Lisa Han, Assistant Professor (Film and Media Studies)
New faculty member Lisa Han’s first year has been busy with the practical tasks of establishing a new life as an Arizona resident. She takes an intuitive approach to things. “I think you are led through the process,” she says of the career path she has been on since her undergrad at Princeton. “You push boundaries and see what works.” It was her philosophy of exploration that led her to ASU, where she currently teaches one class on media and the environment and another on gender and race in U.S. media.
It’s hard to imagine Han living in Birmingham, Alabama and working at Southern Living magazine, but that was one of her early jobs after college. Her original plan was to be a journalist, so she sought out resume-building internships at various prominent publications. “After college, I just wanted to experience something different and new,” she explained. “I learned a lot about the South and Southern culture.” It was a formative experience, but it turned out that a year of writing about recipes and home and garden topics was plenty for the twenty-something graduate. Han circled back to a seed that had been planted in her freshman year at Princeton.
She had always wanted to study film and media, but Princeton didn’t offer it, so she majored in English. Portentously, she learned of a class on surveillance studies and signed up. “That just totally opened up my mind to what was out there to explore.” A microbiologist father and an older brother who is a doctor influenced Han. The siblings had grown up working in a lab, but Han says she was “the rebel who had to lean into the humanities, determined to be a journalist.” Her brother was the first to praise her writing and he encouraged her to pursue English, however: “It’s important to bridge the divide, and media is so slippery across the disciplines. I really like thinking about science from a humanities perspective.” This is evident in her voice as the conversation turns to her research. “The humanities are more important than ever. It’s not just about media literacy; it’s the ability to understand institutional histories and social histories. And I think that’s what the humanities brings to the table: the ability to read critically and think critically about our world.”
Lately, her world includes a lot of video games. “I think we’re entering into a sort of golden age of videogaming,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, people are turning to video games to find connection. I never thought of myself as a gamer, really, but I’m learning about it now and getting a lot out of it.” It started with a little Minecraft worldbuilding with friends but quickly bloomed into buying her own Nintendo Switch followed by an inevitable exploration of available games. In addition to the popular ones like Animal Crossing, she found several that relate to her interest in environmental media. One particularly intriguing game is In Other Waters. “I’m writing an article about this right now. I think people are starting to realize that games offer a lot more than the typical stereotype of a gamer [might suggest]. So even someone like me, who didn’t grow up gaming at all, is finding there is so much more to it than just winning—things that are so interesting and worth exploring.”
Another area Han has been exploring is the ocean. She is working on a book with the tentative title of Been Thick Media, which is a reference to her focus on the substances on the ocean floor. She has articles coming out soon on “biofoul,” the manner of our technological hygiene practices and infrastructures, and what those practices say about our relationship with and understanding of nature. She is also producing a chapter for a book on maritime archaeology and the virtual excavation of shipwrecks. “Tech, math, and literature are not mutually exclusive. Our technologies reflect a past, inherited fear of the mysterious ocean. But now we invest in different ideas about it. The technological and the cultural are what I’m interested in.”
So, there are still many treasures to be found? “What we define as treasure is interesting.” Han is sure there remain many more shipwrecks hidden in the depths, but she isn’t looking for gold. “Treasure or trash, that’s always the question…the deep sea is already full of natural treasures, species that are yet to be discovered. There is so much we still don’t know about the ocean. I think we spend a lot of energy thinking about outer space, and other planets, when we’ve just barely explored our own oceans. What I care about is the way that we invest our imagination, our ideas about the future, about the ocean as an imaginative, creative setting.” She is fascinated by the ocean as a sonic world though we tend to think of it visually. Charting the history of how we have come to know what is down there comprises much of her research.
Does Han have hope for the future? “Yes, cautious optimism,” she said. “This can be a tough field to work in because it can [make you] pretty cynical. There’s a lot of need to foster realism about the looming danger. But it’s also extremely hopeful work because so much is about fostering a better imagining of a better future—how we can live with nature. And my students give me a lot of hope. They are more climate conscious, with a lot of really great ideas. They are so engaged with this topic, so that gives me a lot of hope too.”
I lived a lot of lives before being an academic, and success didn’t come overnight. It was the accumulation of many things.
As busy as Han is with work, she does try to relax and take time off. An attempt at pandemic baking did not work out, so she sticks to cooking: usually Chinese, Thai, or Mexican. She is a “throw-stuff-in-a-pot-and-taste-it” kind of person, as her mother has always been. “Feel your way until you know what to do.” The improvisation of it is the most satisfying part of cooking, Han says. “Food can be an amazing, communal experience. It’s a way to access your heritage and a sense of the past.” It is unsurprising to learn that Han is creating a recipe book of such family recipes as dumplings and egg congii (like a porridge with black eggs) to which she also adds her own creations. The ingredients may come from the farmer’s market or the grocery store, but each time she shops, she makes a point to bring home one new item that she has never used before.
During the pandemic she has just focused on being present for the small parts of the day, like the process and aroma of making coffee in the morning. “Deriving pleasure from small things like that instead of walking through life like a zombie, has helped a lot.”
In answer to the question of whether she prefers theatres or streaming: “Theatres, definitely. There is something special about being in a theatre and it’s sad to let go of that collective experience of viewing, where people are reacting around you. I hope we can maintain that after the pandemic. Nowadays, it’s all about distracted viewing and it does take away from our ability to digest what we see, and our emotional experience of things.”
Han advises anyone considering graduate school to prioritize their life and their happiness. “It’s always a good idea to encounter new spaces and new people before landing on a track. I lived a lot of lives before being an academic, and success didn’t come overnight. It was the accumulation of many things.” She appreciates all of her experiences, from her childhood training in classical piano and tennis, to the popular television she gets to enjoy on the weekends. She recommends staying balanced and being curious and flexible. “You never know where you’re going to end up.”
Image: Courtesy photo of Lisa Han
Video: Lisa Han participated in a CSI Skill Tree discussion with oceanographer Hilairy Hartnet of the videogame, In Other Waters. The event was facilitated by ASU film alum Joey Eschrich (BA 2008). Courtesy Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU.