayla’s birthday was coming up; I’d have to remember to wish her a happy birthday in a few days.
I’d look at the welcome desk to see who was leaving school early, arriving late, or picking something up that a family member dropped off. That’s how I met Chris’ mom, who enthusiastically showed me a picture of the new puppy that Chris had told me they’d adopted. The puppy was adorable, and I remembered to ask Chris about her almost every time we spoke after that.
I’d go past the social workers’ offices and run into students on their way to or from appointments to talk about issues large and small. I might see Sofía on her way from telling her social worker about yet another boy problem. She’d tell me a little bit about it as I walked her back to class.
I’d peer into the library to see who was cutting class or avoiding the crowded cafeteria. I might find Lucas skipping his Graphic Novels class yet again; I’d sit with him for a few minutes and find out that he was embarrassed about being behind, yet again, on his project. He worked long nights bussing tables, so he didn’t have much of a chance to catch up.
And then, I’d go back and check into the same spots again. Now it’s Chris heading to the washroom, while Keandra has been sent to in-school for “talking back” to her teacher. I remember that Carlos has gym this period, and go ask him about what happened with his dean. On my way, I run into Sofía; she asks if I’ll come to her chorus class next period so she can fill me in on gossip between musical exercises. I agree. I know I’m always welcome to drop into Ms. Kelly’s classes.
All of that is gone now. This year, I have been observing “Zoom school.” I am grateful to Hamilton administrators and teachers for allowing me to do so. But it is simply not the same. On Zoom, there is no gymnasium to hang out outside of. No in-school suspension. No study hall. No cafeteria. No passing through the hallways. No waiting to meet with administrators or social workers. No parent pick-ups or excuses for late arrivals. Nowhere to hang out while cutting class. Nowhere to hang out at all. Students log into classes, or not; teachers teach, and assign work; then the Zoom meetings end. The liminal spaces of schooling are gone. As an ethnographer, I miss them. I know that every else does too. “I even miss the people I don’t wanna see,” a student lamented in late April. “It’s boring. I watch a lot of TV,” a security guard told me in November. “It was always my dream to be homeschooled, but now? I just want to go back,” a freshman shared after the school’s dramatically short-lived return to partial in-person instruction ended. They miss one another. I miss them, too.
Although much has been lost in the transition to virtual schooling, not all of it is bad. I am thrilled to be able to use digital consent and assent forms; no longer are they lost in the bottoms of backpacks and lockers. I can observe things like school board meetings from the comfort of my own home, and (thanks to recordings) on my own schedule. Interviews can run longer, freed from the constraints of the bell schedule that dictated students’ lunch times and teachers’ prep periods. When respondents opt to be interviewed via Zoom rather than phone, I can see glimpses into their homes, spaces I never saw in the past.
Gone, too, are many of the discomforts of the field. Food is a highly visible and remarked-upon thing in the school, so I had opted to mostly consume snacks I thought would not draw attention (granola bars, cheese sticks, bananas, and so on). Now, I eat what I want without hesitation. Attire matters deeply in the school context, and I had adopted a “uniform” of sneakers, jeans, and hoodies in an effort to maximize comfort, avoid comment, and appear conservatively dressed. Now, I can wear leggings without worrying about whether their form-fitting style is too provocative. The smallest changes in my physical appearance were commented on, like one day after I had decided to paint my usually unvarnished nails; now, I have experimented with temporary hair dye and nail wraps without worrying about whether anyone would notice or care. Silly things, but there is something nice about indulging in silliness when everything seems so serious.
With these small discomforts gone, so are some of the bigger challenges I faced in the field. No longer do I struggle to respond to comments about my marriageability or child-bearing prospects. Nor do I, through my mere presence, risk contributing to interpersonal conflict. Take, for example, this scene from last year:
A kid turns and asks me if I’m a teacher, and Lucas and Damian explain that I’m a graduate student writing a book about Hamilton. “She’s not a teacher,” they reassure him, and the kid says “oohhhh” with great relief. Lucas and Damian get animated, talking and laughing, and a Black female teacher comes over to the table. She probably couldn’t see me; there is a half-wall behind my chair that I think blocked her view of me. She says “now I know you know you’re being too loud,” and directs the statement to Damian. No one responds. I keep my eyes locked on Damian to avoid hers. With the group now hushed, she walks away. “How come she just singled me out? Like, damn” Damian says once she’s out of ear shot. I feel responsible for this interaction, because it is my presence that sparked the conversation.
Now, there are no awkward encounters; there is no one to ask who I am, no wall to obscure me, and no space to hang out and converse at any volume.
Instead, fieldwork now looks more like this: I email a teacher and ask permission to observe their classes via Zoom sometime later that week or the next. They have much more notice of my observation than when I used to simply show up at their classroom doors and ask to observe that period. Some agree — far fewer than did during in-person schooling. They send me Zoom links, and I send them instructions for changing the meeting permissions so that I can access the meetings. I feel bad for making more work for them; I miss simply walking through the classroom door. On the agreed-upon day, I click the link for their first class. I’m greeted by a waiting room, then the teacher grants me permission to enter the class. I make sure my camera is off and my microphone muted. I do not perch on HVAC units or worry about taking up space; I am simply another box on the screen. Most of the time, students either don’t notice or don’t care about my presence. On occasion, someone asks who I am. The teacher says that I am doing research about Hamilton; the class moves on. No one turns to me and asks, confused, whether I’m a student or a teacher; I don’t await moments of transition to hand a student consent and assent forms, or to ask someone a clarification question. The teacher shares her screen or tells his students to log into Google Classroom. There is a short lecture, a few minutes of work, and then the period ends. We log off, and instead of pouring into crowded hallways, we simply click the link for the next period’s class.
What strikes me most about Zoom school is its silence. Students’ cameras are off, or pointed at the ceiling. Teachers tell me that they see a lot of “foreheads and ceiling fans.” Class is no longer something that happens in a lively classroom; it happens in a virtual void. I used to struggle to keep up with the fast pace of social life in the school. Who shouted, who smiled, who’s talking to whom? What did he say? What did she say? What just happened over there? In Zoom school, I struggle to find signs of social life. To be sure, there are some: the messages sent over chat, the answers students input into the interactive apps and websites their teachers use, the facial expressions of the one or two kids who keep their cameras on and themselves in frame. My general impression, though, is one of deafening silence. I know that, behind the scenes, kids are chatting with one another. More than one student has told me that they keep a best friend or girlfriend/boyfriend on FaceTime all day long. They text, use Instagram and Snapchat, and send each other TikToks. But whereas they used to share some of these virtual spaces with me in the physical space of the school, school now is a virtual space, sans the liminal moments during which I used to learn much about their lives.
Karlyn Gorski is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago, where she teaches in the Public Policy Studies major. When she’s not thinking about schools and inequality, she enjoys cycling, cooking, and circus arts. You can find her published research here.