Computer Scientist Alissa Wilkinson writes about movies and television these days. She told Math4Science that writing code and writing articles about culture aren’t as different as you might think.
What’s your favorite movie? What do you like most about it?
Can studying math and computer science help a person write well about movies and other forms of art?
You learn to think clearly when you study math and [computer] programming,” says Alissa Wilkinson, who majored in information technology and computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). These skills have taken her from work in the tech and business worlds to her current passion: writing and teaching about film, T.V., and other forms of entertainment.
RPI helped Wilkinson land work as a business analyst at Bank of America. “My job was to talk with the traders and researchers and to talk with the tech people, the programmers — to be a bridge between them.” But after discovering that she did not particularly enjoy working in finance, she decided to leave that job, getting out “in what turned out to be the month before the entire financial system collapsed under the weight of the mortgage crisis.”
Heading a few miles uptown, Wilkinson began working in the information technology department at New York University (NYU), where her focus would shift away from tech and towards books, film, and T.V. In order to support the computer-related needs of more than 50,000 students at NYU, Alissa and her colleagues wrote software documentation for the school’s Help Desk. “My goal was to write the clearest instructions possible [to rescue students facing problems which ranged] from ‘I can’t log into the portal’ to ‘I can’t find this thing in the library.’”
Seeing the different library searches students were doing made Wilkinson, who was a student herself — at NYU’s Draper School — curious. For the “first time, I was encountering some of the ideas in the humanities that never came up in college. It took me forever to learn that the word ‘Cartesian’ came from Descartes.” (The Cartesian coordinate system that helps us plot points on a two-dimensional graph is named after French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Rene Descartes.) “It was crazy, all the people that I was reading for the first time.” These people included the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose complicated writing had Wilkinson “hanging on for dear life” at “a challenging time that was really good for me.”
NYU opened Wilkinson’s eyes to many authors she had not been exposed to as a child in upstate New York. From sixth grade through high school, Alissa was educated at her family’s rural home. She learned to raise chickens, make her own clothes, and grow vegetables. “My parents were very conservative and very Christian and we had a lot of friends who were probably even more conservative than us.” Certain books, movies, television shows, and other parts of American and world culture were off limits, considered suspect by many people in her family’s evangelical community.
Since then, “the biggest challenge for me has been catching up with an entire world of culture.” As she does so, she feels certain that her father, who passed away a decade ago but who frequently borrowed audiobooks and CDs from the local library, would approve. “I know he would think what I am doing is pretty cool.” These days, her mother “will call me and ask which movie that’s out she should see.” Wilkinson’s mother is proud of her daughter’s work as Chief Film Critic at Christianity Today.
After graduating from NYU, Wilkinson became interested in writing and found her degree and experience working in information technology (IT) helpful as web publishing became increasingly popular. “It was easy to get hired because I could write but I could also code. I knew PHP [a computer language useful in web development] and could work on the back end.” (The “front end” refers to what we see when using a website. The “back end,” on the other hand, refers to the technology and coding that you can’t see but are necessary for things to work smoothly.)
The King’s College hired Wilkinson to teach “freshman comp” — the writing course many first-year college students take in order to learn to write better essays (“compositions”). What began as a part-time job turned into a full-time position and occasionally connected to her background in tech in interesting ways.
“I had a student who discovered that I had this background in computer science, in IT, who said ‘Oh, that makes sense. You teach English like a scientist.’” Wilkinson wasn’t sure what he meant at first but upon reflection drew her own connections between programming and the art of composing essays. “English grammar,” she explains, “is a system that’s not totally unlike the grammar of coding. Most code is in English: it mimics English grammar because it’s created mostly by English speakers.” And “things like functions and objects map pretty nicely onto things like verbs and nouns.”
Wilkinson also compares the goals and best practices of writing articles and essays with those of coding. She sees both as ways to solve problems. The challenge in improving both your writing and your programming skills — making them more clear and more concise— lies in finding “the most elegant way to do [that].”
The importance of keeping your audience in mind as you write also helps Wilkinson compare her work as an English professor with her background in tech. “In comp, we talk about rhetorical situation. You’re thinking about your reader: What situation is your reader in? ‘How can I communicate with that most effectively?’” Similarly, computer programmers must imagine that “some day some guy will be digging around in your code and figuring out what you did and how you did it and you have to be able to anticipate their needs. There’s a streak among computer programmers who might want to outwit everyone else.” They might “write incomprehensible code,” which Wilkinson compares to the poor writing produced “when someone writes to look like the smartest person,” rather than communicate well with her/his readers.
These days, Wilkinson’s own writing often focuses on movies and other forms of art. As a critic, she “must pay really close attention to the thing that you’re looking at. That’s the thing that problem-solving in IT is all about. You pay close attention to a thing, break it down, and come up with a solution that is a new thing. Often a lot of humor and creativity go into that. That ability is really honed in the sciences but especially in IT and that helps me out tremendously when I go watch a movie or read a book or whatever it is that I’m writing about.”
Not one to abandon the better parts of what she learned and experienced in the past, whether as a technologist or member of an evangelical church, Wilkinson explores art forms that were previously off limits to her. She does that in ways that are informed by her religious upbringing. In an article she wrote for Christianity Today, she discusses Why We Review R-Rated Films. And she finds herself fascinated by horror movies, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Blair Witch Project. Horror, says Wilkinson, is “one of the few genres in which the weird, unseen, supernatural stuff really exists.”
Horror movies pit supernatural forces against each other, introducing ideas about morality in ways that can be quite powerful. When talking with Math4Science, Wilkinson mentioned an article by Alyssa Rosenberg, who describes the ways the director of the movie Selma used techniques from horror films. Says Wilkinson, “it takes the form of a horror movie” to give “us a sense of the moral stakes that are happening in Selma.” The “explosion at the beginning of that film in the [Birmingham, Alabama] church where the little girls are killed is timed like it would be in a horror film.”
To find out more about Wilkinson’s thoughts on horror and more, check out How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics, the book she wrote with Robert Joustra, or read her in publications from Rolling Stone to Christianity Today.