The 53 seconds of silence after ‘are there any questions?’


Before corona all you needed was one glance. You saw ten bored looks in the lecture hall, a few faces buried behind a laptop screen, and a handful of students who actually listened. No questions? Alright, let’s move on.

Now, I only teach in Zoom or MS Teams and stare into a plumbless, digital depth. Facial expressions have been replaced by small black blocks or circles containing the initials of the students. Due to the lack of eye contact, sound, or any other kind of sensory stimulus, tension always mounts when I say: “Are there any questions?”

Then the clock starts running. I usually give the students 53 seconds to answer. Sometimes a few seconds more, sometimes a fraction less - when I’m in a capricious mood. You see, the difference is rather precise. I tell myself that it could take a long time before a student finds the unmute key. That the speed with which a student types greatly affects the use of the chat. That thinking costs time as well.

Usually, the hope for a response was in vain, as it turns out, not unlike my own webcam image I talk to all day. 53 seconds feels like several minutes in the midst of the silence. It’s not long enough for a proper mindfulness exercise, but it does however provide me with more than enough time to slurp my coffee and grab some ‘me time.’

Each digital lecture has such a moment of reflection. My thoughts will wander off to the television tune of that morning show with Mireille Bekooij and Hans van Willigenburg: “It’s COF-FEE-TIME. A bit of company, take some time for yourself, it will help you get through the day.” I switch off my microphone for a few seconds, grab my coffee mug with both hands, stare into a well of black Zoom blocks and say scornfully: “Well, well.”

If time permits, I get to ask myself the major life questions. Such as: did I properly close the refrigerator door? How late will that postal package arrive? And, will I put green beans in the pasta sauce tonight, or broccoli, or would I be executed in Italy for this recipe? I usually don’t find answers during those 53 seconds, but at least it gives another unused sense something to do during the remainder of the lecture.

Of course, dear students, my attention also goes out to you. I still enjoy teaching, but sometimes I find it hard to stay focused. And that’s simply because I don’t see you often enough. It’s not me, it’s you - because I miss you.

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