Senior Faculty Develop Innovative Courses


Publication Date: 10/1/2007

David McCarthy

Three senior faculty members with national reputations in their fields are branching out in innovative ways that contribute to the foundations curriculum at Rhodes. Each has introduced a course or courses that are interdisciplinary and provide opportunities to mentor students in experiential learning activities.

Professor Jennifer Brady

English 265-01: American Films of the 1970s was developed by Professor Jennifer Brady to fill a need for another writing-intensive course in the English Department. An expert in seventeenth-century English literature, Brady has been an avid film-goer since her coming-of-age years in Toronto, site of one of the important film festivals and a city where “films were taken seriously and discussed for hours.”

The class filled immediately with first to fourth-year students with an eclectic assortment of majors. They are viewing films produced in the United States between 1969 and 1975 in a period of creative ferment and social, economic, and political crisis.  Directed by talented young directors such as Altman, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese and others, these films reflect the sexual revolution of the period and the climate of pessimism and paranoia during the Watergate years. The class is also studying the brilliant and memorable performances of actors and actresses in this decade.

The veteran professor confesses that she was a bit nervous about venturing outside her acknowledged areas of expertise. Still, she says, “I am trained to read and analyze literary texts and I teach drama all the time. I find that I am thinking about the class constantly. I hope to teach it several more times. Maybe in the future Professor Tina Barr will team teach it with me because she helped develop the idea and she has a wonderful eye for the visual where my forte is the script.”

Professor David Jeter

Chemistry 105: Chemistry and Archaeology was born of Professor David Jeter’s interest in the  properties of materials. The interest was strong enough to propel him to a workshop at MIT three summers ago where he smelted ore and made bronze and learned to spin and weave in pre-Columbian fashion. The Peabody Museum at Harvard opened after hours for the class so the participants “got up close to ancient things—close enough to get a sense of texture and pigment.  It was just great.”

Jeter found the experience stimulating—so much so that “I began to see possibilities for engaging students, particularly non-science majors.” He signed up for a NSF workshop the following summer. “It dealt more with the fine arts—paintings, glass, ceramics, etc.,” he recalls. “It involved us more with how science forms a basis for our engagement with art.”

During his sabbatical in the spring semester of 2006, Jeter spent his time learning about what was going on where, and making himself “aware of and comfortable with the vocabulary of archaeology and art and how the concerns mesh with chemistry.” That effort culminated with a trip to London where he logged many hours in the British Museum and the Museum of London, the latter site coming highly recommended by Professor Michael Leslie.
“Even though they were under glass, I was able to see ancient objects up close” Jeter recalls. “I gained a very strong sense of the real thing. I also spent time in the National Gallery and got a sense of how different materials have been used and got a feel for how color choices are made.”

Back in Memphis he teamed with Jon Russ, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and received a Rhodes Hill Grant to put together a laboratory experience to support the course. The two team-taught the course last fall. In the spring, Jeter introduced a second course—Chemistry and Art.

The experience has involved substantial growth for Jeter, personally as well as professionally. “Last year I went to an American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago and when it was over I spent a whole day at the Art Institute of Chicago. I probably wouldn’t have done that before,” he says.

Professor David McCarthy

Art 365: Photos of the Memphis World—The class listings of the Art Department contain an unusual item this fall. It reads like this:

This seminar on the history of photography is designed to give us the unique opportunity of researching and writing for publication. In the summer of 2006, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art purchased a collection of 222 black and white photographs originally reproduced in the Memphis World, a local newspaper published by and for African Americans. Dating from the late 1940s through the mid 1960s, these images provide documentary evidence of the rich and varied life of black, middle-class Memphians in a period of historic change in our city. While studying the history and theory of photography, we will conduct research in local libraries and archives. We will also attempt to identify, locate, and interview the photographers and people in the photographs. These oral histories will become part of the Crossroads to Freedom project. Throughout the fall we will write text for a forthcoming exhibition organized by the Brooks, jointly exhibited there and at the Rhodes College Clough-Hanson Gallery in fall 2008, and we will write essays for the accompanying catalogue. The catalogue will contain excerpts from the oral histories.

The course is taught by Professor David McCarthy who has spent his venerable career writing about American painting and sculpture of the last century.

Why this?

The saga began when the Brooks, Rhodes neighbor and community partner, purchased the photos. Since McCarthy is married to the museum’s chief curator, Marina Pacini, he got an early and inside look at the collection and was immediately excited by the potential for a class.

“The reason I got into this is I wanted to give the students the opportunity to experience reading and writing for publication,” he explains. “What I like about that is the pressure or excitement of knowing your work will be read by someone outside of the classroom.

“What we’re doing in the class is looking at the history and theory of documentary photography so we become familiar with the discourse on photography. Then we’re trying to apply what we read to a group of photographs that have not yet been subjected to research.” The students report that they find the class “a lot of work but so exciting when you make a breakthrough, when you track down someone in a photograph that was hard to identify and harder to find.”

“What the students are learning is that there are multiple ways of looking at and interpreting a photograph,” McCarthy reports. “You can read the caption that originally ran in the newspaper, you can write a short essay, which is what we’re doing, based on the perspectives offered by the literature about documentary photography, and you can talk to the photographers who shot the photographs as well as the people portrayed in the photograph.

“What’s particularly exciting about the latter is that they can then share with us a dual perspective—looking back on a historical moment and speaking from or about that moment. What we ultimately hope to accomplish is bringing these photographs forward in the exhibition and catalog so they are available to everyone in Memphis and to anyone who would like to know more about Memphis,” the art historian concludes.