New Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Gabrielle Raley joins the Knox community from sunny California. She formerly taught at the University of Southern California where she also did her graduate work. She is a first-generation college student who now hopes to teach many more college students at Knox, where she has found a new home.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in a really small town in Washington state, but I went to graduate school in Los Angeles. I’ve lived there for the last ten years.
How did you become interested in sociology?
I went to the Evergreen State College as an undergrad, which is this interdisciplinary school with no grades, just narrative evaluations and you can take anything you want to—there are no majors, there are no departments. You can get a degree that’s either really random or really focused, and I loved sociology courses right away. [What I loved about] the social sciences [was] thinking critically about equality and understand how society is [and the history of] how we’ve made it and how it affects people in really small and big ways. It seemed really relevant and important. People are endlessly fascinating, so there’s always something to think about.
What has your research focused on?
I finished up my dissertation … on commercial artists, specifically the graphic artists that I studied at East Coast Farm who make the big Hollywood blockbuster movie posters. What I was looking at [was] how people who do that sort of work balance the need to make it really creative and beautiful on the one hand and really make it sensitive to market imperatives, to make it sell and make it widely marketable. Those things are often at odds when you think about what the work of a fine artist is. You imagine them removed from … financial concerns … [because] we imagine art to be a purely expressive enterprise. So I was really interested in the grey area—when people try to make something beautiful but also make sure it sells.
How did you go about your research?
I studied the workers who made the posters, so I did an ethnography for about two years. I hung out several times a week at this one company and then I interviewed people through … three to six-hour interviews asking them … about their work. For the really big blockbusters, it’s not uncommon to have a thousand different tries at one of those posters before the studio finally arrives at the one that they want, so … it can be hard to keep up your creative engagement for that long.
What I found [that] was surprising to me is that even though the graphic artists would say if you asked them point-blank, “Is what you make art?”, they would say “no, absolutely [not].” Art is what Picasso does; art is what all the fine artists that they had learned about in art school did. But when you asked them to describe what the project cycle was like, they had much more of what we think of as a purely artistic engagement. They would talk about falling in love with what they made, that you had to have that engagement with it. What I found by looking at that whole life cycle and that whole experience is that you can’t say one thing about the experience of commercial art.
In the end … one person’s design basically wins out over all the others and … for the really big movies … [the artists] see [their] work in this hugely accessible public format, which is really unlike a lot of different types of [artistic] work.
What attracted you to Knox?
I knew a bit about it before I came up for the interview last year. I was intrigued by a couple of the points that the college sells itself on, which [are] a pretty open, democratic space without a huge amount of hierarchy, a place that students are really encouraged to be creative, to try lots of different things; all those [are] aspects of a liberal arts education that I grew up [with] and believe to be an important part of a well-rounded education.
But when I got here I was impressed by other stuff. [For example,] I met with a group of students [and] they seemed really smart, passionate, had a lot of ideas and had high expectations for their professors which I found really refreshing and nice. I found my colleagues, in the Anthropology department and in the college in general, really engaged and supportive and focused on teaching, which is what I wanted. It’s a real difference to go to a teaching-centered place like this from a research-centered place where I did my graduate work.