What is red? and other questions and reflections from an Arts degree

This semester, I have been supporting a new core second year Bachelor of Arts subject at MPOW designed to help students realise the value of the knowledge and skills they learn during an Arts degree for their future careers and lives. As I was reflecting on this subject, I was reminded vividly of a question I came across in the first year of my Arts degree: What is red? It was in a psychology lecture on perception. We were given a very technical, scientific answer about wavelengths that I only vaguely remember but what I remember most vividly is regularly being encouraged to creatively and playfully question this answer. Is my red the same as your red? Apparently my mind goes to politics when I think of red. Is red the ALP? The republican party? The communist party? We had a great assignment for the subject which required us to attend an art exhibition and watch a sunrise or sunset and reflect on our perception of them in both a scientific or technical and creative way and I’ve just remembered I ended up submitting a poem as part of it.

Looking back, the question ‘what is red’ and that first year subject set the scene for the key skills I learned during my degree that have been crucial for my working life and career. They are skills I only really realised I had and started to value after I had graduated and been working for a few years, after some obligatory post arts degree overseas travel/soul searching, and after I had commenced studies in Information Management, so I think it is great that there is a core subject that has been designed to help students realise this during their degree.

I studied a very eclectic mix of subjects including creative writing, cultural studies, sociology, gender studies, criminology, psychology, politics, history and philosophy of science and more which eventually led to a double major in sociology and psychology. Studying gender studies and sociology at the same time as studying psychology made me increasingly critical of psychology as it was very individualistic and often seemed to ignore or downplay structural and systemic issues, so by the end of my degree I was pretty certain that I did not want to be a psychologist, but I had no idea what I did want to do.

The skills:

Critical thinking and reflection: I was encouraged to critically think about and reflect on and constructively question traditional knowledge, systems, structures, assumptions and ways of doing things.  This is essential for these post-truth times we live in where you need to pretty much constantly critically evaluate information online: question truth claims, verify sources, break out of  filter bubbles and examine different perspectives. I now get to help people do this across a diverse range of disciplines.

Research: I ended up doing a lot of social science research methods subjects in both quantitative and qualitative methods. I was drawn to research methods subjects because they tended to give me the opportunity to propose small research projects that I could develop to find answers to all the questions I had and support my ideas and arguments with evidence. Not only that, but I also still remember discovering how great library databases were for finding research for my essays and projects. Those databases were so much better than the library discovery layer that was then known as Super Search (and that I often referred to as unSuper Search). Now I get to help people use our discovery layer as a gateway to research and then introduce them to databases to help them delve deeper into the research. This strong research foundation led very directly to my post-arts degree, pre-library work – which involved doing various research support tasks -often in libraries (including doing literature reviews and browsing microfilm).

Creative thinking and problem solving: My constant questions and love of research definitely helped me do some creative thinking and problem solving, which always led to more questions and research. In hindsight, this creative thinking was regularly reflected in the feedback I got from tutors (and also possibly in my difficulties with sticking to word limits). I think I am becoming quite well known for thinking very far outside the traditional box in MPOW and the GLAMorous world more broadly, and it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle to reign in my ideas and questions. Given how dramatically technology and the world is changing, and how much is unknown or uncertain, creative thinking and problem solving is going to become more and more valuable in future careers.

Communication and collaboration: I learned to communicate my reflections, ideas and research in diverse ways: through essays, poetry, monologues, reports, stories, group discussions and presentations. I also kind of loved group assignments because I loved helping other people research and learn and I loved learning from different people. I could quite regularly be found organising small informal study groups in the library, the park and the pub and curating relevant resources from popular culture (mostly the TV show Scrubs) to share with my peers and help us all understand what we were studying in a fun way. Now I find myself regularly curating audio-visual resources for the subjects I support in MPOW, developing a digital storytelling and scholarship guide to help students ethically communicate and share their ideas beyond traditional essays, and increasingly bringing students together and facilitating peer learning.

The knowledge and skills I learned from my Arts degree were consolidated and honed in my information management degree in which I not surprisingly connected with a lot of fellow Arts graduates who had diverse post- Arts degree lives and professional experiences. While they were quite diverse, they were generally caring and/or creative lives in some way. This Information management degree at RMIT was very cleverly designed to help us draw on our undergraduate studies, work experience and other passions and apply them to working in libraries and archives. I feel so lucky to have found a career and a professional community that not only encourages me to continuously question, research and learn, and to work towards creating more inclusive institutions and a more inclusive society, but also gives me opportunities to help other people do these things. Interestingly, there are a lot of librarians at MPOW who have similarly escaped from psychology and found librarianship as a way to help people learn and navigate systems, and to help change the systems themselves, and it’s been great being able to reflect on the journey from psychology to librarianship with them.

I cannot say I was always happy at university. I struggled with reading and anxiety in particular and also communicating my ideas throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. It was only in the last semester of my Masters degree that I worked up the courage to register for equitable assessment adjustments, and I realise now that I should have done this from the beginning. Psychology in particular was extremely competitive and not good for my mental health. The first question I was asked by peers when I started university was “where did you go to school?” and when I said it was a public school in Footscray, I was often met with surprise. However, these are key reasons why I love working in a university library, particularly one within a university that has a lot of ‘non-traditional’ higher education students from diverse backgrounds. I know how hard study was for me and can be for many people, but also how amazing it can be. I love and am addicted to knowledge and learning,  and I get to help make it more fun for and accessible to everyone and foster collaboration and peer learning (rather than competition) everyday. Although I haven’t been diagnosed with dyslexia, this recent piece by Grainne Cleary in The Conversation on “My dyslexic perspective on academia – and how I found science communication” really resonated with me. Academic librarianship is my science communication. Turbitt & Duck’s recent interview with Katie Lumsden also resonated with me in a similar way.

I have recently been revisiting queer and gender studies theories (it’s like revisiting old friends) and exploring queer pedagogy to more explicitly bring them into my practice in librarianship in order to help ensure I am being inclusive. I’ve also done a little bit of informal collaboration with student wellbeing to help LGBTIQ+ students so I guess I have not really escaped psychology either. While it turns out that studying psychology wasn’t so good for my mental health, I did learn a lot about mental health. I remember one lecturer who was also a clinical psychologist saying she read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath every six months to remind herself of the lived experience of depression. Like a good young future librarian, I got my hands on the book as soon as possible after that! This Freud costume for a “Dreams and Nightmares” themed ball is further proof of my psychology student past.

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This excellent seahorse shirt selfie is a tribute to the many subjects I did during my Arts degree that encouraged me to question traditional gender roles.

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