Michele Elam on art, her cats and the meaning of education

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Courtesy of Marc Campos

When Stanford professor Michele Elam and Occidental College President Harry J. Elam moved into the Annenberg House at Occidental in the summer of 2020, they were greeted not by the thrum of undergraduate life, but by a campus that was almost totally empty, save for the animals.

“It was very apocalyptic,” Michele Elam said. “There was a coyote den, infamously, in the corner. I think it was whelping season. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard hyenas overkill but they sound like demons at dusk. And then we had about 300 crows that were roosting the eucalypti right above us too.”

Upkeep and construction were still underway at the Annenberg House when the presidential family moved in, Michele Elam said. Readying themselves for students to finally return, they also began preparing their home, transforming the bottom floor into a gallery space for greeting Occidental community members.

“There’s something sad and poignant about a college campus, a small residential liberal arts college campus, with no students,” Michele Elam said. “We were yearning a lot.”

Michele Elam is the William Robertson Coe professor of humanities in the English department at Stanford University and faculty associate director of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, among many other positions across English literature, social science, arts and technology. Disparate though these fields may seem, Elam said she is driven by her desire for true understanding, both of herself and of the world.

“It’s those fields that helped me realize myself, not the other way around, but I was certainly searching for them,” Michele Elam said. “And I do find that educational institutions for me are places where they can help incubate and realize those inchoate yearnings.”

The humanities and arts were her first love, and Michele Elam said she studies how they intersect with all facets of human society. While embarking on interdisciplinary work seemed to her at first like taking a vow of poverty, she said she began to understand how crucial it is today. She said the improbable rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the frequency with which creatives are underpaid or unpaid and even the proliferation of drop-down gender identification menus are all instances of this confluence.

“Why is this going to matter to me, or to the world?” Michelle Elam said. “I think that as I’ve gotten older, and as younger people stay young, and ask those questions, they want to be able to [ask] that before they’ve apprenticed themselves.”

Michele Elam said she has been meditating on these questions through her work, especially as the art world continues to change — in late 2018, a painting produced by artificial intelligence was sold for more than $430,000 at Christie’s New York, one of the world’s premier auction houses. She said developments like these bring questions about the provenance of art, and whether it even has inherent value. That being said, the arts should not be reduced into simply a moral compass for emerging technologies, Michele Elam said, as that would be an injustice to everything they can be, and have been for her. She remembered traveling with her husband to New York City, where they saw Rashaad Newsome’s art at the Park Avenue Armory, a dazzling AI-augmented piece featuring a decolonized robot that opened many of the same questions that Michele Elam does in her work.

“When I’m in the presence of art that way, that makes me feel exhilarated and uplifted and provoked in all the best ways, that has a personal downstream effect on me,” Michele Elam said. “It reminds me of all the best things of being on this planet.”

Since home is still the Annenberg House, Michele Elam commutes to and from Stanford each week to teach. She is usually in LA every weekend and for special occasions. Leanne Sappington, the associate director of donor engagement and events, said this is a testament to the Elams’ love for the Occidental community and desire to be folded into it.

“In my interactions with them, I can say that along the way, [for the Elams] it continually goes back to, ‘This is a community,’” Sappington said.

Sappington was one of very few people continuing to work on campus during the remote semesters, she said. She built a video cart with a laptop and light arrangement in the Annenberg House so that the Elams would have a nicer setup for their many Zoom meetings, from alumni engagement to office hours with students. Through all those meetings, however, Sappington said she knew they were just waiting to meet the community in person.

“Their interaction was so minimal and you could just feel the longing, every time I talked to them, for students to be back and for the campus to be alive,” Sappington said.

Michelle McMichael, director of campaign communications at Occidental, echoed this sentiment. McMichael also said she felt totally welcomed by the Elams, and could feel their enthusiasm at their home when she met their cats, Oswald and Leland.

“I am actually allergic to cats. And so when we were in their home for this one event, [Michele Elam] did notice that and always had a bottle of Claritin on hand for us,” McMichael said.

Michele Elam said part of what drew her to Harry Elam, what makes them work as a couple and as a team, is that they have the same value system in education, where students are front and center.

“If [Harry Elam] is walking across campus, it may take him 40 minutes because he will be stopping and genuinely want to talk,” Michele Elam said. “I may want to go get food — that’s food for him.”

The couple met when Harry Elam was a visiting speaker at the University of Puget Sound, which Michele Elam said is a postage stamp-sized school in Washington state where she was teaching at the time. The two attended a play written by August Wilson, and Michele Elam said she was compelled by Harry Elam within minutes of meeting him.

“But I had to sit next to him for three hours without talking to him. So all I could do is look down at his leg,” Michele Elam said. “He had very nice socks and shoes, you know, and sometimes men don’t reflect on the knee down.”

Too taken with the future college president to follow the show closely, Michele Elam was surprised the next day by Harry Elam’s deep critical reflection on it.

“I’m walking over to my classroom and he says, ‘Oh, what did you think about the gender representation in the play?’” Michele Elam said. “And I couldn’t tell him I have no idea. Was there a woman in the play?”

Harry Elam, making a brief appearance at the Annenberg House after returning from a luncheon, also said he and Michele Elam connect because they both share the same priorities, and that her love of the campus shapes his.

“The one thing I would say is that we’re a partnership,” Harry Elam said.

For now, Michele Elam is meeting more students, saying hello to the sports teams during early morning walks and holding community meet-and-greet sessions with Oswald and Leland. She said she especially loves undergraduates and the curiosity, vulnerability and sometimes bravado they exude.

“I’m teaching now, and sure, I could be writing another article if I wasn’t spending time meeting one-on-one with the students or designing pedagogies I thought would be immersive and interesting to them,” Michele Elam said. “But both of us — I don’t like to use the word innate — we’re drawn to that. That is why we are doing this.”