This post, by Bryan Zygmont, contributing editor for American Art, is number two in our series from Smarthistory contributors and users.
When I began my journey writing for Smarthistory—nearly four years ago—I did so believing that it would allow me the opportunity to merge two things I genuinely love: teaching and writing about art history. As such, I very much understood that what I was to contribute would be of great benefit to art history students. But as time has shown, the audience extends far beyond students who attend art history classes. Indeed, I believe Smarthistory is as profound of a benefit to art history professors and teachers, too. We just pretend we don’t need it.
When I was a doctoral candidate, an unsuspecting stranger would often inquire as to the topic of my dissertation. I generally believed they were asking out of a sense of politeness rather than any real interest in an obscure academic topic. As a result, I developed a one-sentence answer: “In my dissertation I explore the interaction of aesthetics and politics in the portraiture painted in New York City between 1790 and 1825.” In less than twenty-five words I had ensured nobody would want to talk about my dissertation any further.
And this underlines a pretty important fact that art history professors often forget. I don’t really have a Ph.D. in art history. What I do have is a Ph.D. in early Federal New York City portraiture. My master’s advisor at the University of Arizona, Ellwood C. Parry, III once said, “the process of becoming an expert is learning more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.” The cartoon below captures some of the truth in that comment.
When set to finish my doctorate, I was often asked where I wanted to teach. I always gave two answers. The first was that I would be happy to get any job, regardless of location of the school or the kind of institution. But the second answer was always more aspirational: “I want to teach at a small, Catholic, liberal arts college.” I am fortunate, for I have taught for the past eight years at a small, Catholic, liberal arts college. But teaching at such a school presents challenges that I could not have foreseen when I was a graduate student. Indeed, at Clarke University, I am not just a art history professor. I am the art history professor.
I pretty much run the show. This means I teach both Survey I (Prehistoric to Gothic art) and Survey II (Renaissance to Modern art). I also teach a survey-level course on world art, and upper-division courses on classical art, medieval art, renaissance art, baroque art, eighteenth-century art, nineteenth-century art, and a course on modernism until 1940. Occasionally, I also get to teach a course within my area of expertise, American art. In total, I’ve been responsible for more than 15 different courses in eight years, and this means I have taught a nearly unholy amount of material that is outside my primary—secondary, tertiary—fields of scholastic expertise. This is what it is, I suppose, to be the art history professor.
I believe it fair to write that I have a lot of preparatory researching and reading in order to walk into a lecture hall and feel prepared to discuss, say, baroque drawing in Venice for 50 minutes. Long before I ever wrote for Smarthistory, I used Smarthistory as a way to prepare for the classes I teach. And this idea—that I was not an expert in all eras and areas of art history—racked me with guilt. My own professors at Arizona and Maryland seemed to blow into a classroom and make it looks so darn easy. Why was it so darn hard for me?
Embarrassingly, It took me years to come to grips with the fact that I was still as much of an art history student as I was an art history professor. Each new course and each new lecture provided me with an opportunity to keep learning. And learning about art history was one of the things that brought me so much joy during my time as a student. Why should it go away with the arrival of fancy initials (after my name) and a fancy title (before it)? In my quest to be a better art history professor (and student!), Smarthistory has recently been an excellent point of departure. Why do I so enthusiastically suggest that my students utilize Smarthistory? Because I so enthusiastically utilize it myself.
And yet, I am not sure I ever would have admitted this to the students I teach, and I certainly never would have admitted it likewise initialed and titled art historical colleagues. And then I received an email from Dr. Sarah J. Moore, one of my professors from the University of Arizona. She wrote:
Well, I had to laugh today as I was putting together a lecture on your friend and mine, Benjamin West, for the 19thc American art course and I looked at Smarthistory to see if they had anything on West. I came across a text that was clearly written, crisply argued, smart, and of course, it was signed by Dr. Bryan Zygmont! Not that I was at all surprised, but it certainly put a smile on my face.
Aside from the warm fuzzies that come from having a teacher and mentor compliment your writing, I was left with a very simple thought: I am not alone! Let me be clear: Dr. Moore knows more about American art than I ever will. And even still, she found Smarthistory helpful in preparation for her own class. The more I began to talk about Smarthistory with art historians, the more I came to appreciate that they not only used it in their teaching, they used it in their own preparation. This has made my contributions all the more meaningful for me.
Be you a full professor or student in a 100-level art history course, we are all art history students. We all search for new ways to think about objects and history. This is part of the very foundation of Smarthistory. I am and remain honored to be just a small cog in its ever-growing machinery.
Dr. Bryan J. Zygmont is Contributing Editor for American Art. He earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland in 2006. He is currently Associate Professor of Art History at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. Zygmont is the author of Portraiture and Politics in New York City, 1790-1825: Gilbert Stuart, John Vanderlyn, John Trumbull, and John Welsey Jarvis, a book he partially wrote while a Visiting Scholar at the National Portrait Gallery. Zygmont was a Fulbright Scholar in 2013.
Interested in contributing to the Smarthistory blog or site? Please email us at drszucker [at] gmail.com or beth.harris [at] gmail.com
Image above: John Trumbull, The Misses Mary and Hannah Murray, 1806, oil on canvas, 1273.3 x 1019.3mm (Smithsonian American Art Museum)