I’ve heard a lot of talk about Zoom fatigue. What has not been much talked about is computer fatigue. This includes eye strain and other physical and mental issues. It seems like a symptom of a greater issue: the perpetual anxiety cycle. I want to show you how I dueled with PAC.
Personally, this angst-fueled fatigue-fueled angst came as a nasty surprise with the advent of Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT). Since getting my first Mac in the 90s and joining the local Mac Users Group, I have come to treat my computer as an all-in-one tool. Many computer owners do not go much beyond emails, Facebook, and YouTube. At the other end of the spectrum are people like me, power users. We do everything with our machines. So then, why is it, I thought, that five weeks into ERT, when my teaching work is done, that I exit my private study like a patron fleeing a night club fire? Immediately I began paying attention to those Zoom fatigue articles, like the one written by Amanda Gillis-Furutaka. In a Zoom class after reading it, I got clearer focus. In Zoom, whether in all-class mode or breakout rooms, there was an even higher level of anxiety and fatigue than what would register in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. OK, but still why did I now want to get out of my study instead of lingering as usual? Why the latent anxiety, irritability, and sleepless nights?
Computer fatigue is a symptom of a greater issue: perpetual anxiety cycle.
One of the factors was the way the coming online spring semester was treated by the four universities I work at. The famous public school barely communicated to me at all on how to teach. Two private schools insisted on 90-minute Zoom lessons. Another private university insisted that I do all of the missed classes as make-ups. That school does not require Zoom use, so how does one do an asynchronous make-up class? That produced a lot of anxiety, and that was only the start. I was hit with a tidal wave of English and Japanese paperwork to be read now and acted upon tomorrow. There were new guidelines, rules, pedagogical suggestions, and calls for ERT-focused weekly lesson plans and syllabi. Stuff came by snail-mail too—waiting outside for the COVID19 virus to die—amping up the anxiety-charged home atmosphere.
Then the semester began. Besides all of the paperwork, the following came around and decided to camp out in my daily routine: the perpetual anxiety cycle (PAC) of class prep, creating Google slides to show during Zoom sessions, uploading Google docs announcing the next lesson, and creating homework to be uploaded to the university learning management system, creating classwork, giving Google Form quizzes, crafting homework, grading homework, typing the Google Form quiz scores into my class roster, and finally answering emails, day after day, doing that for 400 students in 19 classes at four universities. In normal times, most of that work is done organically: mentally, visually, orally, and dexterously (by hand and pen). It’s a job, but seasoning and experience make it doable. Accomplishing all that with technology adds a thick filter, a filter that has to be wrestled through to meet the daily PAC-causing deadlines. Here’s a look at that filter and what it does to us.
The teacher sits alone in his office chair in his study and engages with the PAC. The micro moves and the waiting that ERT requires, all of the screen openings and closings, app changes, window openings and closings, precise cursor moves, countless mouse clicks, screen-fill lag-time waits, head shifts, gaze direction shifts, concentration refocusing, typing, retyping, the redundant typing, precise mouse positioning, and the copy and paste of grading writing. When finished, you move to another class on the same day at that same school. After you do that stretch, you take a deep breath and a long draft of iced lemon water. Then you repeat the PAC. Still, after that, there is prep for tomorrow. PAC. I read in the article, Computer Mouse Fatigue: (Getting M.A.D. with your Mouse) that problems from mouse overuse go beyond carpal tunnel syndrome. All of those 2-inch mouse movements total 100 km a year in normal times. How much further do our hands move during ERT? I can’t count. I’ve made more typing errors, and dropped and knocked things over numerous times, as it says in the article.
Going through the PAC of ERT causes this kind of unexpected and persistent computer fatigue. At this point, it can be said without any need to cite supporting evidence that our stress levels are already high with self-quarantine under a COVID sun. The anxiety level of life in these small Japanese apartments is similar to that of life in a space station.
Because of the perpetual anxiety cycle I can’t find time to get out into nature. The combination of that and self-quarantine, coupled with potential unemployment and bad financial news, and news of the USA riots, steals attention and has really drained me. I have noticed myself being much stricter with my students on Zoom, my face in the monitor becomes menacing like Big Brother.
Where then is the relief? Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is specifically cited in the article, 21 Reasons You’re Fatigued, as making one “less likely to ruminate on negative events or thoughts/emotions, which is often a precursor to depression, and more resilient in the face of stress.” My version of forest bathing has been taking out my Fuji camera more often than usual and pretending to be a street photographer in the greater neighborhood of our condominium. One weird effect of PAC is that I have wanted to exercise more. I’ve noticed a change in my habits even since the start of ERT: I exercise more now than since I was a teenager on the football team. This human chicken wing can now do 38 push-ups. Another satisfaction is simply finding ways of getting things done efficiently.
Finally, I see a silver lining: when we do go back to the classroom, we will have added a trove of already-created-and-tested online expansions and enhancements to our teacher toolbox. What then of the perpetual anxiety cycle? PAC has come to occupy my study, my condo, and my life. Summarizing it, I can recall a quote from the TV show, M*A*S*H, about having to cope with persistent bombing in the mobile medical facility’s area and attending to the never-ending stream of wounded: You get used to never getting used to it. Here I sit in my study, stretching, taking a deep breath, and taking a long draft of iced lemon water, still dueling with PAC.
David Stepanczuk is an American EFL instructor working in Japan since 1991. He has taught at six universities and at major Japanese corporations. He has two master’s degrees, in education technology and in fine art, has published several papers, and has given several presentations for JALT.