Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Signs and Signifiers in the Indianapolis Airport

I spent the week-end in Indiana, where we went for my husband's family reunion. I didn't mention it before we left, because I didn't want to announce to the Internet world that my house would be vacant. It doesn't take too many mouse clicks before you've got my address, after all. Would thieves go to that much trouble? I have no idea, but I try to minimize risks where I can.

I had an experience in the Indianapolis airport that I've never had before. I actually had to study the signs for the bathroom to determine which one was mine. I'm used to those old-fashioned designs, where the female wears what looks like a big triangle. From far away, you know which bathroom is yours.

On Friday, I had to actually doublecheck the written sign, just to be sure. Part of it was that the symbol sign was confusing--the same sign told us in symbols that there was both an entrance for the women's room (to the right) and the family bathroom (to the left).

I noticed that the woman's dress has been updated. She's no longer wearing a triangle. She's got on a much slimmer skirt with an asymmetrical hem. I started wondering about the person who designed the sign. Did the person do it just for the Indianapolis Airport? Or will we soon be seeing this more fashionable woman on signs throughout the world?

I thought back to graduate school, where we spent lots of time arguing about signs and signifiers, and other concepts that the outside world probably never spent much time pondering. And then I thought about my current life, where my fine graduate school education has gone to analyzing airport signs.

Well, my education has been useful in any number of ways, and not always in the ways I anticipated. I use this sentence whenever students complain about having to take English classes (and other classes they consider useless). I think that one of the advantages of a Liberal Arts education is that it gives our brains fine things to ponder so that we don't have to focus on whatever indignities we're enduring at the given time.

How interesting--as I write this, Madeleine Albright is talking on NPR about the pins that she wore and what they signified as she went about her duties as Secretary of State. You can read or listen here. And if you really want to know more, she's written a whole book.

Yes, signs and signifiers are all around us. That's why I became an English major, after all. I tend to see the world as a storehouse of symbols. My brain left me predisposed become either an English major or a theology major--I liked the English department professors better, and so I set off down this road, with nary a care for practical issues, like how I'd make a living. I assumed the world would end in a nuclear blast very shortly (it was the early to mid 80's, after all), and I wouldn't have to worry about mundane things, like a career.

Again, the beauty of a Liberal Arts education--whether we're dealing with mundane things, like our careers, or earth-shattering things, like the idea of catastrophic loss, our Liberal Arts education has given us the tools we need to deal with whatever we may face.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Ah! Somebody else who expected it all to end way before this. I'm astonished every day I wake up and find the world still here, and the smoking ruins confined to just a few local hotspots. Incredible. Such a gift. But I never did a lot of long-range planning either.

In any case, I've never regretted any of my (by most standards excessive) education.