I’ve always particularly admired the other art historian in my department. She is slim, tall and elegant. She appears at ease in any situation and carries herself with a cordial air of professional reserve. She reminds me of my colleagues in grad school who seemed to have a professorial air that they inherited from their advisors.
My advisor was different. He was much more casual in his approach to teaching. His lectures were enthusiastic narratives where art functioned with its social and cultural context and he had stories about all the major players. He once re-enacted the Raft of the Medusa using an upturned folding table and placing himself in the various positions fo the figures in the painting. He went off on tangents that came out of his vast knowledge and curiosity. He loved his students and enjoyed meeting his undergraduate students from the 300 seat Modern Art survey classes. He was the model for my own teaching and I tell stories and go off on tangents and love my students.
I was always proud to be part of his legacy, but it seems that not adopting the professorial air of my colleagues has worked to my detriment. While I usually have positive interactions with my students and colleagues, I’ve also been subject so a surprising about of abuse from my students and my department chair. Students will send me angry (and frankly insulting) emails arguing about grades, the difficulty of exams or challenging policies outlined in the syllabus. My chair feels perfectly free to yell at me in front of fellow faculty and graduate students and to berate and insult me in private meetings.
They don’t do this with the other art historian. Her professional distance applies to both students and faculty (including administration). She has never been subject to the verbal abuse or student anger, even though our classes are equally difficult. I am becoming convinced that it is this professorial air that discourages the same treatment that I receive. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and to feel emotionally invested in my work and my students. This seems to leave me vulnerable or give the impression that I do not warrant the same respect as my colleagues.
I don’t want to shake off Al Boime’s legacy, but I don’t want to be treated this way either. Sometimes I really feel like I have to hide who I am in order to be treated with any respect.
Maybe I can find the secret guidebook for faking the professorial air until it becomes second nature.
I love blank books. Journals, sketchbooks, guided art books, mini blank books, notebooks, composition books, I love them all. Each one I buy is a space of infinite potential. The heft and feel of the book and opening the cover for the first time is my favorite experience. I definitely have a peper fetish. I imagine myself filling the pages with thoughtful prose, charming sketches and lovely calligraphy. Or cramped paranoid diatribes and psychotic little images of my favorite suicide methods. Whichever.
I open a new book, pen in hand, and…. write something insipid and whiny. No snippets of literature, no poetry, no insights. Then I put the book aside, disappointed in myself and how I wasted infinite potential. The book goes on a shelf. I will later try to revisit the journal, tearing out the offending first entry, but the book is tainted and its potential limited.
But knowing this doesn’t stop me from buying blank books. Or stationery that lets me dream of writing thoughtful letters to friends far away.* Here are my latest treasures from my pilgrimage to Greer in Chicago
The airmail paper folds into its own envelope which will be wonderful for my thoughtful letters, as will the shield cards. The journal is lined inside and I love the french book feel it has. The cute little pad is for inspiration and the pouch will carry my brilliant manuscripts. The Blackwing pencils were gifts from Chandra who owns the place and is a wonderful lady.
As addicted as I am to the internet and as a huge fan of email and texting, my real love is paper and ink. It represents a way of thinking and living that is thoughtful and wise, like those aspirational blogs written by clever women who live in spaces of grace and beauty. With each book, pen, and card I try to buy my admission to that space.** The tactile nature of producing letters and writing in books, holding my pen or pencil always relaxes me.
Deep down I suspect that while melancholia has led to great artistic works of literature and correspondence, it can just as easily make you boring. I want to learn to speak with a different voice and write with grace and beauty and the more write the closer I’ll get. I hope.
*I’m working on actually doing it.
**I’ve joined the Letter Writers Alliance (I’m waiting for my membership card) and am looking for new people to correspond with.
When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, every summer my parents took me to Disneyland. We would drive down to Anaheim and I would look out the window, searching for the Matterhorn (or later, Space Mountain) knowing that the moment I saw it, I was going to enter another world. A world of slightly spongey asphalt that keeps your feet from getting too tired, of 3/4 size buildings with interiors too vast to fit the facade, of the smell of popcorn and the taste of frozen bananas, and of Carnation ice cream’s exclusive Disneyland flavor Fantasia. My mother tried to bribe our Carnation milk man to bring her some at home, but it never worked.
For me, Disneyland was magic, and it stayed magic, even when I entered the tunnels underneath the park. Even when I learned that the Haunted Mansion ride actually took place across the street from the park proper. I didn’t care. Not entirely. It was still the Magic Kingdom. Then I read Guy Debord, Baudrillard, and Robert Venturi, and the magic began to peel and flake. I felt like I could then see the armatures beneath the facades. In the face of the theory, I remained defiant. I still loved Disneyland and still enjoyed it. I allowed myself to exist within the deception, recognizing it’s methods, and still enjoying it.
Erin Morgenstern creates her own magical world in The Night Circus. The reader enters her world through a single, evocative
sentence, “The circus arrives without warning.” For me, this sentence was akin to seeing the Matterhorn from the freeway. What follows is the story of the birth and life of this magical circus that functions as the setting for a challenge between two magicians who don’t fully know the rules of the game.
Interspersed amongst the chapters are vignettes where the reader is led through the audience’s experience visiting the circus. Narrated in second person, Morgenstern allows the reader to exist both inside and outside the illusions of the circus.* What I found most striking about this shifting in and out did nothing to destroy the magic. As the reader moves through the tents and experiences the magical spaces I found myself wanting to whisper “and it’s real.”
I think that’s what made me fall in love with this novel. Seeing the armature only makes the circus more marvelous. The magic is real, and the illusion is false.
P.S. This book also illustrated for me the weakness of e-books. I bought it to read on my ipad and after finishing it last night, I’m running out to buy the book.
*Okay, yes. This book used second person and I said I hated second person. I know. But it works here.