Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her.
Image: Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her. This image is modified from a CC0 graphic courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via pixabay.

Are you exhausted? Zoomed out? As we say in critical incident stress management (CISM), “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.” This reflection is considering the faculty or administrator perspective on our current interpersonal reality. The student perspective is a separate writeup.

How could you have attended the same number of meetings in Normal World B.C. (Before COVID-19) and your schedule wasn’t nearly this exhausting? This is a matter that potentially affects only those of us privileged enough to be able to do at least two things: (1) continue doing our paid jobs, and yet (2) stay home and safe. For those of us in this virtual boat, many are realizing how attending the same number of meetings as in a usual week is way way way more exhausting when they happen via a video conferencing platform such as Zoom. There are many reasons, and here are three:

1. Perceptual mismatch

When you’re in a meeting, like back when we did that sort of thing together in the same space, you’d get a “read of the room.” It’s in our nature to do this. You’d scan the room, passively attending to details like, how are people feeling? What’s the mood or the vibe here today? Do folks seem to be on the same page? This is natural. In a video conference though? You are trying to read 25 rooms. You are. It’s in your nature. And you’re trying to do this while, ironically, ignoring the room you are literally in. That is not how perception works, which is the process through which we attach meaning to our sensory input in order to understand the social world. You’re trying to read all the rooms up on that screen, while ignoring the sensory information coming at you from within the room in which you are physically located, and that’s before you even engage with anybody. Speaking of the rest of the people:

2. Interpersonal intensity

When you’re in a room in Normal World B.C., you are not trying to maintain continuous eye contact with 25 people for an hour. In person, you can be in a group in shared space, completely engaged, attentive and present, and you’re still not maintaining eye contact with every single person at the same time. In a video conference, even looking down at a relevant piece of paper can be perceived as you checking out, no longer actively listening, or some other indicator assumed to be a lack of effort. 

3. High vulnerability and intimacy

While reading all the rooms and ignoring your own, and doing your best to maintain eye contact with everyone in a group continuously, you are also letting people read YOUR room. Your room right now is probably inside or outside the place you presently call home. That’s a level of vulnerability and intimacy greater than you signed up for when you began in this position, right? You didn’t plan on letting these people into your living room or your bedroom.

There’s Science Behind This!

The psychological and mental health effects of shifting nearly all of our interpersonal interactions into video conferencing is yet unstudied. What I’ve written in this piece is based on what we know to date about how the brain does its job. 

For more information on the perceptual burden you might be experiencing, look first at the process of “unconscious inference” known as perception itself. As we take in sensory information, through the process of sensation, our brain has to work with that input to produce something for us to understand and to which we then respond, through the process of perception. Reading 25 rooms while ignoring the sensory input from the very room you are in, makes this entire meaning-making process inherently more complex and likely burdensome. This is a traditional, bottom-up explanation of perception. 

Another perspective on perception is one of top-down processing, which “occurs when people’s expectations, emotions, and bodies affect how they see the world” (Reiner, 2019:267). This explanation is one of embodied perception, considering sensation and perception as not linear and not separate from our physical selves. 

Whether you view processing as top-down or bottom up, you will find explanations of your present state of exhaustion. Then recognize that making eye contact is one of the earliest forms of social communication we learn in our lives. This primal social role is made more central when we’re in video conferences that make most other social communication harder to gauge. We might feel the need to maintain eye contact more than what we would normally do, given this restriction of the medium, and this would likely contribute to our cumulative exhaustion.

What else?

Of course, there are more than three reasons why you might be feeling exhausted. The runners up include blurring of boundaries that can lead to you working well into the evenings and weekends when you never did that before. You might not be the cause of those boundaries blurring – especially when your boss expects you to respond at all hours, but you might find that you need to draw a line more firmly around your off time. You’re also suddenly some kind of movie producer to some extent, which probably isn’t within your skillset, so that’s tiring as you try to excel at something you’ve possibly never even planned to try. And none of this even considers the exhaustion and psychache we all are feeling to varying degrees as we interpret the current global pandemic, with concerns for the future of society and worry for the people we love within it. How could you not be exhausted right now?

If you are reading this and you have any authority in this world, please cut folks some slack. If your organization can continue to be fully functional online? Cool. If you’re a boss, shorten the meetings. If you are an educator, lean towards fewer assignments and lessened demands. Shorten the meetings and classes. The exhaustion you are feeling makes sense, and it is universal. Please take care of junior faculty, graduate students, and the support staff whom you are probably realizing are working more than they should be.

Collage featuring the titles of TSP’s Partner and Community Pages, all of which afford high-interest and accessible sociological content that’s great for teaching.

Previously we posted “Using TSP to Teach Online.” This week we’re featuring content from our partner and community pages. In addition to producing in-house content, The Society Pages is an online hub for blogs written and curated by other social scientists. We can’t feature them all here, but you can find the full list at the bottom of our homepage.

Sociological Images” is designed to encourage people to exercise and develop their sociological imagination by presenting brief discussions of compelling and timely imagery that spans the breadth of sociological inquiry.


Image from rear of stadium seat lecture hall facing forward, photo by nikolayhg, pixabay CC

Jessica A. Cebulak and John F. Zipp. 2019. “Using Racial and Class Differences in Infant Mortality to Teach about White Privilege: A Cooperative Group Activity.” Teaching Sociology

White college students often struggle to understand, recognize, and learn about white privilege. Many students prefer a “color-blind” approach that denies racial inequalities altogether. Although there are other teaching strategies that try to overcome this, too many simply shift the conversation to inequalities in social class. These strategies fail to address the complicated relationship between race and class. As a result, students struggle to understand, for instance, why affluent, well-educated Black women still have higher infant mortality in the United States than low income, poorly educated white women.


Photo of a health app on smartphone. Photo by Jason Howie, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I use this in-class activity in the “Health, Medicine, & Illness” week in my Introduction to Sociology class to engage my students in critical thinking about small changes that can be made to address people’s micro experiences with health issues and inequalities.

I give each of my students a copy of “The Rise of Health-Tracking Technology,” an article from The Society Pages blog, “There’s Research on That!” 

Students are asked to read the article and then are put into groups of three to discuss the following questions:

  • How can we understand health-tracking technologies as part of medicalization?
  • What are some of the benefits of health tracking technologies?
  • What are some of the social problems associated with these technologies?
    • What are some problems these technologies are intended to help?
    • What potential problems might evolve from these technologies?

Then, students are asked to work in their groups to brainstorm ideas for how they would design their own health-tracking or health/wellness oriented app to address some of the social problems of health and illness we have learned about that week.

Student groups are then asked to present their app designs to the rest of the class, emphasizing how use of that app would address social inequalities associated with health, illness, and wellbeing.

An example of one proposed app from my student groups was the following:

An app that would address some of the health inequalities in food deserts through a GPS based system that would let users know where places to buy food are in their near vicinity. The app would be connected with store employees so that users would know when fresh produce and other fresh food items were available in the stores.

The take away discussion after this activity involves talking with the students about how small changes can make a difference in the way that people experience health inequalities in their daily lives, but that we must also be working in an ongoing way to address these inequalities at the macro level too.


Lydia Hou is an advanced graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying international students and Higher Ed diversity projects. Her work broadly focuses on race, gender, qualitative methods, critical higher education, and pedagogy.

Escape cell, Alcatraz

In the Contexts feature “No Real Release” (Winter 2009), Jason Schnittker and Michael Massoglia explore the link between incarceration and health.  Below are some questions you can use with the article.  Also, check out some online content to accompany the article!

1)     Describe the ways that incarceration is linked to poor health and inadequate health care. In contrast, how is incarceration beneficial to the health of some prisoners?

2)    This article demonstrates how the stigma of incarceration can be “contagious” and affect how the children of ex-cons are seen and see themselves. What are some other stigmas that seem to rub off on friends and family?

3)    As you learned in the article, discrimination against ex-cons is legally sanctioned. Should it be? Why or why not?


ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are a social worker in a community where many former inmates return after leaving prison. What policies might you advocate to address the health needs of your community in light of prisoner re-entry? What resources would you need? What community leaders or organization would you need to enlist for support?


Use these questions with Simon J. Williams’ Winter 2011 Contexts Feature, “Our Hard Days’ Nights.”

1.   It may be surprising to read that sociologists study sleep.  How is sleep social, and what does sociology have to offer the study of sleep?

2.  The author repeatedly refers to sleep as a “right.”  Similarly, Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right to rest and leisure.  How is sleep a right?  What does this mean, and do you agree with this classification?

3.  The article discusses Modafinil and other wakefulness-promoting drugs that are already being used by the military to combat drowsiness.  Discuss the pros and cons of drugs like Modafinil.



The questions and activity below can be used with “Key Findings from 50 Years of Medical Sociology,” by Katherine J. Rosich and Janet R. Hankin (Contexts, Fall 2010).  This article could also be paired with Theda Skocpol’s “One Thing I Know” on health care reform from the Winter 2011 issue of Contexts.
  1. How do the authors portray the American health care system at the start of the 21st century?
  2. The article suggests that asking questions about definitions (like “what is illness”) enables us to explore and understand the impact of definitions.  Write your personal definition of health.  Then, examine the World Health Organization’s definition of health.  How does your definition compare?  How might different ways of defining health impact how it’s understood and treated?
  3. Activity:  Hold a debate about universal health care.  Assign students to argue for or against universal health care and assign research for the debate as homework.


Poor Dad

These questions were created to accompany “Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids” by William Marsiglio.

1)    In what ways can a father negatively affect his children’s health before birth and after birth?  Which mechanisms are biologically based and which are socially based?

2)    How can gendered expectations of masculinity affect fatherhood? Would ideas about masculinity would have to change in order to improve parenting by fathers?

3)    Make a list of both positive and negative examples of fatherhood in the popular media. Which are more abundant and why?

4)    The author suggests several policies that would help mitigate the number of fathers having a negative effect on their children’s health. Which of these policies seem most promising to you?  Why?  Can you think of any other policies to add to the list?




Men are Missing from African Family Planning by Ashley E. Frost and F. Nii-Amoo Dodoo, from the Winter 2009 issue of Contexts would work well in any class on gender or sexuality issues as well as accompanying any lesson on population/ family planning policies abroad. Use the discussion questions and/or the activity  below to incorporate this article into your class. Africa Continent Location Map

ASSIGNMENT: Outline the main reasons the authors give for the high fertility rates among African women. In a nutshell, why aren’t current planning policies working?  Using what you learned in the article as your guide, explain how gender roles and ideologies within different cultures can influence fertility rates. Compare the African example to another community that you are familiar with.

ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are a public health official working with the U.N. on overpopulation in Africa. Given what you learned from this article, create a plan for a program that would be more successful in reducing fertility rates among women in Africa.


The article  “The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered” by Robin W. Simon from the Spring 2008 issue of Contexts would work great in a Sociology of Families or Introduction to Sociology course. In this article, Simon presents research that show parents in the United States experience depression and emotional distress more often than people who do not have children. Use the questions below to start a discussion on this article in class or as a guide for the reading:

1)    Do you agree with the author that our society values having children so much that childless adults are either pitied or considered selfish? If so, why do you think this cultural belief is so strong? If not, why not?

2)    Do you think having children will make/makes your life complete? How have the cultural beliefs about parenthood described in this article affected your personal desire (or lack thereof) for children?

3)    Brainstorm about why these ideas about parenthood persist even if they are not statistically “true”? Who might have a vested interest in maintaining these beliefs?