In Defence of Breakout Rooms

Graphic by Erin Sass

There’s this odd space between leaving the main Zoom session and joining the breakout room — it feels as though I am underwater, holding my breath amidst a somewhat suffocating silence. Then, when the breakout room finally connects, I resurface and catch my breath. I desperately try to tread water, asking questions and churning conversation in hopes of keeping this breakout room afloat. In many ways, online learning is like being alone in an empty body of water — all I can really do is tread water in order to stay afloat. But, is keeping one’s head above the surface worth all the effort? 

Social media has geared much hate towards Zoom breakout rooms, with the consensus that it can be an overall awkward experience. Even the most extroverted individual is no match for the claustrophobic breakout room, where no one dares to turn on their webcam or switch on their microphone to say hello. It’s five grueling minutes of total silence, occasionally interrupted by a student accidentally unmuting themselves and shuffling around their room. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can hear someone’s heavy breathing, a sign that life truly exists — that this alien breakout room has some kind of a buried soul after all. 

…when you’re a first-year university student during a pandemic, all you’ve ever known is yourself and a screen.

But as a U0 student who has attended McGill for less than a month, Zoom is all I really have to hold on to. I’ll take shuffling with a side of heavy breathing over the total isolation we’ve all had to endure. It’s like the first day of high school all over again: I’m desperate to make friends, to get involved, and most importantly, to take advantage of a clean slate. I want to be able to complain to my friends about how boring a class is. I want to be able to rant about how totally unfair the last quiz was, or about how my eyes will shrivel up into raisins if I need to endure the strain of one more reading. But when you’re a first-year university student during a pandemic, all you’ve ever known is yourself and a screen. And if you’re in residence, it’s you, your screen, and a dash of uncomfortable elevator conversation during which you are always asked, “how are you finding your classes?” to which you reply, “tough, as usual,” and then you part ways. 

This is where breakout rooms can help to fill some of that void. I quite enjoy them; I think it’s wonderful to be able to take a break from a lecture to talk about the material with peers. As much as I hated group projects in high school — I was the control freak who did all the work — I made many friends through teamwork. I think we can all recall at least one person that we’ve gradually become friends with solely because they happened to sit next to us. 

In the eyes of Zoom, all you really are is a student. 

Aside from breakout rooms, there aren’t many places to actively engage in academic material. With the city under lockdown and restrictions in residences, study groups have been filed away with other boring-yet-nostalgic activities. Not only are breakout rooms the next best alternative, but there’s also added value when discussing coursework with strangers. It’s easy to predict what a friend may say about a certain topic because you already know them quite well. But with strangers, there is so much uncertainty over where a conversation may go. For a generation that willingly spoke to strangers on Omegle as kids, insatiably curious by the unknown, we’ve been awfully quiet in our breakout rooms.  

It’s also important to remember that many students face barriers that were unthinkable a year ago. What goes on behind the screen right as a student logs onto their Zoom session is a wonder of its own. Some may be tucked away in a distant time zone, watching their city fall asleep as they just begin their day. Others barely make the session as they balance work with school. Perhaps many stare up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on their childhood ceiling, itching to see another university student in the flesh. Breakout rooms strip all of these complexities down to just a bunch of university students talking about university things. In the eyes of Zoom, all you really are is a student. 

I navigate a breakout room the same way I learned how to swim: jumping headfirst into the unknown.

They are a taste of the “back to normal” that we have all been so desperately craving: we can’t keep dreaming about life going back to the way it was if we are not doing anything about it. In a world where everything is up in the air, the ability to take charge and breathe life into what we are learning is incredibly powerful; even if it is only for, say, ten minutes during an eight-thirty AM lecture.  

I navigate a breakout room the same way I learned how to swim: jumping headfirst into the unknown. It’s scary at first, as there is much uncertainty to unpack, but I promise that you will resurface. So I am on team breakout room (but do not confuse this with confidence; my heart will sink to the bottom of my stomach every time I enter one). Knowing that I will get stronger every time I tread water can, however, make the difference between sinking into the downfalls of online school and rising into a meaningful (virtual) undergraduate experience.  

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