“Art is everywhere in our terribly visual culture. You don’t have to study art. You’re living it.” –Professor Norman Bryson
Professor Norman Bryson stands out in more ways than one. As a lecturer, he is easily recognizable by his Scottish accent and impassioned tone. He readily voices his opinion, but is also just as quick to make self-deprecating jokes. Typically, his outfit includes a baseball cap, fanny pack and polo shirt that reveals his tattoo sleeves. On top of all these idiosyncrasies, Bryson is an art history professor at a university where science takes the spotlight.
Born in Scotland, Bryson was the only member of his family who chose not to become involved in film, instead exploring his own interests by pursuing art history.
“My family wondered why I didn’t study something that mattered, like film,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, Bryson studied art history at the University of Cambridge, and then moved back and forth between America and the United Kingdom as he taught at the University of Cambridge, Harvard University and the University of Rochester. At the University of Rochester, Bryson founded the visual and cultural studies program, which requires students to engage in comprehensive studies spanning film, comparative literature and art history.
“It became quite popular. UC Irvine even copied it,” Bryson said, citing the impact of his program, which was innovative in its integration of pop culture into the school curriculum. The result is an educational experience that immerses students in highly relevant topics across a broad range of humanities courses.
After waiting for an appropriate time to leave his daughter in the UK while she finished school, Professor Bryson moved to California with his partner.
“When my daughter started arguing with me and giving me attitude, I knew it was a good time to leave,” he laughed.
Once he arrived in California, some of his old students who were involved with UC San Diego helped him land his current position at the university. Compared to the UK universities he had worked at, UCSD has a more laid back atmosphere, which Bryson appreciates.
“My colleagues here are loud and raucous. They’re real people,” he remarked excitedly, distinguishing them from his more serious colleagues back at Cambridge.
The rigidity of the UK universities extends into their curriculum as well. Terms are typically eight weeks long, and graduate students lack a sense of community as their classes are comprised of only one or two students.
“I would much rather prefer big class sizes that I can disappear into,” Bryson chuckled, recalling his own shy demeanor as a graduate student. “That’s why I teach my classes such that you don’t have to say a word.”
Unfortunately, Bryson also finds fault with the academic environment of UCSD. The school is becoming increasingly focused on the sciences, forcing the arts and humanities into the background.
“It’s terrible!” Bryson exclaimed. “It’s appalling how uneven it is here.”
At the most prestigious universities, such as Harvard, different subjects are funded more equally and are generally regarded with the same importance. Bryson, who comes from this culture of uniformity among academic focuses, finds that universities in the UK are also much more charitable toward the arts. At UCSD, however, the arts and humanities are not only less popular majors among students, but their corresponding departments also receive less funding than the sciences do.
“The school is contributing to an overproduction of scientists. They’ll regret it in the long run,” Bryson opined.
He also noted the new perspective of art among millennials as an act of rebellion.
This generation of college students is so fixated on science that arts and humanities students, especially those at science-inclined universities like UCSD, have identified as and empowered themselves with a minority status.
“Millennials who choose to study art are priding themselves in going against the norm. It’s really very interesting.”
In addition to equal funding, Bryson believes that the arts should receive equal attention and respect from the UCSD community and be seen as a legitimately important part of life.
“Art is everywhere in our terribly visual culture,” he remarked, going on to explain how we encounter artistic elements in everything from social media to architecture. “You don’t have to study art. You’re living it.”
Bryson further believes that art is more useful than science for exploring the human experience.
“Psychology used to be great around the age of Freud, when it was a revolutionary discipline that sought to prove the interiority of human beings,” he claimed. “But now it appears that the human psyche is more mappable by the arts than by psychology.” Continuing to explain how art is significant in that it requires introspection, Bryson remarked, “If I browse the Internet for four or five hours, I’m losing my sense of interiority. There’s no inner thought taking place. I’m just going through the motions. But it takes skill to draw on inner thought by producing art. It’s a skill we’re less in touch with in this day and age.”
Still, Bryson concedes that those who study arts and humanities face the struggle of being less employable down the road.
“I get a lot of my friends coming up to me telling me how their parents have forced them into some scientific career path, when really they just want to be an artist. And I don’t know exactly what to say,” he said with a chuckle. “I tell them, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’”
People also commonly struggle to see the usefulness of an art degree. Bryson agrees that studying art, and the attainment of knowledge in general, can appear to be a means of mere social advancement.
“Education is very hierarchical in many ways. You have to wonder whether people are learning things just so they can place themselves above those who don’t know what they do,” he commented.
In spite of these common struggles among arts and humanities students, Bryson believes that no one should be worried about pursuing a subject that they enjoy.
“If you’re drawn to art and you’re doomed to study it, then let nothing stop you. Those who doubt you will be wrong in the end.”
Past generations saw universities as more of a direct step toward financial success, but newer generations understand that having a college degree does not guarantee employment. Bryson also pointed out how the perceived significance of a college degree has changed from one generation to the next.
“Before, it was believed that as long as you were educated, no matter what you’d studied, that there’d be a job for you at the end of the degree,” he remarked.
Moreover, there is a discrepancy in the employability of students from state universities and more prestigious schools that is based on name alone. Bryson posited his own solution to this issue.
“Universities need to be more upfront about what they can do and what they can’t do. They should not be misleading about what happens after you graduate.”
While a university education does not guarantee that you will be transported into a world of success, Bryson believes that attending university is instrumental to a student’s growth as an individual. For students of all disciplines, a college education fosters open-mindedness and the ability to question the world around them — everything from what they are taught to the purpose of their own academic goals.
“In the end,” Bryson concluded, “university is about inciting doubt. It’s about making you less manipulable.”
Have questions? Have a story for us to cover? Want to write? Email us at [email protected]