Attention, Connection, and Sinews: An Interview with John Williams, April 2020

Vee Kalkunte

In the midst of this chaotic April, it’s hard to describe our situation, but Dr. John Williams captures it well: “[Now], the way we love each other is to no longer be around each other, which is a paradox.” 

And what a paradox it is. 

On one hand, there’s a certain veil of normalcy that has shrouded us once more. Classes, work (for some), picking classes for next semester – it is, more or less, as scheduled. But on the other hand, we’re left to ourselves, our homes, our thoughts. 

We’re left to consider community, as it is no longer something we can take for granted. Within a small liberal arts school, community is inevitable – from the 20 odd people we see while going to class to the countless number of people we’re aware of through rumor and role interaction, we are a community through the sheer fact of living together. Community is good. This is what many of us value. This is why some of us are here in the first place. 

But we can no longer assume physical community as a part of our lives. The connections provided by day-to-day life are harder to find. Even within our classrooms, interaction is strained and participation is a struggle. We must work harder to pay attention to the world around us.

Dr Williams uses attention in a different way than what we’d usually think. He explains, “The word attention comes from the latin roots “ad” and “tendero”. [Attention] literally means to stretch towards. Paying attention [is] stretching towards others. [For example,] you and I went through the trouble of setting up this Zoom meeting, but that’s stretching towards each other, and that’s important because we think we’re better off together than by ourselves. We stretched towards each other.

Though it’s harder to build the sinews which connect the skeleton of our institution once more, people are. We know that we are better off together. That, in the end, it’s worth connecting with, stretching towards those we care about.

Dr. Williams explains, “The alumni office this week created the Austin College alumni community on Facebook, and it’s exploding with much more people than we expected, with over 12,000 likes last count… and that’s cool, because we’re eager, we’re missing connection, and we’re eager to have more.”

It makes sense. We don’t realize how much we miss our normal until it’s taken away from us. 

But for all our need to reach out, Dr. Williams wasn’t surprised that Austin College was able to make the transition to remote teaching, learning, and interacting. “When I think about the individual tasks or the individual people [it takes to transition], it doesn’t surprise me… that we have all been able to make the transition to be able to function, as quickly as we did… because we’re surrounded by intelligent and competent people….So the surprise is the situation.”

And what a situation it is. A once-in-a-lifetime “black swan” event that we never quite thought would hit us like this. And yet, it’s also hard to grasp just how much of a transmission we’ve made, changing the communication structures of nearly 2,500 people at least, and yet transitioning as smoothly as one can expect from a global pandemic. Simply the fact that we speak of this as the new normal is, to some degree, a testimony to our resilience as an institution. As Dr. Williams states, “It is a huge change, but not something we’re not up to.”

Social distancing is more than the challenge of a new world, however. Within it is the opportunity to be creative and spend time on the things that matter to us. In his (albeit limited) spare time, Dr. Williams finds himself “appreciating, and quite frankly enjoying, the opportunity to write more [now than] in the last 26 years, and more than I will have probably after things return to normal.”

Even beyond writing and rebuilding our community, he’s been a host to a few new guests: three Painted Lady caterpillars, Totoo, Emoji, and Willie, affectionately named by his wife’s elementary school classroom. Though the picture below shows them still in their caterpillar forms, “they’re all in the chrysalis now,and are being transferred… to different places so that… gravity can do its part in the chrysalis process.”

Marching to the beat of time, they remain unaware of the frenetic energy around them – a blessing or a pity, it’s hard to say.

A Photo of Tootoo, Emoji and Willie, taken by John Williams