Stories including Christine Havelock

Faculty Members

My most vivid and treasured memories of Vassar all revolve around faculty members:

1. Christine Havelock taking the stage for the first session of Art 105:  the only word to describe her bearing is regal, with her perfect posture and her professorial hairdo (swept up in a bun). And then the lights went down and the magic began. I came to Vassar intending to major in English, and I took Art 105/106 because everyone I spoke to told me that I shouldn’t graduate from Vassar without taking it. So I registered for it as a freshman, and by the end of the year I had decided to major in Art History. Mrs. Havelock (we called all the professors “Mr. ” and “Mrs./Miss” in those days—when did that practice end? My daughter, class of 2012, calls them all “Professor”), followed by Mr. Huenik, Mr. Carroll, Miss Askew, Mr. Palmer, Ms. Nochlin—the lectures were mesmerizing, and brilliant, the images (some of which were on glass slides!!) were a revelation, and I was hooked.

2. Benjamin Kohl, who made Renaissance and medieval history come alive, who told us that his children played “Guelphs and Ghibellines” instead of “cowboys and indians”, and who responded to spontaneous applause after one of his lectures with the most acute embarrassment. Speaking of which, I remember many times when such applause erupted in a classroom after a lecture, particularly in Art 105/106. I wonder how often that happens at other colleges and universities—my guess is rarely.

3.  John Glasse in the Religion Department—a class with a total enrollment of four students, meeting in his office in Blodgett, discussing St. Augustine as the sunlight streamed through the leaded glass windows and warmed the room—a quintessential Vassar experience.

What a life-changing, mind-opening privilege it was to spend four years exploring questions large and small in such a vibrant and warm intellectual community.


I had absolutely no idea there was a field called art history before I came to Vassar. I discovered it by complete accident the first day I attended an Art 105 lecture. Christine Havelock began the course with a slide of the archaic Greek Kouros in the Metropolitan Museum and as soon as she opened her mouth (she also had an exceptionally beautiful voice), I experienced something analogous to a religious conversion. This is one of the reasons I have remained such a passionate advocate of this course and of all survey courses – they open doors to students who may not have even known the doors were there.

I wrote a paper on (as I recall) Rembrandt that Agnes Claflin thought was full of unseemly emoting and fuzzy thinking. She hated it and I am sure she was right because it had much more to do with me than with Rembrandt. But her response was interesting and original. I’ve never forgotten it though I’ve also never tried it on my own students. She decided that the best way to correct my sloppy thinking was with a prescription (as a doctor might order a medicine to cure an illness)—writing another paper on a Cézanne still life in the Metropolitan Museum. “You go work on those apples, Miss Donahue,” she said sternly. I remember spending the entire Christmas break sweating over that paper and learning something that still seems like a breakthrough: you can learn more of value by getting outside yourself than by internal wallowing. And second, if someone bothers to criticize you and give you a special prescriptive exercise, maybe, just maybe, you can begin to take yourself seriously in that field.

As an undergraduate here I vividly remember reading a novel by May Sarton called The Small Room. It was about a young female English professor in a college for women, much like Vassar was at that time, and how she handled her students’ wish for personal friendship beyond the classroom and her office (which she called “the small room”). The point of the book, which made a great impression on me, was that no one can teach or learn without some sense of real and living personal connection between teacher and student, but that it is an inherently unequal relationship that must be handled carefully and with great tact. I’d still agree with that, but for me it was the people within their professional roles and their deep engagement in their subjects that impressed me most – their inspiring, original, faultlessly prepared lectures and the degree of commitment and interest in the life of the mind that they conveyed. This was a more formal time and the lectures professors gave, in the Art Department at least, were sometimes almost theatrical performances in their degree of polish in content and delivery. As I recall there was only one seminar in the department on “modern art” in which students gave reports and Mrs. Claflin listened. This frightening ritual is a vivid memory, but the higher points were the great lectures I heard.

View more posts ↓