Arathi Menon joined the faculty in July as assistant professor of art history. Here she shares impressions of Hamilton and its students after her first semester.
Why did you become a professor?
My first art history course in college was on Impressionism, and I was immediately captivated! The professor quite literally changed my life. She was such a fantastic and enthusiastic teacher. When I had the opportunity to teach as part of my doctoral training, I realized quickly that I too enjoyed teaching and sharing my excitement about all things art history. As for the professor, she has supported and encouraged me and my goals all these years.
Where did you study or work, prior to coming to Hamilton?
I received my graduate degrees from Columbia University. I also taught at Columbia and at Scripps College of the Claremont Colleges in California. Last year, I had the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at Smarthistory, where I had the opportunity to contribute several essays to the organization’s offerings on South Asian art history.
What drew you specifically to Hamilton?
The community! My campus visit was a lovely experience. I met several students and faculty, and they made it easy for me to want to be a part of Hamilton.
How has your time teaching at Hamilton treated you?
Despite the challenges that we all faced this year, my students were interested and engaged, and it made teaching very rewarding. They made a genuine effort to learn and to understand. I very much respect that. My students selected fascinating research topics and wrote creative and insightful papers. I had such fun following along as they learned and as their research and writing developed over the course of the semester. The research papers that they wrote are among the best I have received and that was honestly just such a delight.
One that stood out in particular was a remarkable paper on the iconography of the monk Budai. It was a somewhat difficult topic to work on over the course of a single semester, with a relatively limited existing body of scholarship. The research was challenging, but the student persevered, worked hard to build on his research skills, and did a lot of writing and re-writing to refine his arguments. The final paper was excellent and reflected his enthusiasm and resolve to do all that he could to understand the iconographic history of Budai. Not only was I thrilled to see the paper come together so well, as someone who enjoys research, I was thrilled for the student’s success in that regard.
Could you talk a bit about your research?
I study visual cultures connected with premodern trade in South and Southeast Asia. My current book project examines the religious art and architecture of medieval Kerala (in southwestern India) within the framework of the region’s historical encounters with Indian Ocean trade. The book will delve into the artistic syncretism of Kerala’s pre-modern churches, mosques, and synagogues, as well as discuss the region’s rich temple art and architecture. Other projects include a study of the portrayal of women in paintings produced in royal Indian ateliers, and the depiction of a sacred text — the Bhagavata Purana — on the walls of a 14th-century wooden temple.
Has anything surprised you here at Hamilton?
Not surprised as much as thrilled. Students voiced a range of perspectives in class discussions and in their writing that have encouraged me to think about the subjects that I teach in new and exciting ways.
What’s one of your favorite things about Hamilton?
I love our campus architecture –– the light side, the dark side, all of it. I am especially fond of Molly Root House where I work. I find it elegant and charming. I love its character — the open porches, all the light, even its noisy stairs. It’s a lovely place to teach art history and to write it.
What’s one of your favorite places on campus?
I am having a hard time picking between Café Opus and Root Glen. Can I say a walk in the Glen with a coffee from Opus?
How did your teaching methods adjust during this COVID-influenced semester?
I was very aware of the extra stressors of this semester and the impact that that can have on learning. I re-designed lectures and assignments so that students could engage with the themes of my courses with increased freedom; the results were really positive. When possible, I tried to “bring” students to the places and the objects that I was teaching. We virtually traveled to sites via Google Earth, for example, and I asked students to spend time with the sculptures that they were writing about by sketching them. I also scaffolded assignments, so that students could focus on one goal at a time, receive frequent feedback, and stay on course. I am proud of all that they have accomplished this semester.