Leading Seminars in New Haven

by Mary E. Miller

The national seminar on "Maps and Mapmaking," July 2007. (Clockwise from bottom left: National Fellows Ann Marie Esposito, New Castle County; Stephanie R Wicks, Philadelphia; Janelle A. Price and Sheila Lorraine Carter-Jones, Pittsburgh; Meredith Charlton Tilp, Santa Fe; Kimberly Turner, Richmond; Elizabeth R. Lasure, Charlotte; Ralph E. Russo, New Haven; Mayra Muller-Schmidt, Houston; and seminar leader Mary E. Miller.)

An art historian and archaeologist by trade, I rarely teach written texts per se. My primary texts have always been the works of art, and I've often assumed I need pictures on the screen or works in front of us when I lead a seminar. But one of things I've found so liberating about participating in the Teachers Institute is the way that an Institute seminar lets me cut across disciplinary boundaries, especially in working with the period of the Spanish invasion of Mexico. In 2005, I began our national seminar, "Art and Identity in Mexico, from Olmec Times to the Present," with We People Here, a recent translation by James Lockhart of many indigenous texts from the era of the Spanish invasion of Mexico that began in 1519. We People Here opens a window onto both the deeper past and what would become the future-the colonial and modern periods. It's also a rare collection of works by a defeated people, if we succumb to the commonplace notion that "history is the story of the victors." Most of the texts in the book were written down in the second half of the 16th century, and they are little more than brilliant shards of what must have been a vast written and oral narrative of indigenous peoples all across Mexico, as they wrote--often in the new alphabet of the invaders--prose and poetry that both explicated the transformation and predicted it, while also conjuring a picture of a new world occupied jointly by Spaniard and native.

We juxtaposed these texts with narratives from the Spanish invaders, most notably that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who wrote a fast-paced narrative late in his life that told of conquest, betrayal, heroism, and simply old-soldier wisdom. We read Bernal Diaz's observations and speculations about the battle-hardiness of soldiers who had been through months of grinding battles, as he speculated on the problem of new recruits (a few ships arrived from Jamaica and Cuba with men, horses, and arms in the 2-year course of the invasion), and the likelihood that they would fall in battle; we read this just as the New York Times wrote about soldiers in Iraq, and the heightened vulnerability to the enemy's fire for new arrivals. How could one compare such different wars across such a cavern of time? Was it possible that Bernal Diaz wrote words of wisdom applicable today?

The opportunity to teach texts as texts has been invaluable for me, and I intend to apply what I've learned in the Teachers Institute to the next freshman seminar I teach for Yale College, when I'll tackle the Aztecs in a format that bears some relationship to that of an Institute seminar. The freshman seminar program at Yale, like the Institute, also frees faculty from conventional disciplinary bounds, so that I can, indeed, plan to read texts for the first two weeks, without worrying about whether the seminar conforms to traditional notions of art history. Every time I've led an Institute seminar, I find that I look forward to taking what I've tried out in the Institute into college classroom--and I'm sure I'm not the first Yale faculty member to say that I've worked this way.

But it's not just the type of material--say, texts versus art: it's the very sort of art itself. During the academic term, my classes for Yale students stay focused on the prehispanic past of the New World, with occasional forays into the first one hundred years of Spanish rule. But in my Institute seminar on Mexico, I worked with materials I'm less sure of--for example, 18th century portrayals of what were called castas paintings, in which gradations of race and class were anxiously deployed in sets of 16 or more paintings. We went to the Knights of Columbus Museum here in New Haven to think about the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe not just in Mexican religious practice but also in 18th century nationalism. To think about the role of muralism in the United States--and we know that the WPA mural projects received an intellectual charge from the pre-existing programs in Mexico--we planned visits to mural projects at New Haven sites, typical of the 1930s murals that can be found nationwide. I've relished being pushed out of my own comfort zone by the sorts of projects that spin out from the center in a national seminar.

As a master of one of Yale's residential colleges, I have the genuine pleasure of getting to know undergraduate students outside the classroom in ways that few of my colleagues may experience. I find it particularly gratifying to learn what undergraduates in fields far from my own are doing while we sit in the dining hall together, day in, day out, over the term, and to spend time with students who might not take a course in the humanities beyond those required for graduation. I think one of the aspects that appeals to me about the National Initiative is the way that Fellows spend time together in ways that are like those of college students, and I've enjoyed my time at meals, in the museums, and just chatting. I've come to feel particularly close to the National Fellows, and I know more about their classrooms and their own goals for life than I could in a regular, term-time city-based seminar. In this respect, I've found work in the National Initiative especially rewarding.

Mary E. Miller is Dean of Yale College.