By Rachael Warecki ’08
The notion of critical thinking is foundational to the Scripps experience. During their time at Scripps, students explore new theories, challenge long-held beliefs, and learn how to turn critical thinking into critical action—with Scripps faculty leading the conversation through teaching, scholarship, and discussion. Three faculty in the humanities—in the fields of art, design, and religious studies—discuss how they’re rethinking, reframing, and reimagining their disciplines while encouraging students to engage their critical thinking skills beyond the classroom.
Fletcher Jones Chair in Art, Professor of Art
Ken Gonzales-Day, Fletcher Jones Chair in Art and professor of art, is an interdisciplinary artist whose work considers the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2017 and has exhibited work at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Getty Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and elsewhere. His work on the history of lynching in California has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times and as part of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, and a collection of his prints, titled “Erased Lynchings,” is featured in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s current Many Wests traveling exhibition. In addition to teaching photography courses, Gonzales-Day is also a faculty member in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities.
Office of Marketing and Communications: Much of your work focuses on recognizing and recentering underrepresented stories and histories through photography, and your recent high-profile interviews and exhibitions have raised public awareness of these stories beyond the art world. How do you hope to shift the worldviews of audiences who experience your work? What actions do you hope they’ll take as part of their new understanding?
Ken Gonzales-Day: I’m trying to help audiences think about how art can help solve the cultural dilemmas of our times, and how artists can reflect on our own historical moment. I hope my work will help people reexamine some of their assumptions around race, racial formation, and notions of difference, which are often articulated in both negative and positive ways—negatively expressed through stereotypes and racial profiling, but positively expressed when recognition of differences leads to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.
MC: You teach The Mechanical Eye, a Core III course that focuses on the nuances of photographers’ roles in documenting society. Last year, Core III students learned how to think critically about the relationship between photographers and their subjects and the narrative that photos tell as a result of this dynamic. How have your students applied this critical thinking?
KGD: We have such a remarkable collection of photography at Scripps and The Claremont Colleges—very few programs allow undergraduate access to these kinds of materials—and a central component of the Core III course is that the students learn how to access those collections and curate an exhibition to share with the full Scripps community, using the Clark Humanities Museum as a teaching and learning experience. Last year’s class examined ideas of photographic truth, and this year’s students are thinking about the questions that exhibition raised and adding their own questions to that ongoing dialogue. And it’s a dialogue that really goes beyond the actual course, because these exhibitions are shared with community members, some of whom will later take the class themselves and contribute their own questions in turn. It’s a process that’s essential to the Core program and to the overall academic experience at Scripps.
MC: With the rise of smartphones, photo-editing apps, and social media, arguably more people have access to photography than ever before. Many are using these platforms to raise awareness about issues related to race, class, queerness, disability, and more. How are you teaching your students to think critically about social media’s role in their photographic lives?
KGD: Back when I was teaching darkroom photography, there was a time when students would come into my course without ever having taken a photo before. Now, of course, every student who arrives at Scripps is already a photographer, engaging in various methods of online self-representation. I try to teach them to think critically about how their media stream is influencing others, either intentionally or unintentionally, and what messages they’re sending around issues such as body image, solidarity, or friendship. These messages could be empowering or oppressive, they could trigger or alter behavior, or they could change the way someone understands their concept of self. There’s a responsibility inherently linked to our own self-expression.
I also ask students to think about why they post what they post: Are they looking for an acceptance represented by clicks or likes, or are they looking to start a dialogue and raise more complicated questions? I try to get students to take ownership of and responsibility for the images they produce, to think critically about which images society does and does not value, and to see their images as part of a cultural production that will either liberate or oppress others. Ultimately, I hope they learn how photographers can use their work to move people toward a shared idea, to build community, to change photographic and societal practices, and to think about culture and community as an aspect of selfhood.
Luis Josué Salés
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Chair, Department of Religious Studies
Luis Josué Salés, assistant professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, specializes in premodern African, Asian, and Eastern European Christianities. He applies postcolonial and queer theoretical approaches to both his teaching and scholarship, which has appeared in the Journal of Late Antiquity, the African Journal of Gender and Religion, and elsewhere. In particular, his research focuses on the construction of early Christian identities, examining the intersections of sexual, religious, and ethnic differences. Salés teaches courses on feminist interpretations of the Bible, queer African Christianities, and early Christian sexualities and is also a faculty member in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities.
Office of Marketing and Communications: How might a deeper knowledge of the complexities and diversity of early Christian practitioners help us reframe our understanding of modern religion?
Luis Josué Salés: When people in the US think of Christianity, they probably think of a white man’s religion that originated in Western Europe and that has a particularly nasty history, replete with human enslavement, the devaluation of women, and colonialism. And doubtless, much of this is true. But that is only a small, albeit rotten, piece of the pie. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying, Jesus and Christianity share a similar trajectory: They were born in Asia, raised in Africa, whitewashed in Europe, and commercialized in America. But we often only know or focus on these last two points; why not the other two? My work often looks at these other two facets with a view to challenging erroneous or monolithic constructions of Christianity today.
For example, the first three Christian nations, Armenia (312 CE), Georgia (319 CE), and Ethiopia (356 CE), were located in the far reaches of Eastern Europe and East Africa. In the seventh century, nearly half the global Christian population lived in former territories of the Persian and Roman empires, conquered in the seventh century by the Arabs. Christian texts written in Arabic, Syriac, and Coptic (Egyptian) in the Islamic empires during this time attest not to indiscriminate religious bigotry and calculated genocide, as some would have us believe, but to mutual prosperity, respect, and scientific collaborations that arguably made the Islamic empires the most developed civilizations of their time.
MC: In addition to exploring the diversity of premodern Christian populations, you’ve written articles on the surprising nuances found in early Christian attitudes about topics such as reproductive health and ordination for women. Tell us more about how these attitudes were reflected in society.
LJS: Some early Christian societies had more rights for women than any European nation provided until the twentieth century. That is especially true of the Nubians, a matrilineal and sometimes matriarchal African society that freely converted to Christianity on its own terms in the sixth century. Simultaneously, Christians discouraged marriage, same-sex monastic partnerships were extremely common, women ruled Christian nations in their own right, and women were regularly ordained to the clerical position of deaconess—in some Eastern Christian countries, they still are.
MC: What role do you believe religious studies scholars should play in challenging long-held or oversimplified beliefs about religions, either inside or outside of the academy?
LJS: As an academic, I do feel a kind of moral imperative to diffuse this knowledge strategically, especially when contemporary distortions of the religion—one way or another—can have serious ramifications on the ground. Of course, these other Christian societies had and continue to have their own problems, but my point is simply that we cannot believe that a thin sliver of Christians who became the global majority through economic brutality and militarized colonialism represent the full spectrum of this ancient and extremely diverse religion.
MC: Your Core III class focuses on ethics and truth. In an age of misinformation and disinformation, how do you help your students think critically about these topics?
LJS: My aim in teaching students about ethics and truth is to give them tools—analytical concepts, modes of examination and evaluation of data, theories of ideas and ideologies, and a heavy dose of thick historical contextualization—to be self-reflexive about the social realities that condition and determine their ways of knowing, what they know, and how they use that knowledge creatively for good by being aware of the shifting social conditions in which they operate. The main point here, as I see it, is to empower students to practice and implement a calculated adaptability to rapidly changing situations while remaining grounded in the common good, the value of each individual organism, and the perhaps-frustrating pursuit of a better world that cannot, however, be fully realized.
I would describe this interplay by borrowing an image from Michel de Certeau’s L’invention du quotidien, although the image there serves a different function: Being ethical, being truthful, is much like walking a tightrope. Balance on the rope can only be maintained by a constant shift of one’s center of gravity. The danger is that this balance might be mistaken for a reliable fixity, a guaranteed firmness, rather than being seen for what it is: a hard-won interstitial moment that can be lost at any moment, especially, perhaps, when it is taken for granted.
Assistant Professor of Art
Aly Ogasian, assistant professor of art, is an artist whose work explores the overlap of art, science, and technology and engages with contemporary environmental issues. Along with her collaborator, Ogasian was the first recipient of an artist’s residency at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Cape Canaveral, Florida, supported by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Grant. She has also attended residencies at the Artic Circle, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere, and her current work examines the relationship between climate change, coastal NASA facilities, and the recent missions to Mars. She teaches courses on digital art.
Office of Marketing and Communications: Your work is incredibly interdisciplinary, straddling the worlds of art and science to explore how both fields operate in a “territory of wonder.” Tell us more about how your art revitalizes the spirit of scientific learning and discovery in a data-driven world.
Aly Ogasian: I think projects sort of unfold organically, and collaboration is a big part of that process. Often, I’ll accidentally stumble across something interesting and then suddenly I’m in a research rabbit hole; I’ll reach a point where it becomes clear that I need to reach out to people outside of my field to talk through ideas or questions. Through a lot of these correspondences—with writers, architects, biologists, and geologists, to name a few—there is often a lot of shared ground, with common questions or methodologies that emerge. For example, I’ve been working on a new project about weather monitoring systems in Lake Superior with Claudia O’Steen, an artist and educator at Winthrop University. Through conversations with a researcher at the University of Minnesota, we learned how limnologists (scientists who study inland aquatic systems) are adapting methodologies that would typically sit outside their wheelhouse, like observing the movement of owls to draw conclusions about the ice cover on the lake during winter. I think this sort of flexible approach mirrors how artists work; it requires sitting with an idea—and in this case really observing an environment—and using the faculties you have at hand to understand or ask questions about a larger system.
A lot of times these attempts fail or they seem absurd, but I think that point of failure—and the attempt itself—is a really important and revealing part of the process. I think on the artistic side it’s about being comfortable in really not knowing, and in questioning what data is and can be, how it communicates, and for whom. And, of course, it’s always important to acknowledge that these processes aren’t without their own biases, and because the artistic process is flexible, you have the space and time to investigate what these biases might be and who has been included or excluded from dominant narratives.
MC: You frequently pair artistic fieldwork with public programming that examines issues such as environmental stewardship. Why is an interdisciplinary approach so vital to understanding our current environmental situation?
AO: When you spend an extended period of time in a place, and your work is so geographically situated, there’s a drive to really connect the work back to the original location and the community it comes from. Sometimes this involves engaging a lot of different groups that have occupied these places over time, in addition to Indigenous peoples, through open conversation and collaboration. I think that generally, when you’re dealing with environmental issues, people are most tuned to the environments they inhabit, and so they notice changes and are hopefully invested in their local ecology. Often this is a learning experience for me as an artist: I find I have a lot of really meaningful conversations through public programming, since it attracts a different audience. I think interdisciplinary work offers participants or viewers many ways to connect with a concept or question, and because people learn and think differently, it can provide more layers of accessibility.
MC: How do you encourage your digital art students at Scripps to apply their own artistic sensibilities to contemporary issues beyond the classroom?
AO: I’m lucky to have very passionate students. For me, it’s really important that students discover what they’re most interested in and what conversations they want to be a part of; it’s not for me to tell them what their work is about, but I do want them to engage with issues of consequence. I encourage them to identify independent research interests and to think about what research can be beyond the traditional methods. I think a big part of this is being comfortable talking about ideas before they feel fully formed and being receptive to critique and feedback from their peers. Being comfortable in uncertainty, spending time being lost—these are important parts of artistic process, and so I try to make a space where students can articulate and discuss these in-between moments.