Virtual vitality: Finding meaning and joy in these times

A vice provost shares what she misses about campus life and how to connect when only virtual meet-ups are possible.

Like many, I miss the immediacy of face-to-face classes, the post-class stroll with a student eager to continue the discussion; a colleague popping into my office—those sparks of relational vitality that foster a sense of belonging, that affirm how wonderful it is to be part of an academic community. 

These days, the only time we gather is in virtual meetings. Gone is the hum of collegial chatting when we arrived in the conference room early, the filling of our coffee cups, the exchanges about our weekends. In their place, we find ourselves in Zoom room echo chambers, with voice delays and disabled cams. We convene only to address specific issues; our agendas are determined in advance; the direction is fixed. Now, we meet only when planned—after receiving a cold auto-generated Zoom invite. 

What we have lost in the transition is vitality. But what is the Zoom-bound higher ed administrator to do? Does virtual academic administration have the bandwidth to connect, to promote wellbeing, to occasion restorative intimacies? Is there a way to foster virtual vitality? 

My friend and colleague Darrin Hicks suggests that vitality “is the awareness of positive energy coursing through the body as it moves through the world, accompanied by feelings of aliveness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm.” It emerges naturally from encounters with colleagues in our meetings—catching each other’s eye, a moment of commonality, a vibe. Zoom makes this harder. Stuck in our own little boxes, we are muted, disembodied, rarely able to hear each other’s laughter.

Psychologist Daniel Stern speaks about the vitality form of movement, which tracks the shifting nature of interactions and how they move and change throughout a conversation. Directionality represents our sense that the movement of our discussion is going somewhere. Force characterizes the intensity of our interactions, from flat to too much. We are intensely aware of time, as our discussions fly by or drag on. Finally, our meetings take place in space, the synchronous visual space of the encounter, action, and surroundings. Lately virtual spaces have replaced physical spaces, with dramatic consequences. These vitalities represent the nonverbal contours of interaction that define how we attune to each other—like an “implicit barometer” of human relations.

In a virtual world, our implicit barometers function less well because it is harder to pick up on all the interactional dynamics. But it’s not impossible. We can and must create vitality within the new normal. Vitality infuses gatherings with intimacy and authenticity and creates a “surge of affective energy … we feel we are in the right place at the right time, doing the right things with the right people.” In these moments, we feel most capable of effecting change: we sense we are doing meaningful work together—whether discussing new faculty onboarding plans, supporting colleagues under duress, or planning for an unpredictable fall term.  

For those of us who facilitate Zoom meetings, the challenge is to recreate intimacy among the participants separated into rows of little boxes at the top of our screens and to ‘unmute’ our natural selves. Five minutes of warm-up time can recreate the cadence of in-person meetings, establishing a sense of connection, and a transition to arriving in the “room.” When, at a recent associate deans meeting, I asked: “What is your walk up song?” One colleague, a jazz fan thinking of George Floyd’s murder, picked John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” written after the KKK church bombings in Birmingham. Another colleague chose “London Calling.” I love imagining this industrious and highly capable administrator rocking out to The Clash. Done well, this practice shifts the mood in the Zoom room, connecting the spaces between us, inviting us to lean in and show up in ways that generate greater authenticity and vitality throughout the meeting. 

Another option is to convert existing in-person gatherings into Zoom conversations. For over a decade before Zoom, my colleague at the University of Denver Paul Michaelec facilitated monthly hour-long Heart of Higher Education (HOHE) conversations, wherein faculty and staff explored the intersection of soul and role. Since COVID-19, Paul has been hosting HOHE virtually. Because we have been gathering together for years, virtual vitality is easier: our well-functioning rhythms and rituals transcend the virtual. Zoom breakout rooms provide the quietness for small group conversations that occasion a deep focus on what is being said in the moment. Because of the topics, the aesthetic modality, and the collective muscle memory, virtual HOHE creates sites of intimate connections, despite built-in Zoom detachment. Similar long-established get-togethers exist in all our institutions and can be carried out in Zoom. Although they don’t address directly our most urgent issues, which take most of our time, they deserve a place in our hyper-busy days to provide the balm of shared experiences. 

Vitality brings joy and meaning to our days. How we work matters, not just what we accomplish. Our adventure in Zoomlandia provides us an opportunity to recognize those small things we miss and to intentionally cultivate them when we return.

Kate Willink in the vice provost of faculty affairs at the University of Denver. Students are expected to move in for the fall semester the week of September 7.

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