Young happy woman doing video call with smart phone

Building relationships with remote students

Connection is fundamental, not even when it is about forming friendship or love, but they very simple understanding that someone else other than is there – in the room – with us, which is undoubtedly something we missed, at various degrees, during these past few months.

Seven in the morning: the alarm goes off and after a quick breakfast it’s time to go to class. Easy enough this time; grab a cup of coffee and simply move from the bed to the desk. More often than not, in the same room. Rinse and repeat for the last two years. Don’t roll up the window sunblind in order to see the computer screen, constantly wear headphones to hear the professor over our father cooking our mother vacuuming – all of this while hoping there are no works in progress in the road outside so that “lecture 3.2” won’t have to compete with a pneumatic drill.

Until at some point, we reach a point of boredom. We can reach for the phone, the professor won’t notice. We can even pause it, but that would be like admitting we are not paying attention. So we just laugh at the situation and think how funny a certain thing is, and would like to say it to someone… but there’s no-one there.
In science some things are experimentally true. In humanity’s case, it would be true that men cannot live alone. The Greek said over two millennia ago that man is a “social animal” and students are, for as much as they would deny it, animals as well and humans as well. Connection is fundamental, not even when it is about forming friendship or love, but they very simple understanding that someone else other than is there – in the room – with us, which is undoubtedly something we missed, at various degrees, during these past few months. For us as students, it’s worse in the sense that it is more difficult to learn alone, without a chance to discuss, compare or even just laugh about it. In short, dialogue is fundamental. It is what gives us the ability to reflect on what we learn, without leave it to sit in the corner of our minds like a book gathering dust. Knowledge that is not exchanged seems to us to be of no immediate use, and even if we are learning how to build a rocket, as long as we do not show it so someone, it does not seem quite real. In this sense, online learning has made it harder to learn; but it’s not just learning. Only a clear mind can study well, and as Aristoteles said, we are social animals; we cannot do without each other. Company and socialization are as vital and in many cases the very presence of people around us keeps us focused.

But I need it to keep in touch!

Without the chance to see each other every day, even maintaining relationships of already good friendship proves to be hard. The past year and a half has made even the strongest of us aware of this, as the lockdowns took a toll on all of us mentally.
Most of us grew up with parents who mocked seeing us constantly on our phones, texting anybody at any time. “But I need it to keep in touch!”, was the most common reply. Teachers shook heads while confiscating phones and talk shows on television would host influential personalities to illustrate how social media was ruining socialisation.
The irony was not lost when, starting last year, for months, phones and screens of any kind that didn’t involve physical presence proved to be crucial - the only way to maintain a sort of belonging to some form of community - that was now entirely on a server, possibly not even on our present continent. 

Unquestionably essential

Social media had been anything in its very brief history: simply advantageous; way too pervasive; damaging; now, finally, to everyone unquestionably essential.
What used to be a tool to facilitate communication has now turned into a whole different universe, where a whole different jargon is necessary. Especially when like in such a multicultural university - 20% of foreign students in 2020-2021 Winter semester. Miscommunication may lead to hurt someone’s sensibility, without intending to and without having the chance to make up for it. Even when lessons and academic activities will be held at the university again, we may be faced with the weird yet very common situation of meeting for the first time colleagues we have only ever “talked to” through a keyboard. Awkward silences could arise, but thanks to the masks any embarrassed expression will at least be covered. A solution could be to have built a good relationship beforehand.

Social laziness

When talking about building relationships during time of a pandemic lockdown, introverts and extroverts alike will find some “technical difficulties” – especially on the phone, even more so if time zones complicate the reception. Some may think it makes little sense to try and put effort in relationships online – waiting for a person to answer on WhatsApp is not the same as waiting for them in a bar or a park, no matter how hard we try. So we may slip into a sort of “social laziness”, because we feel it may not be worth it – especially if we never quite adapted to social media languages, which is also filtered through the culture of our interlocutor. We think that if and when this pandemic will be over, so many things have changed that it probably makes no sense to stay up ten minutes longer to answer a message.
However, it does. As when we argued with our parents, we must try now to justify the importance of building relationships even remotely. They many not last and may not lead to real friendship, but they keep us focused. The thought that somewhere, far away or close by, but not close enough, someone is feeling something similar, the same sense of boredom, of helplessness, the same need to go out and live normally again, keeps us focused - as if in a virtual classroom where we have to imagine our desk mate: it may not be quite as real, but it will soon be over.

Costanza Maria Russo

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