Saturday, January 9, 2010

Finishing the Terminal Degree

When I returned to Berkeley after two years in Greece and some travel elsewhere in Europe for my dissertation, I had a teaching assistantship and space for an office to work in and the use of the art history photographic darkroom, chemicals included. Besides, there were development machines that also fixed them through a second system of rollers (resembling those in clothes wringers on old washing machines); the rollers took the exposed paper through closed pans of chemicals. It was widely suspected that these systems' products would fade more quickly, but I must report that they haven't. I had only to wash them and put them through the dryer, which produced glossy prints without the messy use of squeegies and ferrotype plates. This enabled my buying paper in several grades by boxes of 100 sheets. For the trade-off was that no fiddling in the trays was possible; the exposure had to be correct and on the right paper in the first place. This system made sense for a darkroom with limited space and no means of controlling water temperature very well to be used by a number of persons. It only required using a limited amount of paper in strips to determine the exposure under the enlarger and acquiring skill in dodging for nearly burned out areas and burning in for barely exposed on the negatives, where, for example, a statue was situated right by a window. It was not as if the kind of photography I'd had to do permitted any real use of zone systems, and my light meter was not, say, a Weston V. It was called a Leica 3 and fit in the shoe on top of the camera. Again, a trade off, good for travel away from cities: the Contaflex Alpha and the later (1965) Nikon F did not eat batteries like candy; the former used none at all. Speaking of Leica, I'd rather have had one of the original little classic Leicas, whose rather wide-angle 35mm lens pulled out, which was a rangefinder camera, but that great and simple little camera was already hard to get, and so I hadn't been able to find one when I needed it. It combined the virtue of a Model T Ford (simplicity) with a great lens.
I may have given the impression that I liked the photography for my dissertation on women's headdress on Attic red-figure vases much better than all the classification and checking of innumerable inventory numbers, volume numbers, page and plate numbers, and conformity with style sheets, not to mention typing on a mechanical L C Smith with three carbons required; well, what do you think? But I still didn't need glasses, and by typing very deliberately all weekend, every weekend I got it done.
I did not have a very good attitude toward the dissertation. It awoke the latent feminism in me. I thought, and I still think, it was the sort of thing that girls might be expected to do, and my proposals for two other subjects had been nipped in the bud. I did learn that nothing very useful could be derived from the work I did, the kind of negative result that is indeed valuable per se, but then the committee, like me, only in principle respected valuable negative results. I still, also, resent knowing that my mentors thought that I should respect the expectation that a scholar nearer their own age was engaged with the vase painting that I wanted to understand better by giving it two years' undivided attention, to get beyond connoisseurship for its own sake. And he never did complete real monograph on these vase-paintings, let alone what I'd wanted to do. Prudence is good, especially for a candidate that MUST get a degree before exhausting the gravy train, and a tenure track position on schedule, but prudence is a bitter pill to swallow when you have a dream. In addition, by finishing as expected, I could not wait for the new (1962) edition of Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, and all the page and list references had to be to the 1942 edition. I appreciate what I did learn, a great deal, by studying the vases with good representations of women's headgear in Athens, for I spent two years looking a the images, and even knowing the headgear for different groups and generations can be useful, but the study itself is of the kind that I despise (rightly or wrongly), and I have never been tempted to update it.
So that's that. Does anyone really like dissertations done under duress?
Giving me office space better than one often has as a young professor, giving me the darkroom access, giving me more experience as a teaching assistant, allowing me, too, where I had good knowledge of a particular topic, to lecture to upper division courses (and letting them see that I could do it, and keep my slides in order, and lecture without reading any of it), Berkeley did very generously prepare me for the next stage of my life. It was a good year. And during the summer session, they hired me to teach the survey of ancient art, to tide me over and give me whole responsibility for a large class.
I got an apartment for one year in the basement of what had been an elementary school near my old address on Haste Street. I got a cat from the SPCA, a black female. There was still no mid- to late-sixties street activism; Telegraph Avenue already had its espresso shops but no 'head' shops. I did not realize yet how little a smaller university city might offer of the book shops and music shops and eateries that Berkeley had, but I did enjoy my last year as a student fully. In the Spring of 1962 I got a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon at Eugene. Not only was it still the old system of hiring by the grapevine, within the network of one's mentors' acquaintances, but it was still a seller's market: there were positions, full-time and often, as in my case, tenure-track for persons with good transcripts, dissertations finished on schedule, from good universities, and a couple of publications. I think that I always have been lucky, and I always have had true friends. In this posting I have outed the only frustration I ever met with, the matter of a dissertation I did not believe in. It was not that I thought I was too good for it (for the years at the ASCSA had cured me of really comical pride) but that I thought that, as framed, it wasn't really worth anyone's time. I remember that the defense of the dissertation went well, but I don't recall much discussion of the diss. itself. The committee was interesting and interested in the vase-paintings, and they were professors whom I loved dearly. At the end I was invited to call them by their first names (it took me some time actually to do so). I still cannot be quite comfortable with nicknames between professors and students. The small formality prevents all sorts of little difficulties from becoming personal and facilitates both teaching and being taught.