Credit: : @BlossomStefaniw on Twitter, 12 May 2020
Earlier this year, this meme of the Muppets travelled far and wide. The caption reads, “Finally understood what zoom meetings remind me of.” This one image encapsulates some of the possible affects, sensations and emotions felt, whilst being online during Zoom experiences. Sensations that can include a heightened self-consciousness (see the work of Turkle, for more on this), which are often related to a highly sensitised corporeal visibility, and at times can be rather intimidating. I noticed I have a slightly sleepy right eye for example. Other contradictory connotations are quite literal, for example the embodied sensation of ‘being a muppet’: of not recognising your own self-image and/or experiencing a lack of recognition and visibility; of seeing yourself (like a puzzle piece) alongside other virtual pixelated bodies. There is often an overarching sense of performance (Coonfield and Rose, 2012). Ultimately video conferencing experiences, confront us with aspects of our humanness that we so often side-line: our humility; fragility; and the inherent absurdity of our existence.
I am researching ‘fun’ in nonformal learning experiences with a sport for social change charity called Coaches Across Continents. They have developed a ‘Purposeful Play’ methodology primarily using physical play-based games, often inspired through non-competitive football-based skills. Due to the ongoing pandemic my sensory ethnographic research transmuted into researching their embodied learning experiences, online, rather than ‘on field’ (or on pitch). My theoretical underbelly draws from the work of Sarah Pink (2011), a theorist of embodied and emplaced approaches, and I am interested in the staff and coaches’ “phenomenological participation with others… engaging all participants on emotional, intellectual, and bodily levels” (Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton, 2021).
As I looked at the Muppet meme, and considered my own research, I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of online, mediated lived experiences, and in particular, what the concept of presence can offer to this. For the purposes of this blog, I will define ‘presence’ as the embodied sensation of “Being-here-now”; an openness/attentiveness to the spontaneous, unexpected aspects of experience and a “movement toward becoming” (Coonfield and Rose, 2012: 195); an unself-conscious alignment of self, text, image and audience. The International Society for Presence Research provides further detailed definitions (see: https://ispr.info/about-presence-2/about-presence/ ). It is for me a sensitivity, a sensory attunement to being alive, in the specificity of any given moment. In that moment, a person’s subjective body-mind is highly attentive to ‘the spatial arrangement of social and material entities through which certain ways of participating are made available’ (Gumbrecht, 2004: 138). The body encounters its surroundings and the material elements in that space. The body-mind is not a Cartesian duality (as many non-Western cultures already attest to), because we are physical beings who experience the world through our bodies. For theorists such as Merleu-Ponty, the blind woman’s stick ceases to be an external object for her and becomes an “area of sensitivity” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 143), an extension of her attentiveness of perception to the world/materials/spaces around. “In a sense, all reality is virtual. It is constructed through our sense organs and cognitive apparatus. Reality is not ‘out there’, it is what we take to be ‘out there’” (Ijsselsteijn, 2003: 245). What we take to be ‘out there’, is a choice of where and how we intentionally focus (tune in) our sensorial capabilities.
Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton’s (2021) work, suggests there is evidence towards an understanding that online classrooms are capable of producing a sense of presence and connection. Arguing that (if intentionally constructed and made so) “the online learning environment is a safer, more open, and respectful place to engage in vulnerability and form relationships. Face to face interaction does not magically guarantee presence” (p.4). They remind us, as do Sheehy et al. (2014) that you can certainly be in a physical space amongst bodies, but your mind is absent.
I by no means want to suggest that intentionally crafted face to face formal/ informal lessons are inferior to online learning spaces, nor do I want to suggest that all online learning spaces/experiences are superior. There can be an assumption that it is necessary to premise one above the other. I think it depends on context and intentions. However, I am keen to share early findings from my own research observing four informal online multi-cultural training sessions of three staff/coaches with twelve youth coaches. These were held December 2020- January 2021 using Zoom.
My early findings align with Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton’s (2021) suggestion that the ‘performance of self can be associated with presencing— which includes non-judgmental noticing of the ways in which one interacts with, incorporates, and becomes part of, her environment, rather than a calculative, manipulative strategizing of how one appears in front of others’ (p.7). In relation to my research, the designed ‘ice breaker’ activities (a short play-based game, often involving some physical movement e.g., online charades at the start of a session) aimed to generate this inter-relational awareness of (body-mind) self, amongst others – co-presence.
For the coaches, as expressed in post interviews, these moments were often space-times of heightened ‘being – here – now’, and all the more so, because they were experienced and embodied as ‘fun’. Yet these moments of heightened presence, an aliveness (a type of ‘fun’) were always transitory, and moments of controlled presentation of the self, such as the readjusting of hair/item of clothing, or a turning off of the camera video would create a flow and ebb into a space-time of disconnection/ absence/uncertainty whilst online. These could be experienced as shared (“should we all turn our cameras on?”), or individual (prolonged inert bodies and facial expressions).
This recognition of dis-engagement online, a “hyperconscious staging of self in relation to others that attempts to freeze a reality” (Coonfield and Rose: 195), in relation to my research, goes further. The staging of self, at times seemed to offer a necessary pause, a breath, a movement away (absence) from always ‘being’ visible/ present/ performing/ engaged online – to allowing a moment of witnessing/audiencing. For example, one coach occasionally turned her camera off to smoke, listen and observe during a group sharing activity. It was a necessary opposite (part of a continuum of presence and absence) that would enable her rhythm of the learning experience to continue. Furthermore, my research has resonance with Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton’s (2021) suggestion “that disengaging the subject from purely self-centered reflection and moving her into proximity, or presence, with another to whom she has a relational and communicative responsibility” (p.11) is an important facet of creating (co)presence; an invitation to open oneself to another in a ‘safe’ (constructed) space. Presence is always relational, between self and collective, but also between presence and absence.
I have many more unfiltered thoughts about presence, but here I pause, and take a breath. Perhaps just to say that I hope that those of us researching embodied learning online can support Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton’s (2021) call to caution against the common assumption/ expectation regarding the sameness or transference of educational experience in physical, embodied classrooms/spaces with virtual experiences. However, both require intentional crafting, and enable different affordances depending on how individuals and the collective use/ sense the affordances of the materials and environments they are in.
Each learner (I forgo continuing the metaphor I started with), has a different experience of presence: of the more than out there, virtual space-times, during video conferencing learning experiences. Furthermore, they are continually morphing and changing through moments of connection and disconnection. I believe that the more we attune into our sensory online embodied experiences, the more we can re-figure (re-configure and embody), and understand the subtleties of relational presence, within learning experiences.
A note: please do reach out and share your reflections and experiences. You can find me at: email@example.com or @AidHoover
If you are curious to see the film clip that this muppets image comes from, you can access it here: https://youtu.be/EJ9yAV8uQ7g
Watch Sarah’s talk on the 25th November at CALRG @ 11am-12pm
Coonfield, G., & Rose, H. (2012). What is called presence. In Text and Performance Quarterly, 32(3), 192–208. https://doi. org/10.1080/10462937.2012.691309
Gumbrecht, H. U. (2004). Production of presence: What meaning cannot convey. Stanford University Press.
ISPR (2000). The Concept of Presence: Explication Statement. Retrieved 27 July 2021 from https://smcsites.com/ispr/ International Society for Presence Research.
IJsselsteijn, W., & Riva, G. (2003). Being there: The experience of presence in mediated environments. In G. Riva, F. Davide, & W. A. IJsselsteijn (Eds.), Being there: Concepts, effects and measurements of user presence in synthetic environments (pp. 3–16). IOS Press.
Sheehy, K, Ferguson, R and Clough, G (2014) Augmented Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137335814.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception Trans Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Pink, S. (2011). From embodiment to emplacement: re-thinking competing bodies, senses and spatialities. In Sport, Education and Society, 16:3, 343-355, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2011.565965
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. Penguin Press
Ucok-Sayrak & Brazelton (2021): Regarding the question of presence in online education: A performative pedagogical perspective, in Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2021.1880389
 See the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, Australian aboriginal peoples or Taoism in China, as examples.
 Although having cameras all on does not equate directly with the ‘being – here – now’ of (co)presence, but this participant felt that it was more likely to occur with cameras on.