This past Monday, I attended a virtual talk hosted by the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute with writer and visual artist Jenny Odell. I almost didn’t go. It was something I enthusiastically signed up for back in September when I saw it advertised in an email and recognized Odell’s name from reading some of her writing and hearing her on a podcast interview. Yet, after spending most of my day in my bedroom in front of a metal slab which contains almost the entirety of what UConn is for me now, it’s hard for me to muster up any enthusiasm to attend virtual events or talks once I’m done with my school work. Instead, I find myself itching to go for a run around town to actually see people in motion, even if they are only in their cars passing by as I wait to cross the street. Or, like the other day, to be caught off guard when I rounded the corner at the top of a hill by an older, disgruntled man emerging from his house to ask if the WiFi was down at my place too (It wasn’t. Although I was too surprised by his appearance to respond before I passed him.) Or, when I’m done with my work, I find myself craving the company of the real human beings in my own house—people I can talk to face-to-face! And share food with! And sit next to on a couch!
Somehow, though, this Monday I convinced myself to go to the talk, and I’m glad that I did. Aside from there being, for me, a few of those moments where you can feel fireworks going off in your head because you hear something so neatly expressed that is very particular to something you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I also really enjoyed listening to Odell talk about some of her ideas for her next book on time.
With it being a virtual talk my mind was apt to wander a bit, and as I continued to listen with half of my brain, I started to think about time with the other half. Time was what made listening to Odell’s talk at that moment different from hearing her on a podcast or watching her on YouTube, even if it was only a slight difference. Not only were all of us who were listening on Monday night inhabiting Odell’s world of thought, we were also doing so at the same time as one another and at the same time as Odell herself. Time adds another dimension to shared intellectual circumstances, and other sorts of circumstances too—emotional, social and cultural.
Of course we’ve all learned in these past few months that sometimes the added dimension of time isn’t enough. There are ways of communicating and being that do not travel as elegantly through mediums of time when a shared physical space is absent. It can be both challenging and lonely to try to interpret the information that clumsily comes to us or that sometimes doesn’t come at all, but that we rely on for direction and connection.
It becomes very difficult to form an understanding of context with limited information. When I tutor math, context guides what concepts I explain and how I explain them. Forming an understanding of context isn’t just about adjusting to a specific problem—it’s also about understanding the sequence of instruction in a certain math class, or gauging a student’s own math background and following their understanding as I tutor them. Those last aspects of context are much harder to discern over WebEx. I can’t always see facial expressions of knit brows or pauses in work when something no longer makes sense. It’s hard to know how I should change pace as I’m tutoring. Is the silence on the other end because I’m going too fast and they don’t understand, or is it because I’m going too slow and they’re already working on something else? Is it because they can’t hear me, or is it because something else is happening in the space that they’re in? There are far too many unknowns and there is often not enough information to find answers to all the unknowns.
“It becomes very difficult to form an understanding of context with limited information. When I tutor math, context guides what concepts I explain and how I explain them. Forming an understanding of context isn’t just about adjusting to a specific problem—it’s also about understanding the sequence of instruction in a certain math class, or gauging a student’s own math background and following their understanding as I tutor them.”Sharon Spaulding, Weekly Columnist
In other situations, the challenge is not that we have too little information to properly form an understanding of context, but that we have far too much information. Jenny Odell explores this idea in one of her essays in relation to the news media and our unpremeditated, sometimes explosive responses to it. Adding to Odell’s observation, what I see is that if we do not somehow limit this barrage of information, that information will actually impose itself upon us as a context—in which case we don’t have a chance to truthfully rationalize and conditionalize it to constructively incorporate it into our understanding of the world.
For example, I find my thinking tending to exist inside of politics when I spend far too much time consuming news information. Politics isn’t everything though. Its limits, as well as our agency in our broader-than-politics environments of our professions, communities and relationships should motivate us to think outside of politics, and not just within.
There’s another reason why we must be able to think outside of politics: hope. The thing about hope, and not the sort “with feathers” that cutely “perches in your soul” but the sort that is sought after, grappled with, interrogated and that once grasped grounds us in our present realities, is that it has qualities of stability, strength and momentum beyond the scope of today’s news information—or next week’s election results.