Week 10, or “How to See the World” and Other Such Adventures

I only had one class this week because of a very well needed Fall Break, thus there’s very little to report. I’m approaching a very dangerous part of the semester, where my ideas can no longer safely reside in my little Ravynn mind, but have to make their way into a carefully crafted word document.

I’m only mildly freaking out about that.

Despite being here on fellowships– a sign that the powers-that-be feel that my mind is valuable– it’s precisely that pressure that gets to me. I feel like it’s time to prove why I merited all the money and awards. It’s time to produce a shiny, ground-breaking thing, when in reality, I’m just hoping to be semi-coherent.

I’ve planned, and cultivated ideas, and looked theories– and for all of that, I still have to contend with being an American Studies scholar, which has no uniform methodology, which means my beautiful ideas will fall flat if I can’t figure out what approach will best support them.

So, I do what I always do when I realize I’m spending too much time in my head and gave myself over to my homework for the week. My professor assigned two books for class this week and I was fully prepared to skim the second, but I was sucked in so completely by the time I finished the introduction that I read the entire thing, start to finish, in about 3 hours, without realizing I’d done it.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “How to See the World” is my scholarship #goals. It is interdisciplinary, international, intersectional– everything I want my own work to be. It takes one concept, how we see the world today, uses to draw connections across history, between art forms, to science and the environment, to selfies. We start with the first attempts to understand human vision then move to France to understand the Lumiere brothers’ revolutionary work in the autochrome portraits and the first films. Mirzoeff takes us to South Africa, Asia, and the Civil Rights Era American South, discussing everything from signs and symbols of Apartheid to how we represented segregation here. The reader is forced to consider the how we as a society saw huge events that impacted the entire world on the television, everything from JFK’s assassination and funeral to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What’s impressive about this work is that it’s clear Mirzoeff is trained and well educated in numerous disciplines that all touch several different countries and cultures. Despite the broad range of topics he covers, absolutely everything has a point and it is easy to see how it connects to his bigger question.

It’s absolutely awe inspiring.

And it makes me feel a whole lot better.

My training is similar: I was in the International Baccalaureate program, which meant global perspectives were my entire academic career. The mission of the program is to promote well-roundedness in its scholars, so for example, my literature classes not only taught the American and English literature canon, but I got a great deal of exposure to South American, African, African-American, East European, Asian, and Native American literature. My French class expanded beyond L’Hexagone and reached into Africa and the Carribean. I learned about the Cold War from both sides of the coin in my History courses.

My university education was similar. I majored in French and Comparative Literature, with a minor in International Relations, but I also spent a lot of time darting in and out of African-American Studies classes.

My training is not just academic by no means. I was a classically trained, competitive pianist for 12 years of my life, which meant I also knew about international music history, changing currents in artistic life, and how certain styles influenced others. Often these transitions mirrored visual art movements, so I learned those, too. My love of the arts bled into my passion for graphic novels, theater, film, and other visual media.

By far the biggest challenge of my life has been trying to weave all of my interests together in a cohesive statement so that people understand me. My mind has been shaped by so many diverse art forms, cultures and languages that I worried that academia would force me to produce a certain type of work in which I would have to drop certain aspects of my training. Even with American Studies being the most versatile field, I worried about losing all of my international training.

Mirzoeff shows how you can incorporate it all. I cheered when I read about the Lumiere brothers because I knew all of this already from my time in Lyon with the UVA in Lyon program. I learned about “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” at the hanger where it was filmed at L’Institut Lumiere. I studied those early films under the watchful eye of an actual French film scholar. When Mirzoeff discusses the complexity of articulating the meaning of the term flaneur, my heart warmed for my mentor and advisor who not only taught me this term in Paris, but encouraged his students to become flaneurs ourselves for an afternoon, because this was the real way to embrace a culture.

My interdisciplinary training paid off when I followed Mirzoeff’s discussions of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, as my 9th grade Biology teacher taught us from that book. It paid off when he discussed self-portraits and other art works, including my favorite Mondrian, whose work I was able to see at la Musee d’Orsay. It paid off when I could follow his arguments surrounding the famous image of protesters at Woolworth’s.

My own work, hopefully, will be just as interdisciplinary, just as international, just as intersectional as Mirzoeff’s. Reading his work made me realize that my interests are in no way disconnected: I just have to find the right line to connect them.


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