Katrina Mohn on Dave Eggers and the Importance of Seeing America (and Japan)

Noodle Expert Katrina Mohn discusses her passion for art history (but not curation), Japan, and why we should embrace Elizabeth Gilbert and her philosophy of curiosity.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

This is tricky, because of all the people I admire I'm sure many of them would be terrible teachers! And a year is simultaneously a lot of time to spend with a person, yet not so much that you could become a close friend. While as a feminist I feel compelled to pick a woman, Dave Eggers would probably be an interesting teacher. He has been successful at so many things — launching a publishing house, an educational nonprofit, multiple magazines. I would love to learn how to make those interdisciplinary connections, and how to jump into something new with both feet first. Publishing is dying? Let's start an experimental quarterly, hardbound, then a magazine. And while we're at it teach kids literacy and writing skills.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

She may get a bad reputation as writing chick lit, but I have recently found Elizabeth Gilbert quite fascinating. In a recent "TED Radio Hour" interview in which she discussed creativity, Gilbert said that we are often told to follow our passion but that is so much easier said than done! Instead, she suggests, follow your curiosity. As someone who has struggled to "find her passion," Gilbert's alternative struck a chord with me. And if following my curiosity leads to anything half as amazing as where Gilbert has followed hers, I'll buy a ticket for that ride.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

If this student had literally never traveled anywhere outside of her home town (and assuming this student were from America) I would advise her to See America First (as the old promotional posters used to advertise). There is so much in this country to see, and so many pockets of cultures from all over the world. The big cities of course, but also the smaller, stranger places in between. Land art in the middles of deserts, enclaves of foreign expats, and even towns that would be described as "quintessentially American" can have their own lessons and surprises. You find that there really is nothing "quintessentially American."

If this were an international trip, I would say Japan. It has been my favorite country to visit personally, and the culture is so many things at once. I hate to summarize a culture, country, people or highly personal experience with a few sentences, so the student would just have to find what I'm getting at on her own!

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Right out of graduate school I took an online copyediting course through a University of California extension program. I thought that as an online class in something I already had a grasp on, it would be a cakewalk. However, without a classroom to return to weekly or fellow students to talk to face-to-face, I often forgot assignments and completely spaced out on the final. Even when I did remember to do the work, it was far harder than I had anticipated and ended I up desperately rushing through. I learned that online courses are no joke, and if you're going to take one you really have to commit! I was so ashamed that I re-took the class the next time it was offered and passed, but just barely. I learned what was expected of me in the classes, and I've moved onto the next set of courses for the certification program.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I was introduced to art history as a basic liberal arts requirement at the University of Southern California. I had gone into my undergraduate studies as a history major, so the change wasn't a giant leap. I liked to hear about the work, and how it was shaped by the time in which it was made, and how art reflects and moves history along as well. Deep down, I am a lover of stories but never wanted to ruin my enjoyment of English literature by studying it. The stories of objects were fascinating to me. Initially I thought I would go into the field as a curator — just hanging stuff on the walls, right? Wrong. There is a particular kind of theoretical mind that lends itself to curating, and I have found it is not my wheelhouse, especially not for contemporary art (which I specialize in). Now, I am able to blend my love for books and words with my love of art through my work as an arts editor.

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