Through the theme of LAByrinth: Dare Another Way, ThoughtMatter’s second annual Summer Salon will explore the unique blend of intuition and experimentation that creative thinkers use to find their way through an increasingly labyrinthine world. As the complexity of the problems that our society faces intensifies, the demand for new ways of doing and thinking grows exponentially. But creativity thrives under pressure, and periods of upheaval are also opportunities for great leaps forward.
To prepare for this year’s event, we sat down with each of our three speakers to learn about how they have forged new paths forward in their respective fields, and how they approach complex challenges. Here, we hear from NYU professor and DSNY anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle about how to embrace uncertainty by trusting your gut.
I found my way to where I am today, quite genuinely, by accident. Growing up in the Adirondacks, I often went camping with my dad. On this one particular trip I remember the campsite being especially beautiful—until we discovered, a little way behind the lean-to, a dump where people had tossed their refuse—people who were too lazy to pack out what they’d carried in. It had that distinctive, sweet-funky garbage smell, and I remember the scene so well to this day: there was a single sneaker, which was weird, and balled up aluminum foil, and an empty powdered drink packet. I was completely flabbergasted: the people who left this stuff, who did they think was going to clean up after them? That question stayed with me, and from that point forward, I asked it everywhere I went: who cleans up after us?
When I started as an undergrad at NYU, I didn’t know what I was going to study, but there was an annoying bureaucratic requirement that you had to take a social science course. A class called ‘Introduction to Anthro-something’ fit my schedule, and I figured, whatever, I’ll get it out of the way. I walked into the first class all cranky (stupid requirements!) and when I walked out a few hours later, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. In anthropology, I had finally found the place that could hold all my questions.
Years later, when I started working at NYU, a colleague who was running a master’s program asked me, “If you could teach anything you wanted, what would it be?” I said, offhandedly really, “Oh, that’s easy. I would teach garbage.” “Great,” he said, “get me a syllabus.” That became Garbage in Gotham: the Anthropology of Trash, which was my first dive into the subject with any kind of real, detailed focus. That led to inviting a sanitation worker to speak in my class, which led to the proposal to do field work with sanitation, which led to taking the job to become a sanitation worker, which all led to the book. But the puzzle of garbage—that particular set of issues that fascinates me most—had been my radar since I was a kid.