A Case for Context by Sara Frykenberg

I have a close family member who is staunchly Republican and frequently posts videos from the conservative platform PragerU or “Prager University.” Video topics include: why the Democratic Party is the “real” racist party (as though either party is innocent of racism), the “war on boys” and masculinity, and how feminists don’t care about Muslim women (as though some Muslim women aren’t also feminists), among other issues. You get the picture. It is a propaganda media source founded by radio talk show hosts which creates short videos on every topic there is, presenting the conservative viewpoint as the simple “God’s honest truth” about the issue.

I’ve seen some of these videos. They are as offensive as they are misleading. But one element that is particularly egregious to me is their complete disregard for larger context. Bolstering its supposed claim on the “truth” by calling itself a “University,” though it is not an accredited educational body, this group breaks down historical situations, liberal theories, and social justice initiatives into five-minute clips made up of selective context in order to create conservative spin. These videos are like cliff notes for a TED Talk; and the feminist professor in me reals at the suggestion that an audience could possibly “know all it needs to know” from such a narrow framework.

I realize this selective contextualization and brevity is, of course, deliberate. It creates short-hand conservative talking points in entertaining packages for mass proliferation. This kind of strategy works with existing confirmation bias, adding a few facts with interpretation provided, to capitalize on the instant gratification consumer model that much of social media provides. And you know what? It’s disgusting. And you know what else? Liberals do it too.

I remember an article circulating last year within academic groups about how we could “Make every lecture into a TED talk.” I really had to do a double take when reading the title of the post. “Are you (add expletive) kidding me,” I said to myself as I regarded the post. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a good TED Talk. I know friends and colleagues who have created them to help bring attention to important issues often excluded from popular media discussions. And I use these videos in some of my classes, as they are often great jumping off points for the exploration of LARGER CONTEXT. But the suggestion that as lecturers we should pair down context into appeals of fifteen-minutes or less really bothers me.

Teachers are not entertainers. I remember sitting in a mentor-training session once, and the speaker posed the question: what do professors bring to the table that their students need, particularly when sometimes younger students retain data better than older adults? In other words, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader,” he joked, alluding to the popular TV game show. But what he suggested and what has stayed with me is the idea that we bring “master frameworks” to data and facts.

Teachers and other educators can (often) organize information in histories, against comparative theories and in light of cross dialogue surrounding the information presented. Another way of thinking about this: we can name, discuss and analyze relationships of informations. This is a powerful skill; and an inherently incomplete task, because as Carol Christ reminds us: change is and touch is.

One of my favorite ‘books I hadn’t read yet‘ that I picked up in the last year is Traci West’s Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. I started using her work in my Christian Ethics class, and when looking at her Chapter “Policy: The Bible and Welfare Reform,” I had to split the lesson into more than one day because I knew that my undergraduates were unlikely to complete the detailed forty plus pages of reading in one sitting. When presenting her arguments and extensive historical and political analysis, West doesn’t gloss over how both Democratic and Republican policy lead to the scapegoating (and punishment) of poor Black single mothers for “impeed[ing] the progress of this nation” (West, 2006, 89). And honestly, some of my liberal students were surprised by this. “President Clinton did that, really?” Yes; really. West’s work was powerful for my students; and I got to see in real time how they challenged their stereotypes through the realization that certain stereotypes are manufactured towards deliberate political and racist ends.

We cannot forget context. When a meme trying to assuage “middle of the road” White liberals and mitigate what might be perceived as “more radical” agendas surfaces, claiming that “defund the police doesn’t mean defund the police” the history of prison abolitionist movements matters. It is also important that students know that “wage gap” percentages too, are a kind of short-hand that takes into account more than just base pay when calculating income disparity between men and women, and white women and women of color. This way, when students are attacked on “I got you videos” on social media (which are also made on both sides of the political isle), they might be able to dialogue instead simply become the next victim of the self-righteous shame-entertainment that characterizes so much of our nation’s popular political discourse.

I realize certain kinds of education are not accessible or even safe for everyone. A meme I like shows a picture of a happy old white guy sitting in front of a pile of books saying something like “After reading 9,000 pages of gender, queer and post-colonial theory, I finally understand how women are oppressed.” Ha ha. Kidding-not kidding.

That said: I think I just need to make the case for context—or at least, for a little more context, for dialogue, for education, for self-education. In this time when education is so under attack, it seems to be one thing we so desperately need.


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Academics, consumerism, General, Media, Popular Culture, Racism

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5 replies

  1. I can’t say enough about CONTEXT – Context is missing from our entire culture on every level – people don’t even know what I mean when I bring up the subject. Lack of context is how we are destroying the earth – lack of context is how we ended up with corvid – lack of context is how we escape the reality that we live in BODIES – lack of context infects social media on every level – and I am flummoxed – HOW DO WE BEGIN TO INTEGRATE IT INTO OUR LIVES???? Thank you so much for this essay.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yes, context can make all the difference when people are discussing nearly any subject. Many thanks for this very thoughtful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a good point. Thank you. And what is all of this E-learning doing to ‘context’? As I observe my various childrens’ remote learning (3rd grade, 6th grade, Senior in highschool), all of them have these 15 min snippets from various places.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Are you familiar with the children’s book, ZOOM, by Istvan Banyai? It has no words, yet I “read” it to my students every semester. It makes the point that context is everything. One may think they know (from the surface) what something is about, yet as the camera spreads out and incorporates new information, one’s thinking needs to change in order to make sense of things. Great essay, Sara.


  5. I have been dismayed in my classes that my students seem incapable of reading much of anything anymore. My department head told me to try to assign videos as much as possible. Uncertainty is the most uncomfortable human feeling… so people want simple ideas presented simply, so they can retreat behind them and feel good about themselves. I wonder if our shame-based culture can ever help people stop being so afraid of being wrong or bad, and open themselves up to growth and learning and redemption?
    Thank you for a thought provoking post.


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