Archive for March, 2009

american universities: no longer need-blind?

March 31, 2009


The New York Times recently published an article on how the economic recession has made it easier for wealthier applicants to get into university.

“In the bid for a fat envelope this year, it may help, more than usual, to have a fat wallet. Facing fallen endowments and needier students, many colleges are looking more favorably on wealthier applicants as they make their admissions decisions this year.”

This recent trend in admissions makes me wonder if I would have been accepted to the universities I applied to for undergraduate in 2003. At that time, my dad was unemployed and my mom was a Headstart teacher. I applied to about eight private liberal arts colleges, knowing that admissions was need-blind and financial aid was based almost purely on need. I was accepted to all eight universities and received full funding from all the schools, except for my top choice: New York University. They expected me to pay $20,000 worth of tuition out of pocket.

Nevertheless, this was my dream school, so I decided to defer a year to think about it, apply to more schools, and study abroad in Panama. I ultimately decided to attend  a university in my hometown: University of Washington. At the time, it didn’t seem like the most glamorous option, but as a state resident and with scholarships, it was practically free.

I received a fantastic education at the University of Washington and am really happy ended up here, but sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I went to school in New York.

I think students should be able to attend the university of their choice, regardless of cost. However, with the current state of the economy, this seems even less plausible than when I applied for undergraduate. According to NYT, “[T]he inevitable result is that needier students will be shifted down to the less expensive and less prestigious institutions.”

However, this does not mean they can’t get a good education. My experience is a case in point.

Photo by Flickr user phxpma (busy for a while)


the end of the semester, the beginning of essays

March 29, 2009

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, everything seemed to happen all at once: my dissertation proposal, the last week of my job, the end of the semester, and of course, my birthday. It’s been a stressful week, but I survived.

I still have lot of work to do, but fortunately, my job at the Student Association has pretty much wrapped up, so my focus will be purely academic. I have a couple of essays due around the end of April. For The Practice of Cultural Studies course, I will write a 4,000-word essay on street art and the body. I will look at how JR, a French street artist, creates billboard-size images of eyes and faces to capture the experience of everyday people. I am still looking for a theoretical framework, but will probably draw from theories on physiognomy, please let me know if you have any reading suggestions.

For The City and Its Others course, I will probably write about representations of urban slums and their influence on urban theory and development. I am still brainstorming for this essay and may change my topic completely. This essay is supposed to be a visual-textual essay composed of 3,000 words and images with detailed captions. I have never written an essay with photographs or on urban studies, so it will be interesting to see how this new format will influence the way I think through and write about my ideas.

This may not seem like a lot of work for a graduate-level course, but in the UK, you are expected to do a great deal of self-study. As a masters student, you are supposed to read and conduct independent research for your dissertation throughout the entire year. I am a huge advocate of independent study and enjoy researching on my own, however, I prefer having more coursework. It not only helps me stay focused and interested, but also, offers more opportunities for feedback and self-improvement.

One of my biggest criticisms of the British graduate education system, especially at the University of Edinburgh, is the lack of feedback. For example, last semester I wrote two 4,000-word essays and received about one paragraph of feedback for each essay that I wrote. While I received feedback informally through meetings and class presentations, the two paragraphs were the only concrete pieces of assessment I received. There is a lot you can pack in one paragraph, but I think it would be more effective and helpful if we had a greater number of assignments in order to receive more feedback on how to improve our writing, research skills, and ideas.

the joyful bewilderment part deux at analogue books

March 24, 2009


If you’re in Edinburgh this weekend, make sure to attend the opening of The Joyful Bewilderment Part Deux at Analogue Books. Here are the details:

7-9pm, Saturday — March 28, 2009

Analogue Books 102 West Bow Edinburgh EH1 2H

Here’s a description of the exhibition by The Joyful Bewilderment:

“The Joyful Bewilderment is an international group exhibition showcasing the outpourings of a group of like minded image-makers. This exhibition can be seen as an expression of these artists compulsion to create. Fundamentally, the artists in the show all share an essential motivation to explore the possibilities of enhancing everyday life by making magic from the mundane.”


“[I]n various ways, the works offer a subconscious social commentary on the uncertainty of the times we are all living in. Specifically, what comes to the fore are common concerns and a positive interest with dipping into the past and championing seemingly long-forgotten notions such as thriftyness and a delight in the ordinary everyday detritus of life in order to counteract the context of a world today brimming with unwanted junk and jumble that has been manufactured for the transitory ‘now’.”

Super excited to check out the show! Thanks for the tip, Common Folk!

[via Mumble and The Joyful Bewilderment]

notes and tweets of kindness

March 22, 2009

Whether I am in Seattle or abroad, getting snail mail is always exciting. When you spend all your time reading pdfs, writing papers, and creating works cited on the computer, it’s nice to get something that is tangible and hand-written. Yesterday, I got two pieces of mail: one from my parents and one from an unknown sender. My birthday is in a few days, so I thought the second envelope was from a friend since my nickname “themelissard” was written on the front. I opened the enveloped and below is what I found:


This note and button captures the spirit of the sender and my favorite new tweeter, twipple, which uses twitter to spread random acts of kindness. According to their bio, “a twipple is a random act of kindness via twitter. We post 1 twipple per 100 sign ups. So please sign up and tell your friends. twipple ideas also welcomed!”

Their most recent twipple is “pick someone some flowers for the first day of spring (or any day!)”.

I had forgotten that I sent them my snail mail addie to get a free button, but since twipple is based in New York, I didn’t think they would actually send it to addresses outside of the States. But this is what twipple is all about: doing small unexpected nice things to make the world a happier place. ;-)

the practice of cultural studies: theory as practice

March 21, 2009

On my last post about the importance of the humanities during a recession, a visitor requested that I provide specific examples of how Cultural Studies has impacted society. Perhaps the post would have been more effective if I had included individualized examples, but I intentionally did not include specifics  in order to keep the idea of Cultural Studies as open and broad as possible.

However, I have re-thought my initial hesitation and have decided to share a few examples from my experience in high school, undergraduate and postgraduate to discuss how Cultural Studies has affected my life. I can’t speak for the entire discipline, but I can speak from my own experience.

First, I think it’s important to point out that Cultural Studies is a contested term and discipline. The strength and weakness of Cultural Studies is that it can be interpreted and manifested in many ways; its existence is contingent on the people who produce and employ its ideas. For example, my undergraduate program Comparative History of Ideas (CHID), which was my alma mater’s unique localized version of Cultural Studies, differs greatly from my postgraduate program Cultural Studies. Both programs are interdisciplinary and draw heavily from critical theory (e.g. Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial studies), but CHID is much more focused on political science, international relations, and the history of science, whereas Cultural Studies at Edinburgh is much more centered on visual culture, architecture, and film studies. Both programs have had a tremendous impact on the way in which I think about and act in the world.

In many ways, I began practicing Cultural Studies long before I entered university or even knew that it existed. During high school, I worked for the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP), a youth-driven non-profit organization based in Seattle that empowers youth to take action on issues that affect their lives. SYPP introduced me to many of the key concepts of Cultural Studies, educating me on the social construction of race, gender, age, and other markers of identity that we often take for granted. Through SYPP, I developed the knowledge  and skills to challenge and re-think traditional notions of culture.

After high school, I continued to build on my understanding of culture and politics at the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington. Through CHID, my understanding of these issues became much more complex and encompassing. I learned to see all forms of representation — from religion to soap opera to graffiti — as entry points for exploring culture and politics.

My final year of undergraduate I wrote my senior honors thesis on the Holocaust, memory, and photography. In this project, I explored the overexposure to and desensitization of Holocaust, memory and photography. To further my investigation, I developed a model of memorialization as a way for the desensitized to analyze and personalize their experience with the past. Drawing from Gille Deleuze, Susan Sontag, Vilem Flusser, and a number of other critical theorists, I created a model of remembering that allows people in the present to critique and empathize with not only photographs, but also other representations of the past. All of this may sound overly theoretical, thinking about how we remember and memorialize the past is important because it affects the way we act in the present and imagine the future. This kind of critique is especially crucial when you are dealing with events that have been overexposed and hypermediatized.

I have continued to explore many of these issues in graduate school. One of my professors recently asked us to reflect on two essays written on the influence of digital photography  on contemporary culture in relation to our own research. While picture taking may not seem as pressing as other issues, if one looks at it closely, one realizes how much is at stake and how this medium represents the larger issues of representation, communication, and memory.

As researcher who uses photography as both a medium and object of study, it is essential for me to be critically aware of how my picture taking affects my research subjects and the way I think and remember them. For my dissertation, I will be conducting visual cultural fieldwork at a private English institute in Seoul, South Korea. This will involve taking photographs to document not only the spatial design and logos of the institute, but also, the interactions between staff, students, and parents.

When you are dealing with human subjects, it is necessary to be aware how the camera may be objectifying or distancing me from my research subjects. I try to be prudent and judicious with my picture taking, always asking myself: What is the purpose of this photograph? What does it tell us about this particular time and place? It is equally important for me to be aware of how I perceive and display photographs once they are taken: How does this photograph influence my memory of this event? How does the meaning of the picture change when I place it in different physical and electronic spaces?

While picture taking may seem like a banal everyday practice, it says a lot about how we represent, remember, and communicate. Taking a photograph is never just a politically neutral act, and it is important to be aware of how our picture taking practices impacts the way we interact with the world.

Cultural Studies has become an embedded part of my being. It’s not something I can just leave in the classroom, library, or meeting, it is something that I live on an everyday basis.

These personal examples I discussed above are just a snapshot of the ways in which Cultural Studies has influenced my life. I think it’s challenging to succinctly describe how Cultural Studies has influenced the world because its effects are difficult to quantify. However, despite its amorphous and ambiguous nature, Cultural Studies still plays an important role in the way that the world changes by impacting how people perceive culture and politics.

why study the humanities?

March 19, 2009

What is the value of the humanities? Why should we study it? The New York Times recently published an article on the state of the humanities given the current economic recession.

According to the NYT, “[I]n this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.”

While the humanities may not seem as salient as engineering, chemistry, or any of the other “hard” sciences, it plays an indispensable role in the world.

There is a great misunderstanding of what the humanities is and what it can do. People often assume that the humanities is just about “reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming ‘to grips with the question of what living is for.'” (NYT).

I would argue that humanities — at least from a Cultural Studies perspective — is much more than reading the canon and reflecting on the meaning of life.

In Cultural Studies, we approach theory as practice. Thinking and acting outside of the ivory tower, Cultural Studies attempts to produce research that engages with the public. As cultural researcher, I am constantly asking myself the “So what?” question. Why does this topic matter? Why should people care?

This continuous self-questioning helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. While I am an advocate of learning for the sake of learning, I believe scholars have the responsibility to think about the ways in which their research relates to the larger picture.

What is the point of research if it doesn’t affect the way people think about and act in the world?

One thing I think Cultural Studies does effectively is re-thinking the way we have traditionally thought about things. In Cultural Studies, few things — if anything — is taken for granted. Our research is largely driven by the question of what it means to be human.Through critical and creative engagement, we attempt to probe this question in a way that inspires everyday people to imagine what might be instead of what is.

This critical and creative engagement is especially important given the dire state of the economy and the need for innovative ways of being in the world.

english is the new black: the branding of english in south korea

March 16, 2009

I just purchased my ticket to South Korea! I will be in Seoul from May 21 to June 4 to conduct field research on the branding of English in South Korea. You can read more about my research below. Just to warn you, there is a bit of Cultural Studies jargon, but I did my best to explain my research in layman’s terms.



Because of the fierce competition to score well on the infamous National Exams, get into the top universities, and secure the best jobs, attending after school private academies or hagwons to learn English has become the norm for young South Koreans. The growing demand for English has resulted into a multi-million dollar educational industry where the competition between hagwons is just as severe as the rivalry between students. It is not uncommon for people to switch hagwons just as quickly as they change hairstyles. Due to the intense competition, hagwons have developed unconventional branding techniques in order to attract more students.

One example of this recent phenomenon is the English Channel, a hagwon that has employed the theme of the “doctor’s clinic.” At the English Channel, students work one-on-one Language Trainers dressed in lab coats in crammed clinic-style offices.

Drawing from Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s understanding of cultural production and branding in the era of globalization, this project will look at how the English Channel has employed the idea of the “doctor’s clinic” in order to understand the ways in which English may be branded and consumed. This dissertation will focus on the English Channel Junior, currently the only branch at the English Channel Corporation that is geared towards young people and the institute at which I previously worked.

Using photographic documentation, interview, and participant observation, I will construct a multimodal biography* that looks at how varying semiotic modes are configured to enact the brand of the English Channel Junior. I will conduct a close reading of the English Channel Junior, examining the relations between visual and spatial design, bodily dress, and the actors within this space to understand how this brand is multimodally actualized. It is my hope that this project will offer insight into how English, understood as a  field of potentiality that may be enacted in different ways, is actualized within a specific contemporary cultural setting in the era of globalization. This is important because the way English is instantiated affects the way in which people communicate and interact with the world.

*By multimodal, I am referring to Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen’s conception of multimodality, which they define “as the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these modes are combined” (20).

By biography, I am borrowing from Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s reading of anthropologist Alfred Gell’s understanding of the biographic approach, which allows us “to consider our objects as…a set of relations” and “to think of objects as having a life” (18 and 20).

scholarship tip: acknowledgments

March 14, 2009


One way to search for scholarships and grants is to check the acknowledgments section of the books you’re using for your research. Scholars almost always thank their funders in the acknowledgments. I found over ten potential funding bodies by just going through the six books in the photo above.

An oldie, but a goodie: muto by blu

March 11, 2009

I recently re-stumbled upon this video by street artist BLU. After eight months, I’m still inspired and in awe. Enjoy!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Check out more of Blu’s stuff.

Thanks, Common Folk!

get the job you want: some tips and tricks

March 8, 2009


After five months of job hunting in Edinburgh, I finally I have a job I like! I was recently hired to serve as the Promotions Coordinator for the Edinburgh University Student Association Course Reviewer, an online facility that allows student to assess and share their course experiences with other students (make sure to submit a review if you’re a student at Edinburgh!). Unfortunately, the position only lasts for about five weeks. However, considering the state of the economy, especially in Edinburgh, I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to gain new skills and experiences while promoting an important resource.

I have learned a lot about job hunting the past few months. I am by no means an expert, but I’d like to share share a few of things I’ve learned and actually done to help me get jobs. You may have already heard of them, but it doesn’t hurt to receive a refresher:

Google yourself. Search for your name on google before you start applying for jobs and make sure that everything associated with your name is something your prospective employer wouldn’t mind seeing. In other words, make sure to take off anything that might be embarrassing or offensive. Even if your facebook or myspace profile is set to private, just assume your potential employer will see it.

Practice makes perfect. A great way to prepare for an interview is by doing a mock interview. If you are a student or a recent alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, you can schedule a mock interview at the Careers Service. Also, try your friends and family. Or, if you’re short on mock interviewers, you can always do it in front of a mirror or a few stuffed animals. : ) Just prepare a list of potential questions, then think of the best examples and ways to answer them.

Go the extra mile. Constantly search for ways to make your application or interview stand out. For the Course Reviewer promotions interview, I created a promotions plan even though the Student Association didn’t require applicants to present one. I created a quick powerpoint of my promotion ideas, printed the slides, and made enough copies for all the interview panelists. The powerpoint only took about 20 minutes to make and helped me get the job.

Ask questions. Always ask questions at the end of the interview; this demonstrates you have done your homework and are truly interested in working for the company. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions before the interview. For example, if you want to know what format your interview will take, send the main contact person an email.

All the little things count. Always check grammar and spelling, and make sure your application is easy to find and read. For example, when you email your resume and cover letter to your potential employer, include your name in the titles (e.g. Melissa Andrada Cover Letter). That way your potential employer can easily find your documents when they download them onto their computers.

Say thank you. After your interview, send a thank you email or card to the person or people who interviewed you. If you have time, try to do both. Email will immediately let them you’re still interested, but a hand-written card will show that you really want the job.

Photo by Flickr user Falling Sky