Following is Majestic Terhune’s ’21 interview with Susan Jarosi, assistant professor of art history.
Why did you start teaching?
I came to Hamilton from the University of Louisville and I had been teaching there for 11 years. There are things you think you know about teaching, particularly in a university environment because it’s a process through which you’re educated in a subject and you’re not really educated as a teacher. And I don’t know if other professors have said that, so I think that’s changing a little bit. There’s a lot of interest in pedagogical methods. It’s something that I have been more engaged with in this part of my career in a way that I wasn’t when I came right out of grad school, and I knew that my training as an art historian might lead me down certain career paths, and I explored some of them the best you can when you’re 22.
I did a stint at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I worked at this historical residence and while the people there were wonderful, it made me realize that the one career trajectory that’s very common is doing curatorial work. The kind of work that curators do on a day-to-day basis wasn’t what I had imagined, but it was interesting to see what they did do. They weren’t necessarily writing a lot. They were working on an exhibition, but particularly people who were elevated at Monticello had particular aspects of their job where they were elevated and I just thought that I didn’t really want to be doing that.
I was more interested in scholarship and in intellectual things, and that kind of made me decide to go get a Ph.D., and at that point I had already made a decision about hopefully becoming a professor. In some ways, that career path just unfolds when you make that decision to go into academia, and that’s kind of how that happened to me. You get some experience in graduate school, but it’s completely different from being an instructor.
It wasn’t as deliberate as others. It was indirect and perhaps not as conscious as a kind of thing that I was interested in. For me, it wasn’t a passion. I didn’t know I had to be a teacher. I knew I liked a lot of things about academia.
Could you talk about your research?
I’m working on these two big projects. Both of these projects, the way they developed, turned into big things like a book and a digital project. The digital project is about female art dealers in the post-war period, and I’m concentrating on New York City. There’s this interesting concentration of female dealers in this period, sort of 1940-1980. What’s interesting about is the number of female dealers proportionally to how we understand women’s participation in the arts.
So, when art historians write this canonical histories of twentieth century art, it’s invariably male-dominated, from critics to teachers to the artists themselves. There’s this unwritten history of this cohort of influential female dealers that just hasn’t been attended to as part of this broader history, and it’s way before the feminist movement. That’s a big project, and it’s intensive archival research. It’s a big project in that sense; just working through the data is a huge task. It excites me for the way in which digital technologies and digital art history can allow us to get visualizations of influence and visualizations of network. As a digital project I’m super excited to be exploring this topic because of the kind of information we can get from digital technologies and digital mapping.
The other book project is more of an art historian’s project. I’m writing a book about the history and ideology of vitrines. And if you don’t know what vitrines are, they’re the glass enclosures that house artworks or precious artifacts. If you go into the Wellin Museum, on the ground floor are these glass cabinets with shelves. Vitrines can take many forms; they can hold multiple objects or they can hold a single object.
This project has materialized over six or seven years because vitrines weren’t something that I had ever thought about. So, this sense of you would pay attention to these glass cases … it took the experience of this exhibition of very important pieces in Germany that happens every years called documenta to make me think of vitrines. Like most people, before I had just bracketed them out. That exhibition led me to start thinking about vitrines and how common they are and how much they mediate our experience of viewing artwork and objects.
So again, it’s this unwritten history of how we understand visual art and visual media in a highly-mediated way. We have these conventions around art and around display, and we don’t pay attention to vitrines because they’re glass, but they dictate so much. They dictate so much about how we engage with objects. For example, we can’t touch the objects, we look at them. It’s thinking through how contemporary artists use vitrines and how vitrines work generally. When you go to a museum that has an art collection, it probably has vitrines, and depending on the museum, it may have a ton of vitrines. It’s thinking through the repercussions of that and the ideologies that come with that kind of experience of objects.
How has your time here been so far?
People are amazingly generous and helpful. They’re interested in you, and that to me was a bit of a shock. To come into a place that’s small enough that, to a degree, your anonymity is not possible to sustain in the same way as when you’re in a large university. In some ways, I miss that. But it also feels neat for people to know who you are before you’ve even arrived. They’ll introduce themselves, and I don’t know who they are, but they know who I am, and that’s a different experience. It’s nice that you can know more people at Hamilton comprehensively just because the place overall is small.
So far, it’s been wonderful. There’s an amazing support system for faculty here, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know the students as much as I have been able to in the first couple months. I’m looking forward to next semester because I will be working with the senior majors on their thesis projects and I’m eager to get to know the art history majors.
And I’ve found the students to be hardworking. I’ve found the students to be eager to be challenged. It seems to me like Hamilton students want to work hard to achieve something. There’s this sense that they want to have a purpose, even in a regular class. That’s been really neat to work with. The majority of students want to be challenged and work toward a goal and a purpose or a project or something meaningful for them.
Has there been anything that’s surprised you?
It’s a good thing. This may be a weird answer, but I am amazed at how much they will feed you at Hamilton. They feed us all the time — even at the faculty meetings. It was so far outside of my experience. It’s amazing how well-fed the faculty are.
And they give every faculty member $100 a semester to get things for classes. So, I have a $100 budget. I think a lot of faculty will buy pizza or bring candy for their students, so that was really neat … It’s great that Hamilton wants us to treat our students nicely. That was awesome.
What’s one of your favorite things about Hamilton?
My favorite thing about Hamilton so far is how amazingly dedicated and competent the staff are. The faculty is great, but I’m so impressed by the staff and it makes working here easy. There are things that they want to help you with. People at the library are amazing, in IT, in the admissions office… I am so impressed with how dedicated are, and they seem pretty happy, too.
The staff is really well-treated and respected and they do their job so incredibly well that they make working at Hamilton a pleasure.
What’s one of your favorite places on campus?
I like my office, and it has this gorgeous porch that looks out onto the pond. Molly Root House is awesome. I spend a lot of time at Opus 1 eating food. The Little Pub is pretty nice.