KCC Faculty on Teaching
Q & A with Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D | ART HISTORY
How did you get into teaching?
Art history is a field with several possible job tracks, including working in a museum as a curator or educator; working in an auction house or gallery in research or sales; and teaching at a high school, college, or a large university. I held two wonderful internships, one at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and another at the Dahesh Museum, and these were great experiences! But a lot of what is done at museums is “behind-the-scenes,” and one usually has an indirect relationship with the public for whom they are creating the exhibitions. Teaching allows me to work directly with the public, that is, students interested in learning about art directly with a specialist. There is a greater sense of engagement with the subject and with a community of like-minded individuals in an academic setting. My first teaching job was at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice; they needed a part-time professor to teach an introductory art history course at the last minute, and I was eager to have my own class of students. I was hired on a Thursday, and the class began the following Monday! I found my passion for art history teaching there. I later taught at many other CUNY colleges (York College, Queens College, City College, Bronx Community College, College of Staten Island) and private colleges (Parsons School of Design) before arriving at Kingsborough for my full-time position in 2005.
What career did you imagine for yourself when you were in college?
I had no idea what an art historian was when I first entered CUNY Brooklyn College in 1989. My parents convinced me that I should study accounting. It’s hard to believe now, but my major for my first academic year was corporate taxation! It’s an important field, but it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t interested in it enough to really do well in my classes. At that time, Brooklyn College had a core curriculum program that required all students to take a group of about a dozen courses that touched on a variety of general education subjects, and art history was one of those. I absolutely loved the art history course I had taken as part of the core. I was greatly influenced by my first art history professor, the late Michael Mallory, a specialist in Italian Renaissance frescoes. I was lucky that I took it in my second semester at Brooklyn: I found a love for the subject early in my undergraduate studies. I couldn’t imagine what someone could do with a degree in art history, but Michael explained that there were many options, like the ones I already mentioned, but also writing, magazine work, private curating, and art evaluation for insurance, among other possibilities. Once I realized I could do something I enjoyed and have work options, I became an art history major. I earned a B.A. in art history from Brooklyn College in 1994, my M.A. in art history from Hunter College in 1996, and finished my academic work at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I earned my M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in 2005. My parents got over it once I started working!
What do you love about teaching?
I really do love telling stories. I was always told that I was a good speaker and storyteller. Teaching is essentially telling stories – in the case of art history, the story is most often about an artist and their creative output – and engaging people in that story, which may resonate with their own lives and backgrounds. Many students not well-versed in art when they first come to my class often tell me when the class ends that they never realized how much context there was in a work of art. Most people see art as just decoration until they study art history. Then they begin to see art for what it is: the very threads of history that connect us with our own past as well as the past that we share with other people and cultures.
What’s your favorite teaching experience?
I like bringing students to museums when possible and taking them around a space containing actual artworks. Learning in a classroom and online is fine; most of my own learning was born from the traditional in-person classroom experience, with slides of artworks and a chalkboard. But nothing compares to learning about an object while standing directly in front of it. To be in the presence of an artwork, with its physicality and the aura of the artist that surrounds it, cannot be compared to looking at the artwork on a computer screen. Whether in a classroom through a projector or online through a personal device, a computer is a poor conduit for art, as it renders everything flat and the same size as the screen’s size. I love the sense of awe that students of art (myself included) feel in the presence of something real, physical, and culturally important.
In what ways do you bring your professional experience into the classroom?
I have been privileged to have curated exhibitions, published many articles and my dissertation as a book, and given many lectures to art lovers outside of academia. My knowledge of how the art world and the art history world work allows me to advise students on a particular direction that they might follow if they decide to continue in the field of art history. My research on art crime and art law, cemetery art, the history of interior design, nineteenth-century fashion trends, and women artists always finds its way into the lectures of my classes.
What advice do you have for current students?
Do what you love and love what you do. It’s all very nice to make your parents proud, but remember that you must earn your degree and work in the field you choose, not your parents or family members. People will tell falsehoods such as a degree in the arts and humanities will not result in work that is personally and financially rewarding. If you put everything you have into something you love, you will be successful, and you will be able to navigate all aspects of your life better if you are doing something you love with your life.