Learning to Look: An Interview with Alissa Wilkinson
By David Kern
Alissa Wilkinson is one of the most prolific, eloquent, and creative culture critics working today. There just aren’t many critics who combine a sharp eye for artistic proficiency with the sort of silver-tongued articulation that she displays in every piece she publishes. Of course, like all writers of any worth, she honed that voice through years of practice, including at publications like Christianity Today, for whom she ultimately became critic-at-large. Today she is a staff writer for vox.com and an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, where she teaches writing, criticism, and cultural theory. It’s about her teaching, in particular, that she and I chatted recently.
You have written before about your experiences growing up in a conservative homeschooling family. Given that context, what did your early pop culture consumption look like?
I didn’t participate in pop culture at all when I was young, if by pop culture we mean things that are popular at the moment. We sometimes watched PBS shows when I was in grade school, but I’d largely stopped doing that by junior high. I was dimly aware of Christian pop culture (like Veggie Tales or Adventures in Odyssey), but that wasn’t a focus of my life. I read a lot of books, watched maybe a handful of old films, and listened mostly to classical music.
Did your parents actively dissuade you from pop culture—evangelical or otherwise—or did you just not have interest during those years?
I think I’d have been interested if it had been part of my life. But it just wasn’t. With a few exceptions, my extended family aren’t big readers or moviegoers, and so it wasn’t a part of our family life, either—which was certainly true when you factored in the more conservative teachers whom we’d hear at conferences who warned us away from worldliness. Evangelical pop culture was just as worldly as the rest of it. There are a few parts of evangelical pop culture I’m familiar with from personal experience (a handful of singers and a couple of movies), but in general I didn’t have much contact with any of that until my final year of high school, when I worked part-time in the local Christian bookstore
So what led to your cultural awakening, then? What changed?
Mostly just growing up, I think. I started dating my now-husband, who went to film school, and we went to movies together in New York City, where I moved after college for my job. New York is loaded with repertory theaters, and we would go to see foreign movies or films that flew under the radar and talk about them afterward. We went to a church full of artists who took their work seriously. I started to read all the fiction that I’d missed, picking up Pulitzer-winning novels and discovering I really loved contemporary fiction as well as mid-century novels. I began to read good essays and journalism all the time, subscribing to the New Yorker and reading anthologies. So, it wasn’t pop culture so much as just good art.
How did you end up being a critic, then?
I don’t think I ever really did make a conscious choice. It was just a natural extension of my everyday life to pitch reviews to editors for movies I was going to see anyway. The truth is mostly that I just didn’t like the job I had (in financial technology), and I kept doing other things for smaller bits of money on the side because I found my job depressing. I was good enough at writing that people kept asking me to do it, and if you stick around long enough and have a knack for it, the work starts to snowball. But there was no moment where I sat down and said, “I would like to become a critic, and here are the steps I will follow to do that.” I know people who have done that, but it wouldn’t have worked for me. I didn’t set out to become a teacher. But like most people with a master’s degree, I needed to earn a little money on the side and started adjuncting, teaching first-year English composition classes. That turned into a full faculty position teaching the same subject for a few years. But I’d landed at a college that was growing its program in media, culture, and the arts, and when they asked me to teach courses on cultural theory and criticism as well, I could hardly refuse.
In general, though, for the first seven or eight years of my career, I just pitched articles haphazardly as they occurred to me, and whenever someone offered me work doing something —whether or not I thought I was fully qualified for it at the time—I said yes, and figured out how to do it afterwards. That’s led to criticism and teaching. But it wasn’t a path I set out on, nor do I really think I would have thought of it as a career path until recently.
Now you teach at King’s College in NYC, a liberal arts college which really values thoughtful, contemplative works of art, in all sorts of media. Is there anything that has surprised you about the posture of your students towards the films and literature that you have come to love? I gather the majority of them came from ostensibly Christian homes, and many are probably former homeschoolers. Given that, do you generally find they are prepared to engage with the arts on the level that they should?
About a third of our students were homeschooled, and you’re right—most do come from Christian backgrounds of one kind or another, though that’s not really a given and the variety of experiences is pretty wide. They are, on the whole, very receptive to and interested in culture of all stripes. That might be the most surprising part. I don’t have students refusing to partake in culture, which you might expect from students who choose to major in it, but is by no means the rule! At the same time, our students are living and working in New York City, the cultural capital of the world. They learn early on that loving their neighbor means understanding their neighbor, and they have the cultural world at their fingertips. So the goal is to love their neighbor through taking them seriously, and that means taking all kinds of culture seriously. (Also, they’ve chosen to come to a school with a dual focus on the liberal arts and on the “ruling disciplines”—politics, philosophy, and economics—so they’re sort of getting tossed into the deep end from day one.)
Do you find that you have to do much remedial work with those homeschooled students? In what areas do those kids seem most prepared for a close study of culture and in what ways are they lacking?
Not with homeschooled students more than the others —there isn’t an observable pattern, at least in terms of the quality of the work, between our public, private, and home educated students. But I do find that college students (and, frankly, adults) are often pretty bad at wanting to engage with something on its own terms, as a movie or a book or a TV show or whatever. We’re so used to relating to culture by only thinking about how it makes us feel, and how we connect with it, that we ignore what the thing actually is, how it works, and how the form of it might influence our reactions to it. If I could make one thing go away in the way people talk about stories, it would be the tendency to dismiss things because they didn’t find them “relatable.” That’s beside the point—stories aren’t there so we can find ourselves in them. They’re there because a human is telling them for some reason. Our job, especially those of us who want to be thoughtful Christians, is to first receive those things as gifts, and then to take them seriously on the terms on which they were given to us.
So how do you go about cultivating that way of seeing in students? How do you help kids develop good habits of seeing?
It’s a good question. The most basic way is to just ask them to push past the obvious answer whenever they’re thinking about culture. This happens in my classroom in two big ways. The most obvious one is through just writing about it, and encouraging them to do the tough work of “research” about a work of culture before they analyze it (we work through a framework I’ve developed over years of teaching books like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, as well as resources like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing). The other is by throwing them in the deep end, fast. My earliest class has them picking a cultural artifact and then relating it to the week’s readings in an hour-long, student-led presentation. They have to learn quickly to make it last that long, and, as it turns out, if you require people to do something, they can!
As a critic and teacher how do you balance the work of analysis (and teaching analysis) with the idea of letting a work of art be what it is, with letting it stand alone and breathe.
Oh, actually I think doing analysis well is exactly what C.S. Lewis is talking about. You can’t analyze a work of art if you’ve created a roadblock of your ego between yourself and the artwork (that’s what Lewis is talking about—removing our egos from the equation). The first step in any kind of analysis has to be to stop, be quiet, and take the thing in, so you can get a feel for it: its contours, the lay of its land, the way it operates on the audience (in this case, you). If you’re immediately trying to think about how to say something smart or cutting about it, then your ego has just gotten in the way. After you take it all in, you start to observe your own reactions to it as well as your observations, and figure out how it works. Not everyone has to get to step two to enjoy a work of art, but
everyone needs to get to step one.
Do you consider it the job of the teacher to help students remove their own egos from the equation?
I do, yes. Teachers help students to remove their egos from the equation largely by showing them when they have inserted themselves into the equation. Most young, ambitious students are very eager to perform correctly and show their teacher, classmates, and selves how smart they are by answering questions “correctly” about a text. But there are rarely “correct” answers when we’re talking about art (though there are usually better and worse interpretations). Taste has very little to do with it, I think; it’s more about learning what experience we uniquely bring to the work, and recognizing how that colors and informs our view. That is often more humbling than anything else. So a teacher can help point out those places, both in grading and discussion as well as in workshop situations. And teachers have to model it as well —learning not to assert our interpretation of a work as the only correct one, but helping students see what it looks like to really grapple with a work of art.
At what point should things like theme and motifs and plots become the focus of this grappling?
I don’t really buy the idea that there’s a single proper or correct way to approach every work of art. Themes and motifs and plot and tone and image and editing and ideas and politics: all of those are fair game, depending on the work itself. The question for me is how the work wants to be read/watched/viewed, and whether it then allows us to read/watch/view it that way. That’s different for every work of art.
Which I suppose is the challenge for teachers, right? Identifying the ways a work wants to be read.
I suppose, but really it’s not a hard task, and best done with other people. We start by just looking at it (or reading it or whatever) and saying, “What do you think? What strikes you or sticks in your head?” And then continuing to do that until we come up with a thesis about the work. I think sometimes people get tangled up over looking at art, when all it wants is for us to pay attention to it. There’s not a correct answer to a work of art, any more than there’s a correct answer to a human. It just exists, and we respond.