Month: March 2014

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Justifying a Humanities Major

When I tell people my undergraduate majors, I usually get one of two reactions. Sometimes the person replies, sarcastically, “Yeah. My major was just as useful.” Then they will tell me that they studied English or French or Sociology/Anthropology. The rest of the time, they reply with a question: “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you plan to do with that?” At this point I am supposed to demur and agree that there is nothing I can do with a Studio Art and East Asian Studies degree. Ha!

I have to laugh when scientists and mathematicians claim that the humanities are easy or “soft.” This is particularly amusing to me when those same scientists and mathematicians must compose research papers a cover letter. Then they start using words like “writing” and “hard” in the same sentence.

The humanities teach communication skills. They teach people how to relate with others and share ideas effectively. An analyst might gather financial data and use formulas to calculate time-weighted returns. An artist could then design graphs to interpret and display that information visually. A writer could come up with words to explain the data to a broader audience and place it in a larger context. A scientist might research a medical ailment and develop a preventative treatment for that ailment. Someone who majored in the humanities could spread the word about that treatment, using video, magazine articles, images, social media, etc. to convey important health information to the public.

In general, I am against the notion that there is a dichotomous distinction between arts and sciences. One person can excel at both. I’ll use Barbara Kingsolver, my favorite author, as an example. Barbara Kingsolver studied biology in college. She then held a number of jobs, some relevant to her degree, while pursuing freelance writing. Eventually, her books became prolific enough to allow her to make writing a full-time job. Now, Kingsolver combines her writing skills with her knowledge of biology to create engaging narratives laced with powerful descriptions of ecosystems and animals.  She uses her massive readership to raise awareness of environmental issues.

It is useless for scientists and artists to scoff at one another’s expertise. We need each other. Humans need translators just as much as we need doctors. We need physicists as much as we need creative directors. Some might argue that the humanities are necessary for the purpose of rounding out our lives–making them richer. I would agree. The humanities do make our lives richer, but not only in the way that attending plays, visiting galleries, and reading novels make our lives richer. They allow us to share theories; to form links across families, communities, countries; to call people to action and initiate change. Without the humanities, we would be incoherent to one another. The human body, by which I mean humanity as a collective, would lack tendons.

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Maybe Teleportation Does Exist

I scooched my butt to the left, straddling two seats in order to maintain the appropriate number of inches between me and my fellow commuter. She tucked her elbows in, her gaze locked on her iPhone, playing a game of Candy Crush with blank enthusiasm. My eyes swept the bus, at loss for a settling point. I would have liked to look out the window at the passing urban landscape. However, if I did that, I could not avoid appearing to stare at the businessman seated directly across from me. So I feigned interest in the ads pasted on the ceiling.

“Seriously?!” someone groaned as the bus slowed to a stop. I looked up. The bus door opened with a sigh. My ears perked at the sound of someone speaking a foreign language. I love attempting to identify foreign languages.

Quite suddenly, a group of seven or eight men and women—all Asian and all toting the kind of personal grocery cart that old women who ear plastic bags over their permed hair are associated with—loaded onto the bus. It took less than a moment for me to recognize the foreign language: Mandarin Chinese. I studied Mandarin in college and spent a semester in Sichuan province, so it wasn’t a matter of guesswork. I knew with certainty that the group was jabbering to one another in Putonghua, the common language of mainland China.

They all found places to stow their exotic vegetables, clearly purchased at a specialty market. As the group found seats, the commuters on the 14, including myself, all inhaled. I scooched back over to the right as one of the men made for the empty seat beside me. I wrapped my arms around the backpack in my lap, trying and failing to lean away from both the commuter on my right, still intently playing Candy Crush, and the Chinese man on my left.

He turned to sit down, and his backpack scraped my face, then rammed into my shoulder. He did not apologize. I was not surprised. Once settled, he loudly asked if everyone in his group had found a seat.

My first instinct was to shrink away and avert my attention. But my second instinct, curiosity, speedily took over. I leaned in to eavesdrop. I glanced at my fellow commuters faces to witness their reactions to the unapologetically Chinese group.

In China, it is perfectly normal to shove and push strangers to make room for yourself. It is appropriate to conduct booming conversations in public. No one thinks twice about staring openly at anything that might be considered a spectacle.

As a tall, blonde American in Chengdu, I became used to the feeling of having eyes trained on me every time I left my dormitory. A few times, small children pointed at me and announced, “laowai,” which means “foreigner.” Once, when I was riding my bike around the university, a man driving a motor scooter was so fixed on staring at me that he ran into a curb.

So, I relaxed, allowing my arm to brush the arm of the man on my left. I watched professionals and students wipe expressions of astonishment off of their faces and return to their smartphones and mp3 players. I listened to the husband and wife on my left discuss what stop they should disembark at.

Sadly, people who speak foreign languages generally converse about the same commonplace subjects that English speakers do. Happily, the challenge of translating a foreign language makes commonplace subjects seem infinitely more exciting.

Only two stops after boarding the bus, most of the early morning shoppers got off the bus with their heavily laden carts. In a few minutes, my bite of China had vanished. However, the aftertaste was strong.

That day, I noticed all of the red in Portland. Each time I caught a flash of the color, I turned, expecting to see a red banner emblazoned with foot-high white characters. I smelled China in the car exhaust as I walked from my bus stop to work. I craved pork dumplings dipped in chili oil and hand-pulled noodles fried with egg and tomato. For a little while, Chengdu and Portland overlaid one another, like parallel universes.

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Interviews with Interviewers… About Interviewing

This week I attended a screening of Interviews with Interviewers… About Interviewing (1985) at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, presented by Cinema Project. Skip Blumberg, who has been an influencer in video and television since the 1970s, produced, filmed, and edited this program. He also acted as the interviewer, asking questions while handling his Sony Portapack-1/2 video camcorder. His interviewees included a much younger Barbara Walters than the Barbara Walters we are familiar with today, 60 Minutes‘s Mike Wallace, writer and radio host Studs Terkel, Susan Stamberg of NPR, a New York City detective, and a psychoanalyst. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the former four had the most charisma on camera. The detective’s answers were blunt, and the psychoanalyst often seemed to be grasping for words.

Blumberg asked his interviewees a myriad of questions. Why did they become interviewers? How many interviews had they conducted in their professional lives? Why did they think television viewers liked interviews so much? How did they know if an interview had been successful? Did they ever feel like a question was too personal? How did they prepare for their interviews? What did they believe was the ideal personality for an interviewer? Did they ever feel as if they were victimizing their interviewees? What were their personal goals? How did they choreograph their questions?

Most of Blumberg’s interviewees estimated that they had each conducted around ten thousand interviews. How, wondered Blumberg, did they sustain their interest? Curiosity. Curiosity was mutually agreed upon to be the most important trait for an interviewer. Susan Stamberg shared her assumption that if she found someone interesting, other people would as well. She said that she loved asking questions she would have loved to ask as a child. For instance, once she asked a conductor, “Don’t your arms get tired?” The conductor replied that his arms only got tired when a piece of music was going poorly.

After the screening, Paige Sarlin, assistant professor in the Department of Media Study at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, who is writing a book on the history of the interview, moderated a discussion. She also shared some interesting facts about interviewing.

Although she is having difficulty settling on the first example of an interview ever conducted, she did tell us how job interviews began. Thomas Edison, purportedly, invented the job interview. He frequently hired college graduates to work for him, but quickly became annoyed when they did not possess the knowledge he required. So, he developed over one hundred questions to ask his prospective employees.

As someone who has recently initiated several informational interviews, and been invited to a few job interviews, I am particularly interested in the mechanics of the interview and what makes an interview successful. I agreed with the interviewees in Interviews with Interviewers… About Interviewing, that you know an interview is going well when it stops feeling like an interview and starts feeling like a conversation. For the television interviewers, it is when the camera men and lights seem to disappear. For me, it is when the interview progresses organically… when we lose track of time and the specific questions that had been prepared fall by the wayside. The roles of interviewer and interviewee dissolve, and simple and sincere curiosity emerges.

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Counting My Blessings

I spend a lot of time wishing for change. I wish for time to move faster. I wish for time to move slower. I wish for a new job. I wish for more time to spend with friends. I wish for more alone time. I wish for the world to get its shit together. Rarely do I stop wishing.

Frequently, I have to stop and remind myself to be thankful for everything that I do have.

Yes, I’m not working in a field that I want to be working in. But I have a job. I have generous employers who have taught me a number of useful professional skills. Through my internship and job at PCA, I have learned how to manage a database, how to interpret data using Excel, how to conduct myself professionally… I have had opportunities to improve my research, writing, and oral presentation skills. My bosses continue to let me choose my own schedule so that I can make time for informational interviews, etc. And they consistently thank me for and commend me on my work.

I am able to feed, house, and clothe myself.

I have free time to unwind, spend time with my friends, volunteer, pursue my own interests.

I am healthy.

I live in Portland, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, which I remain convinced is one of the greatest places on Earth. Last week I biked to and from work every day, past parks and daffodils and adorable houses. The sun shone for almost a week straight (in March!). I ran across Portland’s urban goat herd, the Belmont Goats, just before they were scheduled to be moved to Lents. I spent Saturday evening with friends, eating mouth-watering Indian food and playing Cards Against Humanity.

I obtained an internship at my absolute favorite art gallery in Portland: 23 Sandy. 23 Sandy exclusively shows and sells book art. *Swoon*

I’ve spent several hours over the last few weeks talking to fascinating people about their career paths. If it were possible to conduct informational interviews for a living, I would. I love it.

I am even thankful for my dissatisfaction. If I didn’t wish, I would stop moving forward. I would stop reaching for the work and people and places that I want to be in my life. I would stop striving to affect change.

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Why go to grad school?

I just spent the last sixteen years in a classroom. Why would I want to sign on for two to six more?

Lewis & Clark College’s career center provides students with a plethora of informative handouts. One of these is entitled “Gearing Up for Grad School” and lists the following reasons for pursuing a graduate degree:

 

“…You’re pursuing a career in academia,

…You need the credential to get professional licensing,

…You’re looking for a career change,

…You want to switch from practitioner to administrator,

…You’re looking for career/salary advancement.”

 

These are pretty good reasons for going to grad school, I guess. However, none of these cover why I am planning on going to grad school at some point in the next couple of years. The following are my reasons for continuing my education:

 

1) It took me almost the full four years of my undergraduate education just to find my higher education groove. Now that I know how to enjoy my coursework, while maintaining a social life and continuing to be involved in community activities, I don’t want to say goodbye to that part of my life.

2) I love being in school. I like writing papers and doing homework. I just do. Okay?

3) Grad school would provide me with access to accomplished mentors and a community of people all doing the things that I love to do.

4) Grad school offers me the opportunity to get better at what I want to do and specialize. Rather than just Studio Art, I can study Design or Craft. I can focus on paper arts or wood carving. Or, if I want to continue my East Asian Studies degree, I can work towards a masters in Chinese Language or Chinese Studies, specifically.

5) New challenges. New environment. New people. All of these lead to growth and inspiration.

 

Yeah, grad school is expensive. As someone who wants to go into humanities, rather than science or technology, I’ll be paying off crazy loans for a long time. For me, it is worth it. I would rather spend money on school than a down payment on a house or a new car. I care more about what I am doing than what I have.

Barbara Kingsolver book cover feedback?

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Hey all,

I designed this draft of a replacement cover (as a hypothetical graphic design project) for Barbara Kingsolver’s book Prodigal Summer. What do you think? If you were in a bookstore, would you pick up this book to look at it more closely? Why or why not? All feedback is appreciated!

Best,

Laura

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9 things that make me feel like an adult

1) Buying a bed, including mattress, box spring, bed frame, and sheets.

2) Choosing the city that I want to live in.

3) Applying for and renting an apartment without any parents co-signing or contributing funds.

4) Having a vacuum.

5) Making my own doctor’s appointments.

6) Riding the bus to and from work with other commuters.

7) Preparing dinner for multiple people and eating salad with dinner.

8) Earning enough money to support myself.

9) Filing taxes as an independent.

Bonus: A few things that still make me feel like a child

1) Walking to Safeway at 10 p.m. for the sole purpose of buying candy.

2) Sleeping with three stuffed animals. (One is a Dream Lite.)

3) Playing an embarrassing amount of Fruit Ninja.

4) Going roller skating on Top 40 night.