ESN Interview: Alissa Wilkinson

This is the last of four interviews Micheal conducted at the 2010 Jubilee conference. Alissa Wilkinson has a professional life that probably looks like a particular niche of ESN members. At the time of the interview she was editing The Curator for the International Arts Movement, while teaching writing at The King’s College and serving as Associate Editor for Comment. In 2014 she serves as chief film critic at Christianity Today Movies, Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at The King’s College and editor of QIdeas.org. She has written a number of columns and articles. In this insightful piece, Micheal explores with Alissa vocation, balance, and life as a writer, editor, and teacher. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV


Micheal Hickerson: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you because of all the different things that you are doing that relate to the same general vocation and calling. I think that’s a pretty common thing among ESN members and among people in academic or cultural fields, and it’s becoming more common. First of all, I wanted to ask you about the publications that you are connected with. You were the founding editor for the Curator, which is published by International Arts Movement. There is also Comment, where you are the —

Alissa Wilkinson: I am the associate editor.

inside view of Studio Gallery opening for "City Streets"

MH: Let’s talk about the Curator. Why did you decide to start that magazine and what was the origin story for it?

AW: I’ve been connected with the International Arts Movement in different capacities pretty much since I’ve moved to the city, which was about four and half years ago. I had been going to their head morning meetings in Tribeca, and we had a discussion group. Several of my good friends who are now on staff with me were also going to that group, and we got to talking about how good it would be for IAM to be putting something out there into the cultural sphere that was an example of promoting good work, which was where the idea of the Curator came in.

One morning over breakfast we just had this idea, “Hey, we should do an online magazine. I mean how hard can that be?” We decided the point of it should be to curate culture in such a way that we are looking to promote good culture that might otherwise be overlooked, because magazines like, on one hand, The New Yorker and The Atlantic tend to be very good at writing good cultural criticism and then on the other hand, there are Christian publications that do the same thing. They mainly focus on what’s broader in culture — either pop culture or high culture — but things that people are already talking about. The idea was let’s also write about things that people might not be talking about.

Photo credit: Anna L Conti via Flickr

In that way, it fit with the idea of IAM as a local movement more than just something that was from New York. I have writers all over the country — actually all over the world — and I encourage them to seek out what is interesting in their area, like a small band that they love, or their friends’ work, or something like that. Maybe they find a book in the library that was published 25 years ago and think, “I can’t believe nobody has read this book.” The concept was to publish culture essays that had a personal bend that would help uncover good culture.

I started recruiting some writers, and Kevin Gosa who works here at IAM with me started recruiting some writers he knew, and between the two of us we got up quite a list. We launched on August 29, 2008. Since then we’ve published three essays continually every week, and we’ve added a lot of writers. We are hatching plans of maybe some blogs, I am not sure yet, but it’s been a good experience. I’ve been handling most of the work on that end. I am trying to get some coworkers to come on and help with some of the scheduling and I have an assisting editor who helps me proofread.

Everyone volunteered their time up until about this time last year and now we get to pay them a little. It’s been good and we’ve gotten a lot of buzz. Actually, I was surprised we’ve gotten links from Book Forum and from Kottke, which is pretty well known. People seem to be resonating with the idea.

MH: I really like that idea of curating culture because I find that there is so much good stuff going on out there, but it’s difficult to let people know about that. In the publishing world, there is a lot of talk about authors having a platform and promoting themselves, but a lot of people just aren’t wired that way and have a very difficult time doing that. That’s a great vision.

AW: That’s right, and the other idea was to really give a place to writers to practice what I call “delight-driven writing.” As a writer myself, I know that it can be hard to place an article about something you are really passionate about if that article isn’t going to sell issues of the magazine. So, the idea for the Curator was, if this is something that you feel really passionate about, but you are not really sure where you could write about it, this is the place for that. And it’s working. It’s nice that we are funded by a nonprofit because it means we don’t have to make any money at all, which is good news in this publishing economy.

MH: There are probably quite a few people who will read this interview who like that idea of “delight-driven writing.” What’s your process for choosing people to write? How would someone get published in Curator?

AW: I’m pretty open ended. [I’m open to] the widest variety of cultural objects, cultural as defined by Andy Crouch — things humans make — to be covered in the magazine.

MH: How did you get connected with Comment?

AW: It’s kind of a long story. But the short version is that [Comment editor] Gideon Strauss’s older daughter Tala contacted the wife of one of the elders in our church because she was thinking of going to college in New York — which she is not, but she was thinking about it. We got connected to the family in that way because they were home-schooling at the time, and I was home-schooled as well. We met them for dinner around an IAM conference probably three years ago, and I started writing for Comment. Later, Gideon was looking for someone to come on and provide some diversity in the editorial staff, so I came on almost exactly when I started with the Curator, which was a little crazy.

I’m very passionate about Comment. I think of all the things that I do with my life, I love teaching, but I think Comment is the one that I’m most proud of. I just think that what is published in that magazine, the caliber of people who are writing, and the things that they’re writing are hard to find out there. That’s how I got connected. I’ve been working with them for about a year and a half now.

MH: How does the editing process and the mission of Comment differ from what you’re doing with the Curator?

AW: The Curator — all along I’ve intended for it to not be a Christian magazine. It got pegged immediately as a “Christian Arts” magazine when it came out, I don’t know why. So I’ve been working very hard to dispel that myth, because I want to allow people who are not Christian to not feel like they can’t read the magazine because it’s in some way Christian or written for Christians. Tt’s about cultural objects rather than just religion and culture.

Comment, on the other hand, is explicitly Christian, although in a very winsome way, as we like to say. It’s more about connecting vocation and faith. Or really just vocation, I guess, and that covers faith. We try to be an encouragement to the Christian professional, or student or scholar or “grown up” as we’ll call them sometimes, who’s looking to see how their vocation is helping to build the Kingdom of God. If you’re a businessman, you can serve God outside of just doing business for missionaries or something like that. Your work is actually helping to build the Kingdom of God. We try to be an encouragement and sort of a prod in that direction.

MH: I met all of you from Comment at the Jubilee conference, and that’s such a great mission. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do in ESN as well — help students see that being a student, being a professor, can be inherently good and God-driven. It’s not just about using your position to share the Gospel. That has its place and that’s important, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on.

AW: That’s right. I was really encouraged by Comment when I was reading it, and then I was writing for it, and that’s how that evolved. But every time we pass it on to someone, no matter who it is, they’re like, “Wow, where has this been all my life?” My life might have been a totally different if I’d had Comment to read in college or in my early professional career.

MH:: You also teach at The Kings College. How long have you been doing that?

AW: Yes, I do. I’ve been there since August. I finished my master’s just this past December. I started there as I was writing my master’s thesis. I’m teaching writing, which is actually really, really fun. I did not expect that. Most people complain about teaching English Composition courses, and I have had a blast. I don’t know if that’s me or the school or the students or what, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

MH: I was reading a little bit about The Kings College. They’re a Christian college but they have a very strong mission and vision to prepare students to make a difference in the world and to be engaged with culture and the world. Is that right?

AW: That’s exactly right. They purposely planted themselves in Midtown Manhattan, exactly for that reason. It’s to train them to look at the world with a Christian outlook, but at the same time be able to be in the public sphere and not just the Christian sphere.

MH: Obviously it’s a small number of undergrads that you’re directly interacting with, but what are some of the big issues that they’re thinking about related to Christianity and culture? What questions do they have?

AW: It’s interesting. This semester I’m teaching research writing. Each English professor picks a topic to teach the class on, and mine was film. But knowing the students at Kings come from a wide variety of backgrounds — some are home-schooled, some come from Christian schools, some come from public schools — and knowing the wide variety of backgrounds that they came from, I wanted them to be able to watch movies with an eye to what it meant to watch movies Christianly, which in my mind is quite a bit different than what people sometimes consider it.

So I had them read Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly which is about watching movies. I think he calls it a memoir of “dangerous movie-going.” I had them write response papers, and it was fascinating to see. Some of them said, “The biggest thing this book has done in my life is make me think of movies as more than just a time for me to plop down in a seat and turn off my brain.” And others said, “My whole life, I was never allowed to see a movie with a swear word in it, and this has really helped me see how movies can be a reflection of our culture.”

I was reading An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis, and he said we read books by nihilists because we want to understand what it would be like to be a nihilist. Overstreet says that, we watch these movies to understand what it would be like to be these people so that we can better sympathize with them. I think a lot of the time, the issue they are grappling with is, how do they engage with culture while at the same time being Christian about it, not giving up their convictions, but still being part of the world that is out there and needs them to be in it. It’s been fascinating watching them work through that issue. I had one student who is forming a drama group at Kings, and she had originally planned to direct a Shakespeare play, and by the end of reading Jeffrey Overstreet’s book, she decided to direct Sartre’s No Exit.

MH: Terrific — I love that play. Here’s my last question, hopefully it’s not too big of a question. There’s a lot of different things you’re involved with and doing. How do you see them fitting together into a common vocation? Do you see them fitting together into a common vocation? How do they connect with God’s call in your life?

AW: It’s been interesting. My undergraduate degree was in information technology and computer science. It appears to be pretty far off from where I started, so I think about this a lot. Actually, we published an article in the Curator about a guy who is dealing with the same issue himself. I’m still working through some of that. I think that doing my Master’s degree helped me to understand that I’m passionate about intellectual history, understanding why people think the way they think, particularly as it pertains to Evangelicalism in America in the 20th century. Working at IAM has helped me to understand the art side of that, because I think the way we view art is integrally related to how we view culture as 21st century American Evangelicals now. And teaching has shown me that I’m really passionate about higher education and scholarship. Which is to say that all of those things are showing me that what I’m interested in, is helping people understand where they came from and helping them discover where they’re going because of that.

I don’t know that I can put a single-word vocation on that, and I’m not even sure what that means for the rest of my life, but each of these different jobs has come out of the blue, so to speak, and taken me by surprise. Each one has shown me some other piece of what I’m meant to be doing. Overall, that understanding of my vocation has developed out of there. I think I still have a long way to go in knowing what exactly — but I think it’s best if we’re all the time discovering more of what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. I feel like God, in giving me these different places to work, even though it feels schizophrenic sometimes, even though I have five different official job titles, all of them still seem to come together to make one whole, and I feel really blessed in that.

MH: That thing of vocation, it’s always so difficult to understand what it means, until you’re able to look back on it.

AW: That’s right.

MH: You have to have have some distance, and that’s very difficult to do in the present.

AW: It’s absolutely true. You feel like I must be crazy to be doing all these things, but I haven’t been out of college that long, and I can look back over the time since I graduated and see how God was really leading me through different industries and different jobs in a way of leading me to where I am today. Where I’ll be a year from now and ten years from now, who knows.

MH: Alissa, thank you very much.

Correction [06/07/10, 12:43 PM]: We originally misspelled the name of Gideon Strauss’ daughter.

Update [02/01/2014, 7:02 PM]: Introductory paragraph.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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