Unplanned Lessons: The Personal is Intellectual

Art professor Carol Ockman and her students at the Williams College Museum of Art.
Art professor Carol Ockman and her students. Photo by Scott Barrow.

Professors impart knowledge; students receive it. That’s the basic contract at any institution of higher learning. But sometimes, without anyone being immediately conscious of it, the flow of learning reverses—and students teach something to their professors.

In art professor Carol Ockman’s experience, college was about breadth: Specialization and depth were for grad school. And exploring questions of self-identity was principally a personal, extracurricular activity, not an academic pursuit.

Then Ockman met an Indonesian-American art history major who challenged these views. In her last two semesters before graduation, the student chose classes in a range of subjects—Italian Baroque painting, medieval manuscripts, Islamic art. But in each course, she focused on two themes: gender and orientalism.

“She chose courses or projects within courses that would enable her to pursue an interest that was completely embedded in questions of her own identity as an ‘exotic’ woman,” Ockman says. “Her courses were all over the map geographically and historically, but she was in the same place with the same questions in each.”

Ockman let the young woman take a seminar on Ingres that she was teaching in the graduate program in the history of art. Her in-depth analysis of Ingres’ orientalist painting “The Turkish Bath” won the Arthur B. Graves Prize from Williams for the best essay in art that year. In her senior year, by design and with one exception, the student took courses with female professors only.

Ockman found the approach exhilarating. “She looked for courses that would help her grow personally, not just intellectually. For her, personal growth and intellectual growth became one and the same thing.”

Ockman is still in touch with her former student, who has since obtained a Ph.D. in art history with a thesis on ethnographic cinema, gone to film school, written a book on “exotic” cinema and made films. She now teaches film history, media studies and filmmaking at a university.

This story was originally published in the Williams Alumni Review as part of “Unplanned Lessons,” by Zelda Stern.  (For a text-only version, click here.)