Here is the intellectual autobiography which I wrote for my Understanding Media Studies Class at The New School. In it, I briefly outline the development of my outlook on the world and my approach to knowledge and the acquisition of and interaction with it. I’m still very much in the process, and I would expect and, in fact, hope to remain in the process all of my life. But here is a the picture of the way that some of my early influences and opportunities had a profound impact on the choices I’ve made and the views I’ve formed ever since:
Ever since childhood, I have been interested in people and the ways we communicate. Though I was a shy child, I was an intent listener and would often listen in on the conversations of adults around me and interject to ask for the meanings of unfamiliar words. At the age of two, long before I could read or write, I created my own story book with pictures and a self-created alphabet of characters that had no meaning to anyone but me and read it aloud for my parents. As I grew up, I continued to be fascinated with the spectrum of ways people express their ideas and feelings as it broadened before me and through art and dance classes, piano lessons, voracious reading and intent listening, I began to explore some of these forms of expression myself. My parents nurtured my creative imagination on many fronts—we attended music, theater and dance performances and I was constantly encouraged to explore my own self-expressive impulses in the many directions they took me. I would lock myself in the bathroom and write lying in the tub—poems, short stories, journals. And some of my earliest memories are of reading out loud with my family or listening to music, NPR news or A Prairie Home Companion together. One thing we did not have was commercial television. Though we watched a limited amount of PBS, I had no exposure to cable TV, something that I think in itself shaped my relationship to and understanding of language and communication in certain distinct ways.
In short, through the incredible blessing of being born with supportive and nurturing parents, my early natural gravitation toward and fascination with the incredible range of media of human expression and communication was not only allowed but encouraged to expand and grow. While my academic and professional development has reflected a range of different interests and an exploration of seemingly disparate courses of study and professional possibilities, my early and sustained fascination with people and the myriad ways we convey information, perspectives, thoughts and feelings, can be seen as the unifying theme of my intellectual development up to this point. I hope that as I continue to develop my ability to critically analyze the historical development and current state of various forms of human communications, my intellectual background and the knowledge it has engendered will help create a jumping off point for my intellectual development into someone who not only observes and studies human communications but contributes to the reevaluation and reform of some of the ineffective, misleading, and counterproductive aspects of those communications.
My intellectual development, begun on such an early and basic level, was greatly broadened and focused through my formal education, even from its earliest days. From third through sixth grades, I was home schooled, along with my little sister, by my mother—a certified teacher. This was not an ideological decision on my mother’s part, simply a function of her training and her desire to have more of a hands-on involvement in our education. These few years were truly formative to the way I came to understand education and the acquisition of knowledge in general. The flexibility afforded by this kind of education and the greater ability to engage in hands-on one-on-one and collaborative ways caused me to view learning much more as a process (and a personal, exciting, engaging one, at that) than as a checklist of chores, pages to be read, facts to be memorized and regurgitated. Each day, we covered all of the academic subjects (math, science, reading, writing, history, art, etc) that I would have were I still in public school, but the order in which they were done was flexible and the approaches we took to learning were far more varied.
We read out loud and did writing exercises, we did math worksheets and learned science terms and historical dates, but we also went on fieldtrips to science centers, aquariums, art museums, the Smithsonian, the White House, Congress and local historical sites (Washington, D.C. and Baltimore were both an hour or so away and Antietam and Gettysburg were right around the corner, so there was no shortage of educational day trips) and experienced the things we were learning about in a hands-on, immediate way. If we had a question about something in our science textbook, we’d do an experiment and research to try to find the answer. If we had a question about a book we read, we’d write a letter to the author. If we learned about a current events issue that we felt strongly about, we’d write a letter to our representatives. When I didn’t see a newspaper for pre-teens at my local library, I began putting out a monthly children’s newspaper of my own (with myself and my friends writing and contributing the content) and convinced the library to carry it. It sounds trite but it was truly empowering to discover that knowledge was richer and more immediate than a chapter of a textbook—textbooks are helpful and instructive, but not the whole picture—and that by engaging with the world around me and participating in it on many levels, I could not only learn things but influence them as well. The engagement and view of knowledge and, by extension, of the world, that this experience instilled in me has stayed with me as I continued my education and, in certain fundamental ways, influences me to this day.
In middle and high school, I returned to the classroom setting, attending local private schools. In this more structured, formal educational setting, I found a different set of values and expectations for knowledge acquisition. Here, the emphasis was most often on staying within the boundaries of set curricula and not on drawing connections between disciplines or exploring the information and ideas that didn’t fall into an easy category. I also became more aware of a hierarchy of knowledge that valued “academic” subjects above “creative” ones and “hard facts” (math, science, history) most of all. Within this structure, I was most drawn to English, art, and creative writing classes. While this was a difficult adjustment in some ways, it ultimately gave me a more structured, disciplined, and focused work ethic, and did a wonderful job of preparing me for college.
It was in college that I really came into my own academically and began to shape some ideas about ways that I could parlay the things I was passionate about and the knowledge I was acquiring into concrete actions and goals. It was also at this time that I finally began to develop a style of scholarship and intellectual engagement that combined elements of both the curiosity and creativity of my early education and the structure and pragmatic discipline of my middle and high school years. Indeed, my transcript reflected that balance, with my major (English) and two minors (music and anthropology) and the distribution requirements within each one giving my studies focus and structure and the many electives I took in disciplines as varied as women’s studies, Spanish, psychology, political science, Chinese, ethics, and others giving me an intellectually broader, richer and more interdisciplinary perspective.
Interestingly, it was this broadening of my knowledge and perspective that allowed me to begin to narrow and hone my focus, to figure out what things excited and inspired me most academically. One of these things was women’s studies. At a certain point I began to notice that in all my classes I tended to gravitate toward women’s issues as a lens for examining many of the things I was learning, whether the class focus was on world music, post-colonial literatures, or Chinese culture. Another lens that I frequently found myself employing was that of linguistics. I was fascinated by the many levels of meaning that could be imbedded in the language of a novel, a textbook, a newspaper, a pop song, or a private conversation. Finally, the exploration of music and other forms of artistic expression, non-verbal but extremely effective modes of expression and communication was something that also emerged as a common theme for me in my studies. Upon graduating, all three of these themes would be reflected in various ways in the professional decisions I made and the paths I pursued or considered.
I graduated college overwhelmed by choices. I had many intellectual and creative interests, but could not see a logical way of combining them and was paralyzed by the idea of choosing just one. So, immediately following college, I began to explore my options. I took a photography class. I interned at a music magazine. I interned at the National Organization for Women. I taught ESL (English as a second language) literature. I worked briefly at the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts in Education. All of these experiences taught me a great deal, and I began to shape a slightly better idea of the kinds of jobs I would be interested in doing in the long term. As I began my hunt for a permanent job in earnest, I discovered how suspicious people were of a resume as varied as mine. I interviewed for non-profit jobs in women’s issues and was asked over and over some variation of the question, “why did you work at a music magazine and teach ESL if you’re interested working in women’s issues?” I applied for jobs in arts journalism and got the same question in reverse. My answer was always the same—that I saw the breadth of my interests and background as an asset, not a hindrance, that I felt it gave me a broader and richer frame of reference. But, this didn’t seem to allay interviewers’ suspicions. For this and other reasons, my fruitless job hunt left me feeling not only frustrated, but intellectually bankrupt and directionless.
I came to the New School’s Media Studies program because, of all the programs I looked at, it seemed best suited to helping my synthesize and make sense of my disparate interests and giving me the resources and guidance to do something constructive and meaningful with that synthesis of ideas. Looking ahead, I am particularly excited to have the opportunity to revisit the creative side of myself—it’s been far too long since I had the opportunity to incorporate creativity into my process of learning and intellectual growth. For years, my creative impulses have been latent, confined to a little drawing or photography in my free time. I’ve long found the artificial division between the “creative,” artistic sphere and the “factual,” academic sphere to be inhibiting and perhaps the most appealing thing about this program for me is the opportunity to remarry the two. My greatest challenge going forward will be to maintain a sense of intellectual discipline. In the face of such a broad palette of creative and intellectual ideas and opportunities, I feel a bit like a kid in a candy shop, wanting to try everything. I’m already beginning to see some ideas taking shape, however, and I’m confident that this program is going to provide an incredible workshop for me to continue to shape my mind and, eventually I hope, the world.