Student Voices
08 September 2020

"Hello?" "Can You Hear Me?": Ubiquitous Themes in the COVID-19 Era


“Can you hear me?”

These, and their cross-linguistic semantic equivalents or variants, are very common lines in nearly every episode of telephonic communication. And that is by no means a recent development.

In the past few months, however, many a student or teacher has heard and been hearing – as much as mouthed and been mouthing – these expressions all too repeatedly, even to boring extents.

This is the reality for not only the millions of graduate students and their professors across the globe who are at different stages of their masters and doctoral programmes: virtually every learner or teacher across the different phases of schooling and scholarship, right from the elementary and secondary cadres, to the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, is now all too familiar with these expressions.

Indeed, the same can be said of a considerable section of the earth’s population – peoples in nearly all walks of life, spread across all geographic boundaries.

This development is quite novel, particularly considering its current catholic dimensions. The background leading to this is not lost on many. The current global era of the coronavirus pandemic has led to a near-ubiquitous switch to and mainstreaming of virtual learning.

Not unexpectedly, this, in turn, comes with its own peculiarities and challenges, particularly owing to the problematics of internet connectivity in many parts of the world, as well as the unnaturalness of the un/mute functionality on teleconferencing applications.

Far from the dynamics of the (hitherto) conventional in-person classroom learning, the current boundary-shattering distance education and the irruptions that come with it have effectively introduced certain conversational themes of telephony into scholarship. The intermittent, rhetorical interjection of some “hello” or “can you hear me?” during virtual sessions is one of such. Hardly any episode of online class, conferencing or virtual meeting kicks off or, at least, lasts as much as an hour without at least one participant dropping either or both tropes.

Regardless of the platform or infrastructure, both expressions have now become some hackneyed hooks. It is not uncommon to find them being deployed as some form of slogan, breather or cue.

Students of popular culture would probably agree that Adele and Enrique Iglesias must have seen well into the future, some five or dozen years earlier respectively, when they separately released songs that have either of both lines for a title and refrain. 

Besides these two themes, “you are muted”, “unmute your device”, “we can’t hear you” and their variants across languages are other examples of clichéd expressions rapidly becoming scholarly jargons in online scholarly fora.

Indeed, it may not be out of place to suppose that these tropes have now come to stay, and that they will almost inevitably become the new normal in learning and scholarship. This is especially so as the inevitability of mainstreaming remote learning and virtual meetings stares the academe and the world at large hard in the face.

Going forward, it would not be outlandish to find studies into the experiential aspects of this current dispensation of virtual learning committing to theory building around these tropes.

In the meantime, I hope you can hear me. 

Ṣeun Williams hails from Badagry town in Lagos, Nigeria.

He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in International History at the Institute.

His research interests intersect issues relating to urbanisation and urbanism, public/environmental health, law, social control and colonialism in Africa.