SOU professor joins Oregon Humanities board of directors

Southern Oregon University Professor Robert Arellano last week became a member of the board of directors for Oregon Humanities, an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities whose mission is to connect Oregonians to “ideas that change lives and transform communities.

Arellano, 46, spearheaded the creation of SOU’s Center for Emerging Media and Digital Arts in 2010 and is the author of six novels, including the Edgar Award finalist “Havana Lunar,” and the Internet’s first hypertext novel, “Sunshine 69.”

Arellano was interviewed by the Tidings on Wednesday. His answers have been edited for space.

DT: What does this appointment to the Oregon Humanities board of directors mean for you?

Arellano: Serving on the board, I really feel like first and foremost I have a terrific opportunity to represent the communities of Southern Oregon. … I go to three meetings a year with the board and then I will also partake in committees that I presume will keep me connected year round, probably on a weekly if not daily basis, to create programs, to sponsor some of their great conversations projects or their think and drink — they have all these really cool initiatives. I’ll be one of about a dozen people from all over the state who represent our communities for those kinds of programs and also go to these meetings, twice a year in Portland and once it’s always in a different part of the state.

DT: You directed a group of faculty in creating SOU’s Center for Emerging Media and Digital Arts six years ago. Why?

Arellano: The leadership at the time — the president, provost and dean — understood that there was an opportunity to create an interdisciplinary major that really prioritized innovation and creative thinking across the traditional arts and humanities fields but making bridges with the STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) areas as well. There is a BS degree in the EMDA; it’s not a hard-science major, but we have a lot of computer science double majors, we draw people from journalism and digital cinema as well as from the arts and literature. It’s pretty exciting, and the students are proving that their input and their innovation in helping create this major has made it a really dynamic degree. … Half of the job opportunities in our lifetime are jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. Enter EMDA.

DT: How do you go about preparing students for a media job market that is constantly in flux?

Arellano: In conversations with (EMDA director Miles Anada) and several other faculty, we really made an intentional choice to call it “emerging.” We are studying the curve of emergence as much as we are studying the modern day. We are trying to use real agile design techniques, like hackathon-style projects, community collaboration, crowd sourcing and social media. These are tools that we’re trying to keep up with, and we acknowledge that we don’t know yet what will emerge. We’re studying the curve.

DT: How have the students taken to EMDA’s offerings and what exactly are they learning?

Arellano: Our most popular course right now is team-taught by myself and (Professor Erik Palmer). We have 120 students from all across the university, but the two biggest majors are EMDA majors and (communication) majors. They’re learning how to tell stories, both nonfiction and journalism, as well as more creative and imaginative stories using video. We touch on mobile video and streaming, six-second Vine videos, and also we think we can draw on the same foundations as long format documentary and feature film in terms of how do we tell these stories, whether they’re very short or whether they’re more involved. … I want to acknowledge that the EMDA major is designed to play well with others. We believe in this — our faculty and students — that whatever your major, even in the sciences and social sciences, if you also get an EMDA minor or perhaps even work hard at getting a double-major with EMDA, you’re going to be better equipped for those emerging careers and are going to have a skill set that’s really becoming the new gen-ed. I like to say that some of our foundations courses in digital media are really like the new freshman comp.

DT: Is print dead or dying? Are we going to see print books and newspapers 30, 40 years from now?

Arellano: Yes, absolutely. When I was taking those hypertext fiction workshops in 1991, ’92 and creating the novel “Sunshine 69,” people were saying, “Oh, we won’t have books by the year 2000.” We love books. I’m surrounded by books in the room I’m sitting in right now. I also have a tablet and I like what the tablet allows me to sample for free, I like how it connects me to the web. And yet, I think we as writers as well as readers will continue to approach books not just as a different platform but as a different medium and genre. You say things differently on the page than you do on the screen. And there’s a time when a book is right, and that’s why I wrote five conventional novels in print after that hypertext novel. I just believe in the book. I believe there are some stories that want to be told in a linear fashion, that is from beginning to end instead of point and click. But also, I just want to be able to sit back with only the energy of the sun or a candle and not have it buzzing or shining at me.

DT: If you grew up in today’s media landscape would you be the writer you are today, quality-wise?

Arellano: That’s important to me, too, and in fact I have two young sons and, looking ahead to their lives as Oregonians, I think that it’s going to be challenging for them to find the kind of environments, both physical spaces and virtual environments, where contemplation and sustained thought and thinking are possible. I think it’s Jaron Lanier who calls it “committed cultural production,” that we would actually apply ourselves for more than five minutes at a time on a sustained project of artistic or humanities oriented excellence. It’s probably one of the great central concerns of the Oregon Humanities council, and it’s certainly a preoccupation of mine. I hope that we as educators, at SOU and all the good people in the public schools in Southern Oregon, can really be leaders regionally and nationally at creating solutions, creating opportunities for students today to have rich lives of the mind.

DT: Your novel “Havana Lunar” introduces readers to Havana’s criminal underworld and has been described by you as Cuban noir. What drew you to this subject and genre?

Arellano: It was serendipity because I had published already two novels with (publisher) Akashic Books and then my third novel was about Cuba and my experiences traveling to Cuba — 10 visits over 10 years between the ’90s and early 2000’s. …And Akashic has this urban noir series — one of my favorites is Portland noir. So here it is, it’s 2009, and I’m on the last draft of “Havana Lunar” and I said, “This is turning into a noir” in the sense that it’s a story about the dark heart of humanity and the city. I realized that I wanted to go ahead and use the term Cuban noir so that people seeing this unusual title would get a sense of where it was placing itself in terms of genre. And I’m glad I did, because I think that got the attention of the mystery writers of American. Every year they nominate novels for the Edgar Allan Poe award and that was a really unexpected and exciting honor to be a finalist for the 2010 Edgar awards. ...

DT: How long does it take you to complete a novel and do you have a set schedule, or just kind of write when you have time?

Arellano: It’s really hard to do that, especially with a family and having so much fun just wanting to hang out with my wife and kids. However, they’re very supportive and I find that I usually get a little bit of time in most early mornings. I’ve never finished a novel in under a year and a half. And some of them have been slow cooking in a crock pot ... for 10 years. I started that one in 2000 or so just scribbling notes, and it was in development for 10 years before I finished the last draft. ...

DT: How do you strike a balance between writing and teaching, and how challenging is it to find the time for both?

Arellano: To me the word that rises to the top of all of these activities — writing, teaching and being engaged in the humanities in our great state — is stories. Stories make us human and it’s really essential in teaching as well as writing and cultural work, to tell stories that illuminate what’s possible in our lives. Also, it’s important that we want to listen to stories and create spaces that are conducive to starting great meaningful and productive conversations that include ideas. And sometimes that helps us evolve as humans, individually and as communities.

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or

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