Professors′ Passion Fuels Discovery

By Kristine E. Overacre ′09


Photo: Emilys Broocks and Jennifer Brady
Emily Broocks ′09 and Jennifer Brady discuss Brady′s class on John Fletcher (portrait)

Satires of higher education often cite the “yellowed notes” of aging professors who, despite changes in technology and the interests of their students, teach their classes much as they did 40 years ago. The satirists clearly have not been to Rhodes, where the faculty teach because they love it and where students throng the classrooms of longtime beloved professors. Even after they retire, many faculty maintain relationships with the alumni/ae they taught through the years.

Three senior professors—David Jeter, Jennifer Brady and David McCarthy, who holds the James F. Ruffin Professorship in Art and Archaealogy—explain how they keep their classes fresh and exciting.

Bending Boundaries: 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 poured 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 great,” Jeter says.

He found the experience stimulating—so much so that “I began to see possibilities for engaging students, particularly nonscience majors.”

Jeter 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.”

In many ways, Jeter has been on a personal journey in connecting to art and archaeology. His keen involvement has translated into a great enthusiasm for the topic, which in turn helps motivate his students.

Jeter recalls, “I had to learn the vocabulary of art and archaeology in order to analyze and experience the materials. I felt the need to spend some time seeing the commonalities between those disciplines and chemistry, and I wanted to have more of an up-close experience.”

During his sabbatical in the 2006 spring semester, Jeter studied the what and where of archaeology and art and how they mesh with chemistry. That effort culminated with a trip to London where he was able to spend hours in the British Museum and the Museum of London, the latter site highly recommended by Rhodes English professor and dean of British Studies Michael Leslie.

In his quest for insight, Jeter notes, “I couldn’t go everywhere, but it looked like a lot of everywhere has wound up in the British Museum.

“Even though they were under glass, I was able to see ancient objects up close,” he recalls. “I gained a very strong sense of the real thing. In the National Gallery I got a sense of how different materials have been used, and a feel for how color choices are made. Now what makes this a little bizarre is that I’m actually colorblind,” he laughs.

Back in Memphis he teamed with Jon Russ, chair of the Department of Chemistry, and received a Rhodes Hill-Mellon faculty development grant to put together a laboratory experience to support the course. The two team-taught the course in fall 2006. In the subsequent spring, Jeter introduced a second course—“Chemistry and Art.”

Jeter relates how students frequently approach him halfway through the class, saying things like, “I never thought that I liked science, but this really isn’t too bad.”

Many of his students say that he treats the class as a process of mutual learning and exchanging of new discoveries and ideas, that he doesn’t view himself as an undisputed expert.

Jeter remains an inorganic chemist, a man who humbly admits, “I’m still learning—the class should be getting better as it goes on,” while he frequently mentions the added benefits the class receives from the presence of art and art history majors. “I am not attempting to highlight the aesthetics—I’m taking it from a materials point of view. The science kind of sneaks up on them,” Jeter notes, explaining that the class focuses on the structure of art and archaeology, or as he puts it, “It is not science for science’s sake.”

Jeter teaches the archaeology section in fall and the art section during spring semester. The lab is held on a Friday afternoon, and for Jeter, there’s no place else he’d rather be.

“We have a good time. It’s nice to have 24 nonscience majors content to be in the lab on a Friday afternoon. We’re all learning something.”

The students truly seem to enjoy the lab section of the class, where they make their own hieroglyphs, examine the composition of Roman coins and create pottery.

On the first Friday lab, Jeter presents each student with a stone, chisel and a picture of a hieroglyph. The students are instructed to replicate the hieroglyph to illustrate how “easy” it is, while also learning to appreciate ancient art forms in a whole new way. He notes that the students chisel away at their stones until he can’t take the noise anymore, at which point, class is dismissed for the day. 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.

Jeter’s favorite work of art thus far is the Portland Vase, a Roman glass creation of the first century BCE with an intense blue hue and detailed cameo.

“The color is just the result of adding a chemical compound to the glass,” Jeter begins to explain, while pausing with a slight smile, “but it does add up to a beautiful vase doesn’t it?”

Finding Fletcher: Jennifer Brady

Professor Jennifer Brady, whose specialty is 17th-century English literature, has developed an innovative course about a playwright whose work is drawing renewed attention, both in scholarship and in the theater. In Brady’s junior seminar, “John Fletcher: The Case for Collaborative Authorship,” students read the works of a prolific playwright unfamiliar to many.

The course revolves around a major dramatist of the early 1600s who wrote or co-authored more than 50 plays. In fact, Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as the principal dramatist for the King’s Men company of actors. Fletcher’s dramas were wildly popular during the Renaissance and underwent their own renaissance during the Restoration, when they were revived and staged far more frequently than those of Ben Jonson, or even Shakespeare. Fletcher co-wrote plays with some of the most well-known playwrights of the period, including Shakespeare, Philip Massinger and Francis Beaumont. During his lifetime, such collaboration between writers was the norm, yet Fletcher’s sheer number of co-authored works shows an unusually marked preference on his part for collaborative writing over solo authorship, which Jonson so vigorously practiced and promoted.

One of Fletcher’s most popular plays today is “The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed.” This feminist sequel to Shakespeare’s chauvinist comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” turns the tables on the wife-tamer, Petruchio, who learns to value “due equality” in his second marriage. Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s plays nowadays are often staged in tandem. While Fletcher was the solo author of “The Tamer Tamed,” the play enters another mode of collaboration through its close patterning of key speeches alluding to Shakespeare’s earlier comedy.

Few of Fletcher’s plays are currently anthologized or performed. Brady thus views this seminar as an opportunity to introduce Rhodes English students to a substantial body of work by an important yet undervalued playwright.

She recalls, “When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto I never read Fletcher. This is a course that I would love to have taken. It’s also an ideal course for anyone considering graduate school who is interested in early modern drama.”

So how does Brady make the writings of a relatively unknown playwright from a distant era an engaging topic for her students?

Natalie Mayo, a junior English major, observes, “The class is unique: We are fortunate to be perhaps the only institution in the country that offers a class focused on the works of John Fletcher. While often overshadowed by Shakespeare, Fletcher was just as prolific. Professor Brady encourages her students to dive into Fletcher’s works.”

But even more important than the unusual topic is the professor’s palpable enthusiasm for the class.

As Mayo says, “The class discussions really highlight Fletcher’s talent, but also reveal Professor Brady’s passion for teaching. You can tell she loves introducing students to new literature.”

Brady describes Fletcher’s material as “an accessible kind of drama—less densely imagistic than Shakespeare’s, as intricately plotted as Jonson’s, but far easier to read. It lends itself to feminist and colonialist readings. Fletcher is probably the only overtly feminist playwright of his time—he takes an egalitarian approach to human relations.”

Brady views the class as a chance to expose students to Renaissance drama other than Shakespeare’s, while also giving them the opportunity to explore more fully the practice of collaborative writing.

Fletcher captivates many readers through the strangeness of his dramatic situations and the unexpected, often outrageous humor woven into his plays.

Brady admits, “This is fun material—and I rarely tell students that a course is fun! But there is just something marvelous about engaging with a select body of work that you have never read before, and that no one else really knows about.”

Several students in the course confirm her sentiment.

Senior English major Stephanie Wilkinson says, “Even though it’s in the morning, the John Fletcher class is both fun and engaging. Professor Brady highly encourages class participation and is always appreciative and affirming of every response, even if it’s not exactly correct. She has a way of presenting information in a precise and succinct manner that helps you better realize a different interpretation.”

Brady credits her professors at both the University of Toronto and Princeton for stimulating her interest in Renaissance and Restoration literature—an interest which she in turn continues to engender in her Rhodes students by teaching beguiling figures such as John Fletcher.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words: David McCarthy

Last fall’s course listings contained an unusual item: Art 365: Photos of the Memphis World, a seminar on the history of photography designed to give students a unique opportunity to research and write for publication. In summer 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 from the late 1940s through the mid 1960s. Students were to date the images and attempt to identify, locate and interview the photographers and people in the photographs. Their oral histories would become part of the digital Crossroads to Freedom project hosted by Rhodes. Students would also write text and essays for the exhibition catalogue. Organized by Brooks, the exhibition would be held jointly at the museum and at Rhodes’ Clough-Hanson Gallery in fall 2008.

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

Why this?

The saga began when Brooks purchased the photos. Since McCarthy is married to the museum’s chief curator, Marina Pacini, he got an early inside look at the collection and was immediately excited by the potential for a class. In fact, McCarthy was so enthused about this unique opportunity that he made a personal contribution to the museum specifically for the purchase of the photos. Most of the research for the class took place off campus. Primary sources were the Memphis Room in the Benjamin Hooks Public Library and the University of Memphis library. Wayne Dowdy, a historian at the public library, guided the class to particular archives and essential sources to help uncover the past represented in the Memphis World.

McCarthy carefully selected students to partner with him on the Memphis World project.

“It was a class by application, and this necessarily cut down on the enrollment,” he states in the matter-of-fact manner that his students have come to know and love.

Each student submitted a writing sample and a statement of purpose that outlined their interest in the project. McCarthy let his students know from the start that this class would be time-consuming, challenging, but very gratifying.

Not only would the students’ work be in print, but it would be in print alongside the work of Rhodes vice president for college relations, Russell Wigginton, Pacini and McCarthy himself, as well as Deborah Willis of New York University, who is considered the foremost authority on black American photography.

“It was a truly collaborative project,” McCarthy states. “I was working alongside the students.”

It was a small group—three 2007 Rhodes Summer Institute for Regional Studies fellows and 12 students in the fall seminar. Each received six photos with which to work. The students were divided into four teams that shared their findings with the rest of the class. McCarthy edited the drafts word-by-word in order to ensure a cohesive final product.

“The class had to address and air its own prejudices and assumptions about the people and the events of the ’50s and ’60s,” notes McCarthy, “It’s amazing how frequently assumptions are incorrect. Take for example, a photo of black sorority women, hosting and participating in a fashion show. It might seem trivial, even frivolous at first, and easy to dismiss,” states McCarthy, “but actually, these sororities were unlike what we typically think of as a sorority today. These were organizations for educated women that continued after schooling. And these sorority women were doing a fashion show, with the proceeds going to a religious organization, which in turn went to civil rights activism, which brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to speak. The funding came, at least in part, from these sorority women.”

One student reports that she found the class “a lot of work but so exciting when you make a breakthrough, when you track down someone in a photograph who was hard to identify and even harder to find.”

McCarthy offers sage advice about the sometimes tedious process of compiling oral histories and his effort to capture community voices.

“You must be patient enough to learn; the past can be opened up to you in this marvelous and unanticipated way if you are willing simply to listen. You have to earn the right to hear someone’s history.”

When discussing the Memphis World project, McCarthy emphasizes the students’ responsibility for accurately representing those portrayed, without bias or judgment , noting that photographs differ from other types of art in that they depict a specific moment.

McCarthy notes, “What we ultimately hoped to accomplish was to bring these photographs forward in the exhibition and catalogue so they would be available to everyone in Memphis and to anyone who would like to know more about Memphis,” the art historian states. “We hope that this project will put some of these people in the history books, that scholars will pick this up.”

So what’s next for McCarthy? He is currently planning a writing-intensive class for spring 2010 that will focus on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” The class will investigate the production, reception and history of the mural while also studying war protests in the fine arts.

“It’s a very timely topic,” says McCarthy.

He plans to petition for the class also to count as a history credit and carry the Foundation Requirement of a writing-intensive course.

“In the end, all we have is what we write,” he says.

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