a talk with the Chair

posted on 17 Sep 2012 17:12 by Elena Pinto Simon
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Jeffrey Collins is Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at the BGC. His appointment as chair began in July, 2012. I caught up with him to find out his thoughts for us at the start of the new semester …

EPS: Hello, Professor Collins…I hope you had a good summer break, and best wishes as you assume the Chair of Academic Programs. Can you tell us what your research work has been for the summer?

JC: Yes, it’s been a good summer! And busy on many fronts. Over the past few years I’ve been increasingly involved in the BGC’s textbook project with Yale—I’m covering Europe from 1600 to 1830, and Spanish and Portuguese colonial America from 1492 to 1830. Part of my task this summer was to go and see and study some of the objects and spaces I’ve been or will be writing about. That took me to London and Paris, for instance, on the heels of study trips last year in Mexico and Peru, which certainly increased my understanding of traditions I was less familiar with. Distilling so much diverse information into concise and readable chapters aimed at beginning students is a real challenge, not to mention selecting appropriate case studies in areas that are still not well known or well published. But I’ve learned a great deal in this project, and that’s invaluable.

Besides that, I pursued my larger project on the intersecting worlds of archeology, the art market, scholarship, museology, cultural politics, and education in eighteenth-century Italy. I made an important discovery late last year, an unknown project drawing by a major architect for a novel exhibition of plaster casts after Roman antiquities for a projected art academy in Venice, and I spent much of the summer learning more about that episode and its historical implications.

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EPS: It looks like our entering class is just settling in nicely. Any advice for them as they start their careers at the BGC?

JC: Yes, definitely: explore! We’re very aware that BGC is unlike many other grad programs in that we welcome students from a variety of undergraduate majors and disciplines. Most have never studied what we study here, or approached it from this perspective, for good reason—there simply is nowhere else like BGC. So I would tell entering students to think like a sponge: keep your eyes and ears open to ideas and material and perspectives that may be quite new. One of them may catch your sails in ways you don’t expect. In that sense our survey course is like a microcosm of the BGC, a key that opens doors to a wide range of cultures, objects, materials, techniques, and scholarly approaches. Plunge in, but plunge in critically—ask why we’re hearing what we’re hearing during these visits, what that tells us about the constellation of approaches we host at BGC, and how those contribute to a larger scholarly project.

Second, as I said on the first day of orientation, I’d remind students that they’ve joined not just a degree program but an active scholarly institute. Go to our evening lectures and seminars, study our exhibitions, attend our symposia, read our publications. Few academic departments offer anything like this, so make the most of it.

EPS: Can you tell us a little about what you have planned for us for the Selz Lecture series this year?

JC: It’s an exciting slate. This year’s roster focuses on themes of encounter and exchange. In October, Daniel Harkett will be coming from RISD to talk about how the physical and conceptual environment of the artist’s salon provided space for new ideas of masculinity and sociability in early nineteenth-century France. In November, Laura Auricchio is coming from the New School to talk about the Marquis de Lafayette as both hero and villain—that is, how he was understood, portrayed, and sometimes caricatured on both sides of the Atlantic, part of a book project she’s just finishing on Lafayette and his legacy in Franco-American relations. Then in February we have Tobias Locker coming from Madrid to talk about his work on French designers and bronziers at the court of Frederick Great of Prussia—he’s found fascinating new documents that help us reconstruct how Frederick imported French taste to Potsdam, and how those innovations made their way back to Paris itself. I can’t wait.

EPS: Later in the fall you will be leading a workshop for students on HOW TO SUBMIT A PAPER FOR AN ACADEMIC CONFERENCE. Can you tell us why you think it is important for students to do this, even relatively early on in their academic careers?

JC: Sure: participating in a scholarly conference means joining the intellectual conversation not just as a listener but as a contributor. Of course the precondition is having new discoveries or insights to share, so it can’t come until the time is right. But I’m struck at how quickly our students become skilled creators of knowledge—perhaps because of our nature as a research institute, or perhaps it’s because we tend to explore bodies of material and types of questions other scholars have overlooked or don’t know how to formulate. Student-organized conferences and colloquia are a great place to start sharing these discoveries with a broader academic community. Also regional meetings of scholarly groups, where travel costs are more manageable—in my own field, I think of the Northeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, for instance, where some of my students have spoken in the past. But New York itself hosts numerous opportunities.

As for the intellectual benefits, I know from experience that distilling a research project into a conference talk or even a proposal helps take the work to the next level—stepping back and deciding what are your most important new insights, and how to communicate them to a broader audience in just 20 or even 15 minutes. That requires discipline, clarity, and logical structure, all good things to cultivate. There’s a professional aspect as well, since knowing how to present complex ideas—and yourself—is one of the most useful and important skills to have out in the world. And finally, by sharing those ideas one often gets useful feedback for further research or publication. And that process of give and take, writing and rewriting, arguing and refining, is what scholarship is all about.

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