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Alumni Spotlight

An interview with Yishu Mao '15

Interview by Corinna Cape
Where do you hail from originally, and how did you decide on coming to Bard for college?

I grew up in China but was very unhappy about the education system there, so I chose to go to the United States. Bard— which wasn’t well-known in China back then— and another big university on the West Coast— one that’s very famous in China— both sent me sweet letters, but, eventually, I chose Bard. The College’s slogan "A Place to Think" immediately won my heart. The liberal arts curriculum was exactly what I lacked in China and what I had hoped for. Another more superficial reason was that I saw a picture on Bard's website with a dozen students sitting on the lawn and engaging in a discussion, and I thought: "that is how education should look."

Why did you decide to pursue Experimental Humanities (EH)?

My major was Literature, and I took the course “ Introduction to Media” with Maria Cecire. It’s one of the core courses in EH. Not only did I got to read major media theorists, but I was also able to experiment with unconventional formats of presentation: we learned basic HTML, we kept a blog, and I used phone screenshots to tell a story. That spirit of EH, that foundation in traditional and humanistic ways of inquiry, but also the freedom to experiment and engage with new methods, had a profound influence on the way in which I think and research.

What were some of your other academic interests while you were a student?

Unlike students from the U.S., I came to Bard not just to learn about academic subjects, but to learn a whole new way of thinking and living, because I grew up in China with a very different culture, political system and philosophical tradition. In whatever I learned, I always asked myself: is it different in China? This comparative perspective has always been what I am interested in.

What was your senior project about?

My senior project had a quite self-explanatory title: "Twitterature: New Dimensions of Literature in the Age of Social Media." I combined my Literature major with EH to explore how Twitter can transform literature with its brief, fragmented and interactive character as a new medium for information. There had been quite a few literary experiments with Twitter already. For example, there was Jennifer Egan's Black Box, Neil Gaiman's Hearts, Keys, and Puppetry, and Teju Cole's tweeted essay "A Piece of the Wall." There was also a Twitter haiku bot that created haiku with algorithms. Conducting research for the project was a really fascinating journey, not only because I got to learn about all of this new Twitterature, but also because I stumbled upon works from the past that shared the same concepts, such as Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines and the "cut-out method" that William Burroughs used to write poems. Another underlying question I looked into was how human creativity and computation interact in the digital age.

Did you have any jobs or internships as a student that prepared you for the kind of work you do now?

During my senior year, I interned at PEN American Center, where I became more interested in the political aspect of literature. After graduating from Bard, I interned at the Asia Society to assist with the production of content for the website ChinaFile. These professional experiences definitely prepared me for my current job.

Could you explain your current work and how (or if) it relates to the world of EH?

I’m working at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a think-tank in Berlin. (I ended up getting my MA in Global Studies and working here because of a study-abroad semester at Bard College Berlin). Part of my research focus is looking into how social media bridges the Chinese civil society and the state in the agenda-setting process. Another part of my research has to do with China’s policies regarding emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and gene-editing. I am especially interested in the development of ethical norms and regulatory frameworks around these technologies in China.

How does your current work relate to the world of Experimental Humanities?

Whether it’s about social media, AI, or gene-editing, my research at my current job is essentially looking for the answers to the EH question: "How do (new) technologies mediate what it means to be human (citizens)?" When I realized this, I was so proud and grateful for EH that I wrote an email to update Maria about what I’ve been doing. I’ve heard many people complain that they never use the knowledge they learned in college at their jobs, and I feel truly lucky that I do. That's the advantage of a liberal arts education and programs like EH— they’re not meant to train you for professions, but to train you to think critically, and that will always be useful, no matter what jobs you eventually land.