Three paths of a history major with a passion for art history

Judith Hathaway Oliver ‘69

Judith Hathaway with her students

Judith Hathaway Oliver '69 Phd, Art and Art History Professor

Major: History 

Advanced Degrees: MA, Johns Hopkins, 1971; PhD, Columbia University, 1976

Employer: Colgate University, faculty profile

Describe your current occupation. Until this past year, I taught full time at an undergraduate college. A typical day would consist of giving lectures on the history of art and architecture in ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, or the northern Renaissance with slides in the art history department, or teaching the “core culture” section on western traditions (a great books course covering some Bible books, Homer, Plato, Virgil/Lucretius/and or Ovid, and a week showing my classes Chartres Cathedral).

Beyond class time, undergraduate teaching involves many hours of one on one discussions with students, guiding senior thesis work, ordering images to use in class and books to add to the library, organizing field trips and guest speakers, collaborating with the university museum to use its works, and with the rare books librarian to bring out some of their treasures, and working on department business (new hires, promotion and tenure decisions, curricular revisions) and university-wide service on a myriad of committees. These involve everything from campus planning (parking, new buildings), to student judicial board, choosing honorees at commencement, library advisory board, faculty affairs, admissions advisory board, et al - the list is long and service changes every year or so. In my free time, I worked on my own research projects for publication.

How did you get from graduating at MHC to where you are now? I have always had a passion for history and I focused on early modern Europe while at Holyoke, writing a senior paper on King Edward IV of England and a Pre-Tudor Renaissance under Prof. Norma Adams. I also enjoyed the art history classes I took, and decided to go into art history in graduate school as a wonderful way to combine history and cultural artifacts. In essence I am a cultural historian who specializes in medieval manuscripts, and my work has always had a strong focus on the historical context in which these works were created, the meanings of their images and their relations to the texts.

I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins for my masters and then followed my advisor Robert Branner back to Columbia University for my Ph.D. The highlight of my postgraduate work was definitely getting to live in Belgium for a year travelling widely in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands to look at manuscripts (and visiting every museum and church I encountered).

My first full-time position was as an assistant curator at the Walters Art Museum, where I spent nearly four years studying their huge collection of medieval manuscripts to contribute to a catalog raisonne in multiple volumes. I also had the great enjoyment of mounting small exhibitions and working on larger ones. I then went into teaching, first at Boston University for four years where I taught graduate as well as undergraduate students, and then at Colgate University where I have spent most of my career. I feel fortunate to have savored three different paths that an art history degree might lead to.

Are there things you know now that would have made the path from your history major to where you are now smoother? Shifting from being a student to standing in front of the class and organizing the whole course is quite a daunting moment. I think any experience you can acquire in teaching and advising younger students will stand you in good stead. Graduate school has also gotten a lot more professionalized since I attended - with publications coming directly out of these years of course work, so the sooner your undergraduate work reaches a sophisticated graduate student level, the better.

Also, learn as many foreign languages as you can - the better your reading knowledge, the easier your research life will be. French and German are essential for European history or art history, Latin for medieval studies, Italian for the Renaissance, and of course depending on what area interests you other languages may be even more essential. You will definitely need several!

What advice would you give a Mount Holyoke history major who wants to be where you are now? Interdisciplinarity is really essential today. History, art history, literature, the history of science, philosophy and religion all interrelate, and wind up being useful for various classes or research projects you get involved in. So take a variety of classes - don’t get too narrowly focused!

Theoretical analysis has become of central importance - this is something I didn’t have to contend with until the last decade or so. Don’t let it consume you, however - jargon-free, articulate and eloquent prose is still highly prized and your first obligation is to communicate with beginning students and the larger world as a public intellectual. History incorporates all past human activity and is essential for figuring out how we got to where we are. So majoring in history should certainly be of great value as preparation for life going forward no matter what path you decide to pursue.