Graduate College

Nancy Serwint

Associate Professor, Art, School of Art, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

 

I began my teaching career in 1987 in the School of Art at Arizona State University, and it is sobering to realize that 30 years have passed since I first entered a classroom as a timid lecturer just out of graduate school.  The utter gratefulness of having a teaching position and the nervous anxiety of stepping into the classroom with an assigned 4/4 teaching load did not allow then for an initial introspection of how to be an effective educator.  That reflection developed over time by assessing what worked and what didn’t, what captured student interest and what stunted inquiry, what brought enthusiasm into a 7:30 am lecture on Egyptian tomb sculpture and what produced lethargy and dullness.  Trial and error, to be sure, but what was a constant was my resolute certainty that I was one of the fortunate ones – I had been gifted with an imagination, a yearning to explore, and a desire to know more.  As I think back, I am also quite sure that excellence was never expected of me.  I came from the west side of Chicago, born into a family that valued hard work and honesty but not necessarily intellectual achievement. The desire to transport myself into a world of ideas that was grounded in antiquity was all the doing of a magnificent high school Latin teacher who showed me that intelligence was a precious gift and the desire to excel a valuable aspiration. My own academic trajectory was rooted first in ancient languages, then the art of Greece and Rome, and ultimately the discipline of classical archaeology.  The route took me to the heady stimulation of the University of Chicago and Princeton.  I never forgot from where I came, and I remember quite distinctly that I had one day vowed that if ever I were fortunate enough to teach that I would make the world open up for my students as my high school teacher had done for me.  Achievement was possible and having the support of someone who believed in me had made all the difference.

 

I know for a surety that my teaching philosophy is based on an enthusiasm for what I study that has not dimmed over the course of a long career.  Knowledge should bring pleasure, and my students expect that understanding the details of how an Attic black figure vase was crafted leaves them wanting more.  Learning is infectious; facts are fun; and asking questions is one of the most important things an engaged student can accomplish.  This is especially true for graduate students.  Advanced study is grueling; the finish line for completion is a retreating goal; and an initial passion can be stunted by the boring ache of minutiae.  Engagement with students is critical at many phases but nothing is more significant than reminding students that the solitariness of research brings results, that knowing how to think is perhaps more important than knowing facts, and that hard work always is an ingredient for success.  Expectations of quality work from my students is born from my desire to see them advance, and they know that mastery of the discipline makes them academically competitive and will ultimately open doors.

 

My own work as a field archaeologist and the opportunities that I have had for research and study outside of the classroom have allowed me to offer experiences to my graduate students that go beyond the university environment.  As co-director of the Princeton University Cyprus Expedition, every summer now for three decades, students have accompanied me and have served as staff on the excavation.  The site of ancient Marion was one of the city kingdoms of Cyprus in antiquity, and graduate students have been involved in the excavation of the site and the research analysis of the over 30,000 fragments of votive sculpture that have been recovered from the city’s ancient sanctuaries.  Aspects of the material culture have fueled dissertation and thesis projects, and the procedures for analysis of clay and worked stone learned at our site have advanced the research protocols for several doctoral students.  During the 1990s, I was the director of a foreign archaeological research institute in Cyprus (the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute), and since then several of my graduate students have received research stipends and fellowship awards from the institute to advance their dissertation research.  My previous study and association as a fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens has led to students participating in the rigorous archaeology program and advancing their own graduate research as associate members of the School.  Longstanding work on the coroplastic arts of ancient Cyprus has allowed me to collaborate and interact with international scholars at professional and academic colloquia and symposia.  I am proud that several of my doctoral students, who have studied with me, have been selected to offer academic papers at some of the most prestigious venues in the field of classical and Near Eastern archaeology that have included the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the University of Haifa. 

 

As I look back over a long career that has been quite extraordinary, what heartens me the most have been the accomplishments of my students.  As a young girl, I had yearned to advance beyond what was average, and mediocrity was never a goal I envisioned for anyone who stepped into my classroom.  Exploring a world removed in time and place was what I had committed myself to many years back, and the pleasure of academic inquiry and professional excellence was the inheritance I wanted my students to embrace.  I often tell my students that while facing the most sober realities, they should always follow what makes their heart sing.  If their choice is the ancient world, then I am prepared to help them orchestrate a symphony.  The most precious moment I have experienced as a graduate mentor occurred just two years ago.  One of my doctoral students was delivering a paper on a very complicated subject at a conference on Near Eastern archaeology.  The audience was filled with some of the most distinguished scholars in the field, and at the conclusion of her presentation, the audience burst into applause.  I wept.