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The Curiosities of Public Media: A Winter Term Story

February 16, 2019

This is the first Winter Term where I did not pursue a personal creative project. Instead of writing another feature-length screenplay, making a documentary, or creating a production design portfolio, I interned at the Local Productions department at WLIW, a local branch of PBS in my hometown of New York City. It was an enormously helpful and fulfilling experience to see how public media works in action and behind the scenes, especially one that produces content that I have so many fond memories of from childhood. Plus, I was working under the mentorship of another Obie!

WLIW’s office space, as part of the larger network of WNET New York Public Media, has posters from shows I watched as a kid, like Cyberchase and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I felt incredibly lucky to work in this environment, because my values as a filmmaker and individual match up very closely with those of WLIW, and PBS in general. Since settling into Oberlin, I’ve always been a little self-conscious and cautious of my own idealism when it comes to navigating the outside world. To put it simply, just as my high school self couldn’t imagine going to a school where someone like me–Asian, Pacific Islander, and female–wouldn’t have been allowed to attend at most other points in history, I can’t really imagine providing my skills and labor to a place that doesn’t produce some type of good in this world. Maybe it’s the impact of reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas of political engagement in literature in twelfth-grade French class, or the election of November 2016, or any other number of factors that have led to my feeling this way, but I’ve felt honored to discover that there really are places in the professional world that combine political engagement with media.

So what did I do, anyways? I had a variety of tasks to do, including editing together short videos for social media from different segments of a show called Arts Beat, researching and contacting guests for another show called SciTech Now, writing script leads and interview questions for SciTech Now and Treasures of New York, creating b-roll for Treasures of New York, and writing social media posts for Arts Beat. The combination of writing as well as regular “media” stuff like video editing melded nicely with the skills I’ve gained from being an English and Cinema Studies major. I was able to feel just as confident in my writing as I was in my video editing.

The shows that I worked on offered a diversity of subject matter that involved areas that I am already interested in outside of the office. I was grateful that this internship gave me the chance to utilize my science side and my arts side, because it’s rare that I get to go back and forth between them outside of academics. This was likely the first time where I needed to be “science smart” as well as comfortable with writing about the arts. Once upon a time, I would have been intimidated by the prospect of having to do any STEM-related work, but at WLIW, I had an "I can do that" moment, à la Pavel Chekov. 

I discovered that a commonality between the arts and science shows at WLIW rested in a narrative regard for curiosity. Even though shows like SciTech Now and Arts Beat differ quite a bit in their subject matter, they both ultimately serve a greater human search for understanding the world around us. SciTech Now offers a look into new developments in STEM, how researchers are finding solutions to the problems in our world, while Arts Beat showcases how artists interpret their life experiences through creative means, itself in pursuit of a solution to the problem of representing the intangible through art. Treasures of New York details landmarks and institutions that have shaped New York City, into, well, New York City: an epicenter of human activity graced with innumerable perspectives.

I think that this aspect, in addition to their commitment to political engagement, made my time at WLIW so rewarding. I was able to continue my interest in understanding “how things work” in a professional environment. For instance, in writing interview questions for SciTech Now, I learned all about the work of a professor specializing in phycology (the study of algae!), and how we can understand the future of coral reefs' survival through examining their genomes. While I would otherwise say that I'm more of an "everything above the neck (in humans)" science person, I appreciated the opportunity to expand outwards from just "brain stuff" to other complex life systems with my writing. It's not every day that you learn about how exactly climate change is killing off coral reefs.

Strangely enough, I didn’t realize that the interest in science that I’ve pursued at Oberlin as part of a liberal arts education would come in so handy in the professional world. Though I obviously wasn’t working in a laboratory environment, the skills I acquired on how to read scientific papers, particularly how to read a scientific paper and then communicate the details of it in laypeople's terms, enabled me to write more precise script leads and interview questions on SciTech Now. While I will always wish that I had the financial means to do a fifth year at Oberlin in order to complete a psychology major, I feel happy that the experiences I had in the science classes I took were put to good use. It suddenly doesn’t so feel bad that I wasn’t able to triple major.

In a sense, this aspect of my time at WLIW continues the foundations that Oberlin has helped build for me. At Oberlin, through a liberal arts framework, my own curiosity about the world’s workings was cultivated in a way that most directly benefited my development of self *cue origin story music composed by Danny Elfman*. Sure, I may have been tested in Intro to Cognitive Science about artificial intelligence and computer science once I learned about it, but that didn't preclude it from being a meaningful journey of learning. This curiosity and general drive to go higher and farther with my work benefited me in a professional environment, because I experienced a deep appreciation for what I was doing that I've never quite seen in myself outside of academics or filmmaking. I wasn't just helping and serving the job, the job was helping and serving me, in more ways than one. 

Generally, I consider myself these days to be somewhat of a fearful person (just watch me try a new knitting technique and it's like Tina Belcher escaped the world of Bob's Burgers and had to learn how to drive again), perpetually anxious about the vague horizon of the future. However, much of this pricking sense of apprehension has been assuaged by this slice of the professional world that I was lucky enough to work in for the month of January. And because this fear has been softened by the knowledge that the qualities I picked up at Oberlin can be put to good use in, to use the dreaded term, "the real world," it leaves more emotional room for one last foray into liberal arts learning in this final semester of mine.

As the inevitable horizon approaches, I will gaze into it like that iconic shot from Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, where Luke Skywalker looks wistfully out into the binary sunset on Tatooine, basking in the uncertainties of the journey ahead. 

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