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May 10, 2007


Fulbright Winner Indira Neill: An Eye on Culture


Indira Neill, a double major in history of art and German, has an interesting hypothesis about why she will be especially effective as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bremen, Germany, next year. She's perfect for the job, she says, because she doesn't have a natural talent for languages. Of the 10 AP tests she took during her senior year in high school, German was the only one for which she prepared but did not earn a high enough score to get a Bryn Mawr credit.

"Learning languages is a challenge for me," she explains, "so I'm very conscious of strategies that help. I've always relied on the enthusiasm and skill of language teachers to get me through. I know what it's like to struggle with a foreign language, and I know what it takes to overcome the difficulty and reach the point of enjoying the material."

Neill took her first German course at Bryn Mawr to fulfill a requirement, but she found the coursework so interesting that she signed up for another. German courses continued to appeal to her until she realized that she had already accumulated enough credits to constitute a minor, and she decided that the German department could be her second academic home.

Neill's job as a Fulbright teaching assistant will extend beyond language teaching; she will also be expected to introduce German students to American culture. As a student of art history with a particular interest in film and new media, Neill has an unusually acute critical perspective on the topic.

Her senior thesis in history of art deals with two film representations of the Leopold and Loeb murder case: Alfred Hitchcock's Rope of 1948 and Tom Kalin's Swoon, released in 1993. Leopold and Loeb admitted to killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924 simply because they believed their superior intellects would enable them to commit the perfect crime and escape detection.

"In Rope, the motive for the crime seems inadequate," Neill says, "and the criminals' identity becomes the substitute or equivalent of the motive. Leopold and Loeb were both Jewish and homosexual, and the public associated those characteristics with the murder. Hitchcock reinforces that association by making the viewers look for clues that reveal their Jewishness and homosexuality, putting them under cultural surveillance in a context where the viewer expects to look for clues about the crime.

"Kalin, on the other hand, is much more explicit about their homosexuality, but he disrupts the association of identity with motive by ‘queering' a lot of other figures in the film — introducing characters whose racial identity makes their presence in the roles they're assigned conspicuously anachronistic, for example."

After she has completed her Fulbright year, she plans to enter a graduate program in either film and media studies or cultural studies.

"The kind of work I'm interested in doing is interdisciplinary," she says. "I could approach it from several directions."

Neill is fascinated by the interaction between spectatorship and new media.

"My generation is the first that grew up knowing how to use computers. I want to look at how that affects film spectatorship. Is computer access to independent film, for instance, encouraging people around the world to watch films made in their own countries, or will Hollywood and Bollywood film maintain the kind of dominance that they have now?

"I'm also interested in the cultural specificity of violence — what kinds of representations of violence are acceptable or standard in one cultural setting as opposed to another. And I'm interested in video games, because they are cultural products that are from their inception intended to be circulated internationally."

Neill is a prime example of the computer-literate generation to which she belongs. At eight years old, she helped her mother create a PowerPoint presentation for a scholarly conference, for which she was credited at the lecture.

"A bunch of the people at the conference started joking with my mom about using child labor," she recalls.

Her facility with computers led to a job at the help desk in Bryn Mawr's Guild Computing Center, which in turn shaped a Bryn Mawr-funded summer internship at the Chicago History Museum.

The museum, whose visitors are drawn largely from Chicago city schools, was developing interactive gallery stations called activity carts.

"I applied for an internship writing tour scripts, but when they saw how much experience I had with computers, they put those skills to work. I spent some time processing data about visitors so that it could be used in reports and grant applications, and I spent some time with the education department, working on the activity carts. We brought school groups in to test the activities, and it was fascinating to see which activities flew and which were ignored."

As for a career, Neill says that the choice between museum work and teaching is a difficult one. A year of language teaching in Germany might help her decide.


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