This spring, the Thacher School has had the privilege of welcoming Eliza Gregory CdeP 1999 and Ryan Meyer CdeP 1998 as the Anacapa Spring Term Fellows. Ms. Gregory has collaborated with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, and the Storefront Lab, while Dr. Meyer has worked at the California Ocean Science Trust, CSIRO, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. A warm and intelligent pair, this couple has brought both a fresh perspective to campus as well as their adorable and much-beloved daughter Ainsley. I had the pleasure of interviewing this dynamic duo over dinner and learned a thing or two about everything from environmental policy to the inner workings of art museums to how to satisfy a child with a sweet tooth.
Jack O’Neill: What did you think of each other when you were students at Thacher?
Ryan Meyer: We didn’t. We were not friends; we were not enemies.
Eliza Gregory: We couldn’t have cared less, really. When we first became friends, it was in New York in the end of 2003, and we had conversations about our Thacher experience. And, I remember one time we were listing all of the different camping trips we had been on, and we came to this one trip and I said, “Oh, I was on this trip with this person, this person, and this person, and we did this thing.” And, then Ryan said, “You weren’t on that trip; I led that trip.” And I said, “You weren’t on that trip. What?” But, it turned out that we’d both gone on the trip and never thought about each other at all.”
JO: Could you describe what you were like in high school?
RM: I think that we were both pretty dorky, is that fair?
EG: As we continue to be really.
JO: As most Thacher students are.
RM: No, no, on the Thacher spectrum, I think we were both pretty dorky.
JO: Oh, wow, so advanced dorky then.
EG: Well we both had friends. We had strong friendships that we have maintained. We both liked sports, and Ryan liked to bike a lot.
RM: I was always made fun because I was always on my bike all over campus.
EG: With his dog, of course. I think you were a little bit of a loner, maybe.
RM: Just a little.
EG: Ryan was a fac brat too, so he was going home to his house instead of to the dorm.
RM: I was very into singing. There’s a great video that some student took of Eliza careening up to a group of students; it was really hilarious.
EG: I grew really fast, and I didn’t quite have full control of my limbs. I was more like a helicopter than like a person.
RM: I was one of the shortest kids in my freshman class. By the end, I was one of the tallest, so that was a big change.
EG: Let’s see, what else were we like in high school? I liked sports a lot; I did lots of sports. I also liked riding; I did one extra riding term. Although I don’t if that sets me apart from too many other people at Thacher. That’s a good question; what were we like in high school?
JO: And now, coming back to Thacher as adults, in what ways do you think Thacher has changed?
EG: I came back and taught here for a year from 2004 to 2005, when I was 24. So, it’s been a lot of fun for me to be able to look back on my experience both as a high school and then what it was like to be here as a young faculty member, and now with a family. I think that Thacher has changed in a few, really clear ways to us, one of which is openness and talking about a few things like mental health, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Those things were never talked about when we were students here.
RM: I think that even diversity issues weren’t really even a topic here.
EG: I think we actually had one of the first students come out on campus the year after I graduated. And for me, coming from San Francisco where I was in a much more open environment, it was kind of a shock when I came here. It felt much more conservative to be here, and it was just a very different experience. I didn’t have to deal with it personally in the way that many other students had to at that time, but I was just kind of distressed and confused that that wasn’t happening. So, mental health being talked about; that’s really cool.
EG: I think also that kids seem much busier now; I mean, we were busy, but I feel like the level of stress and the intensity of the schedule is just even more so, to the point where I actually think it’s a little nuts. I think it just needs to back off a little, somehow.
RM: The facilities have also just been massively upgraded in the last twenty years.
EG: It feels like a much wealthier institution now, in some ways, than it felt to us. But that also is just because we’re more aware of how it works, I think.
JO: Shifting gears a little bit, Dr. Meyer, I was really intrigued by the description of your class, which is creating, I think it was described as a map of the environmental policy of Ojai by talking to politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, etc. So, could you talk about what your experience has been teaching this class as well as your goals?
RM: The reason to do the class about local environmental politics is that you can actually go out and meet the people who work on issues that the community is facing. So, rather than having these abstract conversations about a problem like climate change or drought, you can not only learn what institutions are involved but can go out and meet the people involved. It’s really great because you can get a sense of the roles people are playing and how it actually works on a daily basis, but you can also connect different perspectives, sometimes opposing perspectives, with real human beings who have very good reasons for having these perspectives. I think this is a great way to put human faces onto perspectives that are very easy to dismiss in the abstract. The reason that we’re focusing on maps instead of, say, writing an essay is that we want to create products that show linkages between ideas, between organizations, between people, that people can kind of see how stuff relates in a visual way.
JO: I know in the past couple of years Thacher’s really focused on improving its sustainability and redoubling its efforts with environmental awareness. I was wondering what you thought about all of this.
RM: I think that all of it is really impressive, but the thing that blows me away the most is how much of it is student led. I think that’ a testament to both the students and the faculty because the faculty can put that trust in and support the students in all of their efforts, which I think is very cool.
JO: Ms. Gregory, your class is titled “Art and the Interview: A Collaborative Artwork Exploring Ojai Through Personal Narratives of the Topa Topa Ranch.” Some of the ideas mentioned in the course description are justice, representation, social change, and “researching the un-googleable.” I was wondering if you could put some specifics to these interesting, abstract themes.
EG: The backstory is that I’m an artist and my practice is focused on trying to use art to communicate across class and across cultural identity and background, in order to bring people closer together to deal with social change and justice. The way I’ve developed to do that involves a lot of participatory practice and social engagement, and one of those practices is to interview people and to get people to talk to others in a slightly more formal way, creating a bridge over those perceived social boundaries.
I wanted to bring that practice to the classroom; it involves a lot of reading and writing, so it seems like it would fit well in an English class, which is what I was asked to teach. We’re doing a lot of editing of transcripts and looking at the interview as a form and reading transcripts and listening to some interviews as well. But, it’s all interviews for an art purpose, as opposed to interviews for a journalism purpose or an entertainment purpose. I also wanted students to be able to see that practice, so the way I usually try to work is to build a structure where everyone who becomes a subject is treated equally by me in the process, but where differences are allowed to rise to the surface. We’re talking about differences in people’s experiences, but the structure is really carefully equal, or as much as it can be.
EG: I picked an institution for this project, and in this case, I was lucky enough to get the Topa Topa Ranch to agree to be our institutional subject. Now, they’re connecting me with different partners and employees and businesses that they work with in order to accomplish that, or at least to accomplish at least a part of and to show the students how that would work.
JO: Well, I hope I’m living up to your standards on interviewing; I can tell I’m working with a pro right now.
JO: The two of you are obviously very different people, Dr. Meyer, you’re more skewed towards the scientific approach, and Ms. Gregory, you’re a little more artistic. How does that work in your marriage, merging those two viewpoints, and, more broadly, how do the seemingly distinct fields of science and art intersect?
RM: We actually have a lot of really good conversations because, while I focus on science a lot in my work, it’s really as a social scientist who is interested in how science works and is sometimes very critical of it. That’s an interesting little corner of the research world to be in, where I’m looking at science at thinking, “How is this a good thing? How is this a bad thing? What are the dynamics between science and society?” Similarly, Eliza’s field in art often is engaged in that same critical exercise with respect to art as an institution, and we find all these really interesting parallels there, which is very fun. In addition to that, we each just really like each other’s work and like to expound on each other’s work. Each of us is kind of the PR department for the other.
EG: Yeah, we’re both kind of what’s known as institutional critique or a critique of the institutions that support or create some of the social norms that are at play in each of those fields. And, we’re both also very much on the fringes of our respective fields. I like to think of it as the cutting edge, but it could also be considered the brink of irrelevance. It’s right where new ideas are emerging that haven’t totally been accepted by the broader field. This is a very interesting place to be and that’s remarkably similar for the two of us. Our careers have been very different so far, mine is much more unstructured, where I have to make my own structure, whereas Ryan is more working inside of nonprofits and inside of academia, which may flip eventually.
EG: That’s also been really nice because as we’ve had a child, I’ve been able to be a little more flexible and take a little more time to be home with her, and I think that’s been really nice for our family, we’ve been enjoying that a lot. Our work is very similar in some ways, but our personalities are pretty different. I guess we prove that opposites do, in fact, attract. Ryan likes for everyone to feel comfortable and he likes for himself to feel comfortable; I don’t mind people being uncomfortable or for me to be uncomfortable sometimes in order to achieve a goal or pursue something. I also like to create structure, and Ryan is more comfortable working inside of a structure, both at home and at work. That basically means that I’m very bossy and that Ryan is very easygoing. We also have very different senses of humor, like Ryan’s very witty and is able to kind of reverse things, he likes puns and playing with language, and I just like absurdism. I like weird things that are juxtaposed or people looking ridiculous but in unexpected ways.
JO: Both of your fields involve the critique of institutions as well as a political component of sorts; in this new political era, how do you think the respective roles of citizen science and art are going to evolve and continue to play a role?
EG: Ironically, the more art is being cut and undervalued in the national dialogue, the more important it is. Art is where people are allowed to dissent, and where new ideas are to emerge. I mean, art can be conservative, just like science can be conservative, so it’s not like all art is helping the world, or is useful, but some art, and I would argue really good art, is about when human beings are able to reflect on themselves and their patterns and their social norms, so I see art as just this massively important and powerful place to have dialogue about who we want to be and how we want to function as a society.
RM: This is such a fascinating time, of course, and it’s kind of terrifying in various ways, but it’s very normal for people to be up in arms about Republicans and science, but science has been this incredibly robust institution, no matter who’s in charge, since the 50’s, basically. There is definitely a lot of scary things going on, but the entrenched support for science has a lot of inertia; it’s way stronger. I would say that the people who say that there’s a war on science tend to have a very particular set of areas of science in mind, and because of their political leanings they think those are the most important ones, but there are many areas of science that are not the least bit contested and which have had stalwart Republican support for years and years and years. So what we’re actually having is battles of issues, whether it’s climate change or evolution or GMOs, where science becomes part of the battlefield, but science at large is generally pretty safe. Although I have to say, the scale of the cuts the president proposes are pretty massive, of course, but they’re massive for everything, not just for science. I’m not scared for science in particular, I’m just scared for the government as an agent of positive support, progress, and good in society.