What I Learned About Reinvention in Art History Class
Back in college, I thought art history was stupid and pointless. It seemed to me any of us can look at some work of art and think anything we want about it, so why does one person have to be right and the rest of us wrong. I also didn’t see any value to the subject much less taking courses on it. Back then, this was how I saw art and the study of art history. However, I wanted to be able to say that I at least tried it in case anyone ever challenged my opinion. To make that possible, I enrolled in an art history course while at Penn State University.
I went to class every day, listened in on the lectures, and took notes. When I got back my first test, I received a scored a 53 out of 100 – not good. Immediately, I reconsidered my reason for taking this course and decided it was not worth hurting my GPA to make my point that art history sucked. Failing my first test was enough proof that art history sucked!
I booked a meeting with the professor to discuss dropping the course.
Little did I know that my life was about to change forever.
I met with Professor Houghton and explained to her that I scored a 53 and this wasn’t going to work out. She asked about my interests, other classes, and what inspired me to enroll in her class. To my surprise, we had a great conversation and she even told me a little about her career. After one hour, she said, “I’ll approve your drop request, however, I have a better offer.”
Professor Houghton pitched me on why I should give this class another chance. She said that she believed I could be a great art history student because I brought a unique perspective and set of skills to the subject.
She explained that in art history one of the activities they perform is to compare and contrast works of art. She felt that given my interest and passion for math I could bring a more analytical approach to that process. I never considered that my math experience and interest could serve me in art history. Professor Houghton argued that my math skills would be an invaluable asset in art history and that I’ll be better positioned to ask great questions and challenge artwork in different ways. The opportunity to contribute to the subject and the course, even if I was a beginner, inspired me to rethink dropping the course.
She argued there was a special opportunity for me to add value to her community and maybe in the process for me to learn something new.
This was her offer to me…
- Once a week I was going to meet with her so that she could review my notes and teach me how to take notes properly in an art history course. After she reviewed my notes in that first meeting, it was clear I needed help with this!
- Once a week, I was going to meet her to discuss the topics of that week’s lectures. This was essentially a chance to sit down with a real life art historian and talk about art history. I didn’t realize how awesome and fortunate I was for this weekly session until after I graduated.
- I was going to turn in each paper one week before it was due so that it could be reviewed by her teaching assistant. This would be returned to me with lots of markups and feedback so that I could fix them and submit the revised paper by the due date. This essentially meant my paper’s due dates were always one week before everyone else.
- From time to time, she shared bonus readings that she felt would be of interest to me so that I could go deeper on the topics and artists that I was most interested in (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Van Eyck, Bernini, etc.). To this day, I’m still blown away by the incredible detail in Bernini’s Pluto and Prosperina!
- Lastly, if by the final deadline to drop the course I was not trending in the right direction, she would help me drop the course.
This was an offer I couldn’t refuse! I agreed to stay in her class and worked to get my grade up and finish with at least a 90 average (this was my target). She told me it was still mathematically possible to finish the course with in the high 80s and maybe even a 90 (A-).
So we went to work on the plan and while I did not know it at the time, my life would never be the same again.
Professor Houghton taught me so much more than I had ever expected or asked for. I walked into her course looking to confirm my dislike for art history and instead I walked away with a new passion and love for art. Plus, a few key lessons that inspired my journey to reinvention.
Inspiration is Often Waiting Where You Least Expect It
Thanks to Professor Houghton, I was inspired to learn more about art history. While at Penn State University, I enrolled in three more art history courses, none of which were even necessary to graduate. She connected me with her colleagues and helped me pick out those courses.
Up until graduation, I always stopped by to visit Professor Houghton and update her on my evolving relationship with art history. Thanks to her, I chose to study abroad in Rome, Italy so that I could explore most of my favorite artwork in person. While in Rome, I even enrolled in a course on sculpting and explored my own artistic side.
I never expected to find such inspiration by taking an art history course. Professor Houghton changed my life forever when she introduced me to her passion. I’m still in a relationship with art history today. She opened a new door for me that allowed me to become a part of this world.
Reinvention Doesn’t Start From Scratch
We always have a skill, perspective, or approach that we can apply to start strong in a new field. I applied this powerful lesson when I embarked on my first reinvention in 2008. Empowered by this empowering belief, I looked for every skill, perspective, or experience I could bring into each reinvention. I never started from scratch again.
This powerful lesson gave me permission to enter new communities and fields of interest. In fact, one of those communities was the art gallery scene in St. Louis. Early on my journey to reinvention, I looked for new people to connect with. One day I walked into a local art gallery to look around and talk to the people there. I met an incredible woman, Nancy, the manager, who happened to remind me so much of Professor Houghton. Nancy helped me connect with so many incredible people and became a mentor to me. I spent countless hours at the gallery, telling her about anything and everything going on in my life during those first couple of reinventions.
The Keys to New Possibilities Are Held by People You Don’t Know Today
After graduation, Professor Houghton mailed me a copy of her latest published article in an art history journal (I still have this!). She asked me to read it ahead of my next visit to campus so that I could give her my feedback in person. I was shocked that she wanted my feedback, but then again, it was Professor Houghton who told me I had a unique perspective. We sat down at a local diner near campus and I shared my notes on the article with her. I couldn’t believe it, there I was, sharing my notes with an experienced and published art historian and she was listening carefully to my feedback. After I was done, she looked up and said, “of all the peer reviews I received, you picked up on things no one else did. See, you have your own way of looking at things.”
Thanks to Professor Houghton, I learned that if I want to pursue new fields and open new doors, I need to connect with people I don’t know today. By knocking on the door of a new world, I met Professor Houghton and Nancy. These two women not only answered the door, they also invited me in and showed me around. They introduced me to new ideas, people, perspectives, and a new life-long passion.
As I continue to walk my journey to reinvention and knock on the door of my next reinvention, I am reminded that I need to keep an eye open for the next Professor Houghton and Nancy.