Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Maya Ulrich (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Inequality in America Fall 2020. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in Art and Psychology. Read on for her next post!
The duality of physicality over Zoom, and other online platforms like it, has presented unique phenomena and challenges in navigating this semester. We are asked to enter the virtual room created by the host of the meeting and its participants, while simultaneously being physically present in our home and work spaces. It can be confusing to operate in both planes. One is a metaphorical backstage, a place where people hold their complex inner lives. The other demands a similar sophistication to that of other social media platforms, a sophistication which commands a consciously curated background — a background that is used to represent who we are, and in some cases, to conceal who we are, or where we come from (socially, economically, and/or politically). It is a complex new balancing act in which we are required to be vulnerable by allowing our peers, mentors, bosses, and professors into our most intimate spaces while still assuming an air of professionalism during a time when we are all aching to not only share how we are feeling, coping and surviving, but also to be listened to and heard by those we share with.
During the past two months of HECUA’s Inequality in America program, I have found myself wrestling with the way that these two spaces often carry into each other. Over Zoom I find my mind drifting to things I need to accomplish around the house, to how relationships are going, to what I am struggling with, or what I am celebrating. Alternatively, when I leave the classroom I am left alone in my bedroom contemplating the context or experiential knowledge that my peers and HECUA faculty have imparted. Often I am left thinking about how I connect something in my own life to what has been talked about in class. I think it has been especially difficult to acknowledge the loneliness of existing so cerebrally in these two spaces. It has made me ask myself what it means to share with one foot in both a physical and a virtual space.
In the virtual classroom space I am hyper aware of how I am presenting in these “professional” settings — analyzing how my background is giving people insight into my life. In the physical space I consider how I feel after class and ask myself who I am able to share these feelings with without burdening them. This is something I have been particularly conscious of when there is so much grief happening in everyone’s day to day lives. Unlike a typical semester, there are no in-between moments to decompress, or to unpack what happened in class that day with a classmate. The end to a normal class session feels so abrupt. In a way, I find myself mourning these simple moments of shared connection the most.
There is something so powerful in sharing a physical space. There is room for so much to grow by simply being in the same place. You can exchange a form of social currency through intimate non-verbal connection; a touch, eye contact, laughter, a smile. In class, we have talked about oral learning culture; the idea that one exchanges knowledge through storytelling, music, poetry, and other art-forms. It has been important for me to think about how oral culture is vital when it comes to the idea of mitigating the loss of connection that existed before the pandemic. Specifically, I think oral learning culture helps create bonding through the honesty and vulnerability of sharing one’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual state of being during the struggle for hope.
Finding hope in the struggle is something that has been difficult for me. Field speaker Jamal Abdur Salaam, principal of Brightwater Montessori School in North Minneapolis hosted a discussion around his work to create strong relational connections through mutual respect and an intentional environment. Finding hope in the struggle was a concept that he brought up based on activist Dr. Josie Johnson’s book by the same title. He had asked us what hope we found in the struggle, and I felt myself grappling in the minute or two of muted microphone silence with this seemingly easy question. Even after I had answered, I was not sure I was satisfied, or perhaps more accurately, even convinced by what I said. However, after careful consideration, I think that the hope I find in the struggle during these times is in sharing. It is a time of more honest and plain ways of speaking with each other. We are all struggling in different ways, but there is hope in the connection that can be made through acknowledging that, and by listening — truly listening — to one another’s pain, grief, celebration, and love.