Memories of Teaching in the Vassar Art Department

By Professor Emerita Christine Mitchell Havelock, Greek and Roman Art 1953-1990

I joined the Vassar Art Department in 1953 as Instructor. Prior to that I had no teaching position of note, and I had yet to earn my Ph.D. I was very naive. Canada, where I was brought up, had no Women's Colleges, so the fact that the Vassar Art Department consisted primarily of women, was an altogether welcome and new experience for me. Esther Dotson, a Vassar graduate and one of the younger women in the department, was also working on her Ph.D thesis. She occupied an office downstairs across the hall from mine and soon became a friend and mentor. Without her understanding and encouragement, I don't think my beginning years at the college would have been either as happy or successful. She was a superb teacher and adored by students. But indeed I soon discovered that every woman in the department was an outstanding teacher. While I was at Vassar, Agnes Claflin was the Chairman of the department for the 50's until the mid-60's when she retired. Throughout those many years she was very much in charge. She was a strong and brilliant educator, and it was her conception and leadership that created the Art Department I knew. As exemplified by Esther Dotson, Mrs. Claflin had the wisdom to bring back young Vassar graduates who were continuing their studies in art history at the major graduate institutions of the eastern US. Already schooled in the professional standards of Claflin, they knew what was expected of them as teachers, and were familiar with all aspects of Vassar's curriculum, art library, and visual equipment. They were also close friends of Mrs. Claflin and consequently, within the department, there was a warm feeling of shared goals and sociability.

Leila Barber, another splendid teacher in the department, had also been appointed by Mrs. Claflin. They had met years before my arrival as graduate students at Harvard. Leila was in charge of Art 105, our very important and popular introductory course in Art History. Mrs. Claflin's foresight was also evident in her appointment, early in and after WW II, of three German refugee/scholars: Richard Krautheimer, Adolph Katzenellenbogen and Wolfgang Lotz. They were very highly respected by everyone, good teachers, and the cream on the cake so to speak. Thus, it was a combination of a steady far-seeing chairman, a stellar young women faculty - about to become scholars themselves – and renowned male professors from abroad, that formed the special dynamics and distinction of the art department faculty at that time.

However, my most vivid and personal memories of my years at Vassar are related to Art 105. From that single course I learned the most I ever did about the methodology of lecturing to large groups, of teaching small groups before original works of art, and of the necessity for excellent supplementary photographs. The course took an immense amount of planning and revision, in which we were all involved year after year. As an outsider, I had never taken such a course before. I was required, but also very eager, to sit in on the opening lectures given by Leila Barber, since I knew I would eventually take my place as lecturer in my field. As I listened to Leila I thought her the perfect model. When my turn came, she sat in on every lecture of mine, and this made me extremely nervous. If she was critical I would race toward more books and rewriting, but if she was generous and complimentary -well, I felt wonderful. But it was not just the delivery or the content of the lecture that mattered, we also had to have style. We were a women's college after all and, in those days especially, we had to look good. We knew the young bright women in our audience were examining our wardrobes in detail. Now so many years later, I realize it was Leila Barber's teaching and supervision of Art 105 that made the course so famous and successful for many years. I also realize it was Agnes Claflin's overriding vision that placed Vassar's Art Department above many others in the country.