Friday, February 04, 2011

Recovering Context

by John T. Spencer

I don't understand the freedom movements in Egypt.  I'm watching it closely, but I'm watching it in the way that one watches a sporting event.  Even the violent clashes feel more like a movie when I'm holding fresh sourdough bread and sipping french press coffee.  With the soft buzz of my Macbook humming along, I can view the events as isolated events.  I can miss the context.  I can fail to recognize the power of place and space and time.  

I want my students to know about this as it happens.  However, I also want them to see the context.  Ideally, we could interview someone in Egypt and we could read a few novels from an Egyptian perspective.  We wouldn't be experts, per se, but at least we would delve into the power of place and how it shapes people.  

*     *     *

It's a mid-December and I'm swimming through my Twitter stream, attempting to find a friend.  According to the list, I have well over a thousand "followers," but I'm exceedingly lonely.  Christy is having a coffee with a  friend and the kids are already in bed.  What I really need is a one-on-one pint, but it's too late to call a friend.  

I attempt to engage in a conversation, but it quickly becomes a crowded echo chamber.  I've found four people spread throughout the world who all believe pretty much the same thing I do - or at least they do with regards to teaching.  For all the talk of technology and diversity, I've found myself honing in on homogenization in ideology.

Within this digital solitude, I yearn for something longer than a tweet.  So, I begin a book.  It's a vague idea hashed out on a twenty mile run, but now it's taking form.  The first ten pages are a mess, but I'm changed. I'm thinking now about character and setting and recovering context.  (Incidentally, the book is a fictional superhero memoir that will be out in ebook form within the next couple of days)

It starts a process of recovering context.  I begin to read more books and fewer blogs.  I limit my musical selection to two albums per month (this month's pick is the latest from Iron and Wine along with Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily), because I had become so dependent on music-out-of-context playlists.  I call a few old friends and start meeting up each week, because unlike my Twitter friends, these guys know my story and my mannerisms and we don't limit ourselves to 140 characters. Lately I've started talking to neighbors and listening to their stories.

It's why I still won't get a cell phone, even if it's a smart phone and the world's collective knowledge is at my finger tips.

I don't need the whole world in my hands.

*      *      * 

The mainstream media has largely ignored the trial of Shawna Forde, a Minuteman terrorist, who shot down a man for being Latino and then reloaded the gun in front of a young girl and shot her point-blank in the head.

"I guess it's not as big a deal if it's not in a Tucson grocery store and if the girl isn't white and if nobody in Congress is shot," one of my students writes.

"Why aren't people connecting the dots?  Why don't they see how this violence is the same mindset as Sheriff Joe and his goons who threw my neighbor out of her car and then deported her husband?"

My students know this context.  They understand that the violence is part of a larger, scary movement of white supremacy in our state.  They understand it, because it's in their back yard.  Unlike the plastic faces that read the teleprompter, my students can see a bigger picture outside the hype of "late breaking news" (it's always late and always broken)  My students understand that life is less like a Twitter stream and more like a novel.  They get the notion that setting has a place and that there is something toxic happening in our own backyard.

I want my students to recognize that context matters. It's why we do the following:

  • Interview people in-depth who actually experienced the events rather than simply relying on a textbook
  • Search primary source documents 
  • Read novels, both as a class and as individuals
  • Take pictures and write poems about our city
  • Create documentaries about issues in our own backyard
  • Serve at the local food bank

I want my students to recover the notion of context.  I want them to see that people are shaped by our environments and I want them to be active in transforming their own environments.


  1. Deeply reflective post. Thank you for pushing beyond the tweets and cultivating reflections on context!!! Great teachers do establish an understanding of context and as a result, engage students in meaningful learning. Keep up your passionate work!

  2. i love this:
    The first ten pages are a mess, but I'm changed.

    thank you John.

  3. What are your thoughts on a podcast? We set the times: Once every two weeks. Random chats about life, god, ed, politics music you name it. We get to know each other, record the gibberish for posterity and see where we go.

    I am sure your neighbors have interesting stories, but we already know that we share some similar thoughts that if explored could lead to some new places....We have talked about this before. Let's make it happen!

    Email me.

  4. This is beautiful. Man, I suck at this stuff. I like to think I'm good at it but I know it is a struggle. It takes time, and when you are starting down the barrel of THE huge state standardized test in a month...

    I could definitely improve in this area.

    - @newfirewithin

  5. As much as a I embrace technology (yes, cell phone and no land land) the more I don't want to give up ties to reality, to living hands on.

  6. Moving and contemplative piece. Elegant. Makes me wonder though as to how you are situating the idea of context. I don't think of context as something I go out and get, but rather something that is more iterative in nature, bold and transparent and oddly nomadic. I especially like the juxtaposition of things out of context and how the mind works to connect. Perhaps it's the artist in me that appreciates such whim.

    As for depth, wholeness does seem to matter. Not sure what u are reading but would recommend u take a look at Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's work on rhizomes (A Thousand Plateaus). Made me reconsider the whole metaphor of tree of knowledge.

    BTW, being highly selective on Twitter has helped me. At first I found it very odd, now I am enjoying it a bit more. It was a twitter link that led me here.


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