G. Gabrielle Starr is the president of Pomona College and a scholar of English literature whose work reaches into neuroscience and the arts. Before joining the Zócalo Public Square event, “Can Higher Education Be Transformed to Better Serve Society?,” Starr phoned into the green room to talk about community colleges in California, the last great art exhibition she saw before COVID, and making homemade marmalade.
What was your favorite book growing up?
Harriet the Spy.
I read it in second grade. We were thinking about moving, and the bedroom that was going to be mine had its own door. The very idea that I could keep a journal of all the things that could happen in the neighborhood, and that I could go in and out as I pleased was just too thrilling. The only thing that was the matter with the house was that it didn't have a dumbwaiter.
You began college at age 15. How did being a young person influence your perspective on the mission of higher education?
A lot of it was this sense that you could grow up through education, and that it was a way of life, not to be too cheesy about it. It definitely shaped my view of what it is that education does, and that it literally does help you grow.
Starting on the pre-med track at Emory, what made you decide to pursue women's studies instead?
Part of it was the intellectual excitement of what was happening in women's studies at that point. It was the late ’80s, and women's studies departments were pretty new and really interdisciplinary. Being a women’s studies major meant I had to take sociology classes. I learned that there was such a thing as film studies. It taught me that there were so many different ways of looking at culture. And it really led me to feel that there’s still a lot to learn about the world that we didn't already know because the stories were so dictated by the absence of any analysis of gender.
Your parents weren’t on board at first with your decision to change majors. How did they ultimately come around?
The struggle with my family was, as it is with many students of color, certainly, the sense that you were doing something very special by getting an education—so you better use your one shot to do something that was going to adequately change your life. My dad had a Ph.D., and he was a professor, but it wasn't clear to him that any doors were going to be opened for me by making a choice to study something like women's studies. I think he was finally convinced that I had done OK when I became dean. He’s like, well, I guess this women’s studies thing is working out for you.
Your most recent book, Feeling Beauty, explores neuroscience and the arts. Before the pandemic, what was the last exhibition in an art museum that you thought used neuroscience particularly well?
Probably the last really great one that I saw was the traveling exhibition of Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of neurons. Cajal, a Spanish neuroscientist, was a great anatomist. Without a very powerful microscope, he was able to imaginatively add on what he couldn't see. So he classified hundreds of cells and the brain and made extraordinary drawings of them. Different [museums] put [the drawings] together differently. So there were some where you could see the use of fluorescent staining to compare what Cajal thought he saw to what we now can see.
The drawings themselves are just stunning. They're ink on paper. Intricate beyond belief. And you can see the influence of Moorish-Spain interaction with the choice of colors and the repetition of the nerves as if they're tiles, and the way that they are woven together, as you see in lots of places like Valencia and in southern Spain. They’re extraordinary.
Right now, a lot of the traditional ways we take in art aren’t available. In the pandemic, what art has been most sustaining for you?
I would say music, hands down. At Pomona, our music faculty is great, and they've done some really incredible concerts. Of course, everyone can't be in the same place while they're performing. So each of them is performing separately. And then they're being mixed, visually and orally.
The book that I'm working on right now is thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and the goals that we have for art. And music is one of the arts that is, in my opinion, most deeply interconnected with the goals that humans have. We turn to music for sociality, comfort, for making space—you know, putting on your headphones and escaping. For our minds to be tuned by the music. For sheer pleasure. To regulate our emotions. You know, and each of those goals matters differently in the nervous system. So music, neurologically speaking, is not one thing. Aesthetically, it's not one thing. It's a whole different range of experiences that call on different parts of our bodies to do different things.
We learned you make homemade jam. Do you have a favorite?
Well, we just finished making Meyer lemon marmalade. So that’s always fun. Our fig tree did not come in at the same time this year, and I've been having a battle royale with some squirrels. So, no fake preserves. But I also do chutneys because we have a heck of a lot of mint in the backyard. I make mint chutney and tomato chutney and coconut chutney, you name it.
What's one of the most exciting initiatives in higher education that you’re thinking about at this moment?
I'm starting to think much more strenuously about partnerships with community colleges, and what that can do to help break some of the barriers to college access. I've really been enjoying working with other individuals in California on ways of smoothing transfer between institutions, of helping students to meet basic needs. … I just think that there's a lot of potential that’s untapped. Community colleges have gotten so hard hit by COVID. And the lack of an ability to enroll their students—that's a sector that I think we collectively need to pay a lot of attention to.