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Otis College Welcomes New Liberal Arts and Sciences Department Chair Melissa Lo

Lo brings a background in art, science, and history to the interdisciplinary program. 
Anna Raya

Melissa Lo, the new Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Chair at Otis College, has an impressive academic background, to be sure—Harvard BA and PhD degrees, MS from MIT, Fulbright and Mellon fellowships—but it was during her presentation as a candidate for this role that she disarmed the faculty, staff, and students with her open and expressive approach to Liberal Arts and Sciences education. Taking over on August 1st from Kerri Steinberg, who has graciously and arduously worked as the Interim Chair of LAS, including transitioning the program to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa starts her tenure at a tentative time in higher education, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of the essential conversations around racism that have been happening in the country, and at Otis. Her unique academic and professional background—most recently, Melissa was a researcher at Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland production company; she also has taught at Sci-Arc, UCLA, and Cedar Sinai Hospital; and has worked at The Getty Research Institute, the Huntington Library, the Hammer Museum, and the Petersen Automotive Museum—has imbued her work with humility, openness, and compassion, all qualities that will be instrumental in her transition into the LAS role. This week, Melissa answered some questions about her background and her vision and goals for Otis. 

What was it about the LAS Chair role that attracted you to Otis College?

I’ve always loved thinking with artists and designers. They’re constantly helping me reimagine the world we live in, and pointing the way towards new, more equitable futures. When I first heard about this opportunity, I began to reflect on the many ways I could work with the artists and designers at Otis. When I realized that we would be creating things that I could never dream up on my own, I had to start crafting my application for the role.  

In your background, you’ve led a variety of teams, from a feminist arts nonprofit board (the Women’s Center for Creative Work) to an academic department at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, to undergraduate and graduate classes at UCLA and Sci-Arc. What from these experiences will inform how you will work with faculty, staff, and students at Otis?

All these experiences have taught me that deep listening, humility, an open mind, and compassionate conversation are key ingredients to any productive collaboration. And teaching has always been a joy for me because I always learn more from my students than they learn from me. That’s the spirit I want to bring to every interaction, in Otis and in life. 

What do you feel is the value and importance of an LAS education for art and design students in general, and, in particular, at Otis?

At their center, the disciplines that make up LAS are always asking a fundamental question: Why? For instance, why have we been taught that America began in 1776, rather than in 1619? Why has the art historical canon been dominated by white European men? Why has COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people? These are big questions. As Otis students grapple with them, they will discover the questions they want to keep asking—and they will begin to formulate the answers they want to take into their unique practices. 

What are your immediate goals for the LAS program at Otis, and what are your more long-term plans?

My immediate goals are informed by more long-term thinking. I believe Otis has the opportunity, right now, to train artists and designers who are leaders in building equity in our changed world. This might mean that Fine Arts majors excel at social practice. Maybe Toy Design alums change the entire way we think about creating board games for the blind. As Otis students continue interrogating the categories we live with in their LAS classes, they will be equipped to find opportunities for making a deep impact wherever they are, with whatever they have close to hand. 

As you might be aware, some of our students and recent alumni have been asking for a curriculum that is more representational of who they are and where they are from. How do you reconcile that need—something you also advocate for—with art history classes that often are viewed as exclusionary?

I’m so glad students and alumni are asking for such important transformations to the curriculum as a whole. They already recognize what was hard for me to really get when I was an undergraduate: that disciplines and fields of knowledge can, do, and must change. Their survival depends on it. I imagine I’ll be taking lots of cues from one of my favorite exercises in graduate school. It came during the first meeting of an art history methods class, when Caroline Jones, the renowned historian of modern and contemporary art, handed out a syllabus for the semester. Our first assignment was to deconstruct it—to thoroughly question what we were reading about and whose work was being given space. It was an extraordinary opportunity to identify what had been left out and to begin redressing those exclusions together. 

Can you elaborate on your background as a historian of science and visual culture?

In grad school, I was bowled over by the idea that knowledge changes. And then I was bowled over again by the idea that pictures can change knowledge. (I still marvel at these concepts!) So I wrote my master’s thesis on a 19th century French anatomical atlas and its relationship to Neoclassical art and the rise of pathology as a medical field. In my dissertation, which is now a book manuscript, I turned to the woodcuts René Descartes had crafted for his natural philosophy (a rough approximation of what, today, we would call physics). I loved thinking about the 17th century visual cultures of practical mathematics and astronomy that informed the shape of Descartes’s new ideas. And I was thrilled to discover that later natural philosophers had continued arguing over his natural philosophy with their own etchings and woodcuts. All of this may sound very niche. (And it is!) But it made me really attentive to the local circumstances that help determine why any kind of image looks the way it does. I hope that kind of attention will serve me well as I get to know the art and design produced right here at Otis.  

Is there anything else you’d like the Otis Community to know about you?

I was born and raised in Santa Monica. Since coming back to L.A., I’ve come to love so many parts of Southern California that I’d never known existed (like Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario), or that emerged well after I’d left for college and grad school (such as the Women’s Center for Creative Work, the Underground Museum, and Guisado’s Tacos).