Mentor

George and Linda Bauer

Thanksgiving season always reminds me of teachers; this time, it reminds me of one in particular.

As a child, I was such a pedagogy nerd that I kept a list of all my teachers, from kindergarten onward, to better track my developing thoughts about them and about the task of teaching. I did this, from an early age, with the idea that if I ever became a teacher, I'd emulate the better ones and avoid the benighted blunders of the worse.  While rummaging through boxes not long ago, I came across a version of that list, and as I revisited those memories one name stood out. I was blessed to enjoy many excellent teachers along the way, but only one was a life-altering, lastingly consequential mentor: Linda Freeman Bauer.

When I started as an undergrad, I was precocious, intellectually promiscuous, and intensely curious, but I was also rough around the edges, too often inconsiderate, and entirely without direction– a contradictory product of my chaotic upbringing. Having received exactly zero guidance in high school, I nearly skipped college, as my forebears had done. Nudged in the right direction at the last minute, I finally applied to exactly one. When the day came, I traveled there on a bus and arrived, suitcase in hand, with no room in the dorms, no money, and nowhere to sleep that night. But once there and settled, I was delighted by the opportunities and gorged myself at the intellectual buffet. I sampled this, returned for some of that, and left those to be taken away as I sought a fresh plate. However, I had no particular goal in mind, and so it was seemingly by good fortune that I landed in one of Linda's classes. One term, I discovered that there was such a thing as art history, and the next term I was drawn into her orbit by the allure of a spectacular word: "Rembrandt".

Linda taught semi-socratically with the genuine, unironic expectation that students had read and digested the assigned text. This was usually one of those Pelican Art History tomes about the size and weight of a wide paver, and her expectations arose from her own detailed and conscientious mastery of all the material. In a typical class session, she would explain some of the relevant historical context and then push us to engage, complete, or question what she had said. Then she would show us an artwork, draw us into the act of intentional looking by means of a deft ekphrasis or a connoisseurial quote, and then goad us into owning our ideas and language as we tried to rise to her interpretive example and prompts. We would go through that cycle several times, which required a nimble flipping from historical to pictorial details as we sought or evaluated connections between the two. I enjoyed the intensity of the challenge, and I was startled by Linda's respect for responsible autonomy of thought.

My problem then was that I was pretty good at the "autonomous thought" part but not so hot at the "responsible" part. Sometimes I excelled; sometimes, I slacked off. Self-indulgent to a fault in those days, I cared about the subject matter but felt cynical about systems and institutions. So one week, I'd write a solid paper; the next, I'd blow off an assignment. In response, Linda did her job; she rewarded the good and brutally marked down the inadequate (or invisible). But she also took me aside and bluntly characterized my strengths and weaknesses with a precision and rigor that were new to me. She imposed professional expectations on me– standards to which I had not really been exposed until then, and which I had to learn to value. Somehow, she managed to do this without a smidgen of negativity or insult. Linda was often overtly encouraging, but her inimitable blend of composure, good cheer, and matter-of-fact analysis was inherently encouraging even when her words conveyed more censure than sentiment. She seemed to care in greater-than-expected measure. For some reason that worked to my lasting benefit, Linda Bauer found me unformed and did more than her part to form me.

I took five courses with Linda, planning my schedule around her offerings. (One of these was a guided independent study in which she was absurdly generous with her time and resources and endlessly patient with my digressions.) Her lectures were richly entertaining (and substantial, and accurate– virtues not always in play with other lecturers), and we often pursued issues in greater depth during the afterchat or her office hours. As a matter of education and personal development, all of this added up to more than the sum of its parts– and the sum of its parts was already pretty hefty. How can I summarize what Linda did for me?

Until my first course with Linda, I had only been to one art museum, the destination of a primary school field trip. She took us to the Getty (when it was all in Malibu) and showed us how not to rush through a museum, how to extract the perimeter of plausible meanings from the trace of an artist's touch, and how to translate such thoughts into theses. For her, I wrote my first art historical essay there, standing before a Dutch still-life.

She taught me that skilled use of tools of the trade matters. Knowing that I had a knack for connoisseurship, she pressed me to blend intuition and rational assessment more deliberately, with greater discipline, and with appropriate caution. When I couldn't afford photocopies of articles, she made them for me. When I couldn't order needed books through interlibrary loan, she summoned them through the magic of her faculty privileges. Knowing that I was a language nerd, she informed me of the expectations Wolfgang Stechow had imposed on her and her colleagues at Oberlin: you're responsible for the relevant source material, no matter what language it's in. Knowing that I was fiddling with Italian material but hadn't formally studied Italian, she'd sometimes throw an Italian word my way to see if I could understand it via cognates. (Once, the word was carciofo; I didn't figure it out but appreciated its relevance to our Caravaggio studies.)

She taught me that in a humanistic discipline with a material, evidential aspect, methodological sophistication requires balance and judgment. Knowing I was deeply attracted to the complexities and cleverness of critical theory, she encouraged that study but taught me to remain answerable to the object, the artifact, in all its physical and contextual detail. She demonstrated how to distinguish and assess different kinds of evidence, and helped me to find the places where the poetry of interpretation and the prose of empirical description fruitfully converge.

Linda unfolded before me this world she knew– the scholars, their personalities, their labors– and when she saw that the spark was lighting a fire in me, she tended it with care. She taught me that a negative critique of the work of others is the easy part, and that creating something of value that satisfies that same standard of criticism is the hard part. She taught me, by example, to be generous and collegial, rigorous but not pedantic, open and exploratory but not unduly susceptible to academic fads. She taught me that it's sometimes right to withhold an opinion, to change one's mind, to pick battles, to go slowly, and to let an argument gestate. She taught me to focus, to narrow the scope, and to weigh the alternatives… and then to take a stand.

All these lessons and more she taught me, and they're not just about art-historical methodology and scholarship. They're about life. And, again by example, Linda taught me that a teacher's students are not just about topical pedagogy; they, and pedagogy, are about life.

Thank you, Linda– you were not just Mentor to me, but Athena.

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