history in three dimensions, 25 texts, and 12 guest lectures
Fine Arts 210, History 669: "Éire/Land:
Political, Visual, and Literary Perspectives"
of English Vera Kreilkamp; adjunct assistant professor of art history
Katherine Nahum; adjunct associate professor of history Robert J.
catalogue of McMullen Museum of Art exhibition; The Course of
Irish History, edited by F.X. Martin and T.W. Moody; The
Irish Famine, by Peter Gray; Translations by Brian
Friel; Opened Ground, by Seamus Heaney; The Aran Islands,
by John Millington Synge; Early Poems, by William Butler
Yeats; Grania, by Emily Lawless
through the spring semester, and only now is Robert Savage, the
associate director of BC's Irish Studies Program, able to say with
confidence that the collaborative teaching experiment he's been
involved in is working. "Well," he says after class one
day, "it's been a bit of an adventure." The new course,
Political, Visual, and Literary Perspectives," is the brainchild
of historian Savage, literary scholar Vera Kreilkamp, and art historian
Katherine Nahum, and it offers an exploration of the Irish people's
"cultural responses" to their land. The idea grew out
of a concurrent exhibition, at BC's McMullen Museum of Art, highlighting
Irish art, artifacts, and maps.
With three instructors, the course features a six-page syllabus,
12 guest lecturers, 45 mostly undergraduate students, multiple visits
to the museum to view gilt-framed oils or ancient brooches or spiral
sketchbooks, readings from more than 25 texts, and a lot of writing.
Initially, there was uncertainty among the faculty about classroom
logistics—who should lecture when, who would moderate discussions,
when should they take the class to the museum—and about whether
the syllabus they'd spent months designing would work. "We
were really concerned it would be all over the place, too eclectic,
too ambitious," says Savage. But in retrospect, says Nahum
in mid-March, "having a little touch of chaos makes things
very lively." Indeed, several months into the semester, students
are thriving on an improvisational approach that jams two or three
lectures and museum visits into the once-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour
class period in Devlin 218.
No two sessions are the same. Historian Savage launches one class
with an overview of the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s, explaining
how it changed the political, social, agricultural, emigration,
and even linguistic habits of the country. Nahum follows immediately
with a slide show and talk on several paintings of the period, including
one in the McMullen exhibit called An Ejectment in Ireland (A
Tear and a Prayer for Erin) by Dubliner Robert G. Kelly (1822-1910).
It is a poor painting, Nahum contends. Unlike some political cartoons
that Savage showed earlier, in which a persuasive purpose is clear,
An Ejectment, she says, hides behind its sentimental style—Kelly
himself claimed the painting was apolitical—and fails to adequately
capture its subject, the horror of tenant evictions during the famine.
Kreilkamp, previously silent, here interjects: The work, she says,
ought not be viewed strictly through the protocols of formal art
criticism. "We need to see it as coming out of the social and
political context of the time."
The professors' exchange draws students into a discussion about
the function of art. Talk grows more animated once everyone moves
downstairs to the museum to look at the original painting and the
details that weren't clear in the slide. One student notes the robustness
of the evictees and points out a skirmish in the background between
British redcoats on horseback and Irish peasants, outgunned and
some wielding pikes. She surmises that these elements reflect the
artist's aim: to convey the tenants' dignity and show their fortitude
in resisting injustice. Another student observes that in its romantic
depiction of events, the painting seems more like illustration—it's
unambiguous, didactic—than like great art. And in fact, Savage
affirms, the painting caused a stir at the time among conservative
English, who saw it as a knock at British policy.
History and art square off frequently in class, with literary works
coming in for much the same probing as the visual arts. Tony Award-winning
playwright Brian Friel's Translations (1980) affords a case
in point. Friel set the play in Donegal during the Ordnance Survey
of 1833, in which British surveyors remapped Ireland for taxation
purposes, imposing English names on Irish places as they went. For
the playwright, the survey is a metaphor for British cultural imperialism;
but an analysis of the work by critic J.H. Andrews (which the class
also reads), points up historical inaccuracies—the "tiny bruises
on history"—that Friel inflicted to score political points.
Do artists have the right to alter history to suit their art? Kreilkamp
asks the class.
Several students respond that poetic license is the artist's prerogative.
They cite the movies Michael Collins and JFK as examples
of Hollywood films that have rewritten history to serve a director's
bias. "History is totally open to interpretation," says
one student. "I'd argue that the artist is not responsible
for historical fact in his art," says another. In the empty
classroom afterwards, the professors consult and decide that they
want the class to look more specifically at Friel's "bruises"
and defend or dispute them in the next assigned essay.
The students taking "Éire/Land"
are about evenly divided among history, literature, and art history
majors, Savage says, and they all seem to be getting something different
out of the course. English major Chrissy Linnemeier '03 appreciates
the human touch that the pieces in the museum exhibition bring to
the study of Ireland's history. "Being able to incorporate
cultural objects, art, literature, poetry, folklore, and mythology
to supplement the history makes the subject come alive," she
says. "I studied in Ireland for a semester in my junior year,
and I saw a beautiful, natural place—the rolling hills, the cliffs,"
she says. But when she thinks about that experience now, she sees
connections that never occurred to her then. "You see how the
history is tied to the land, not just literally but symbolically.
I'm able to see where some of the nationalist sentiment comes from."
Sarah O'Connor, an exchange student from University College Cork,
in Ireland, says she has gained a new respect for the role of a
museum in academic life. "In my college they have started to
build an art gallery, and I thought the money could have been used
for more practical things. But now I can see the point. [A museum]
opens so many doors, and it gives an extra intellectual space to
She's also found the scholarly disagreements and varied perspectives
among the professors stimulating. "In most classes you hear
what one professor has to say, and you imagine that's all there
is. But the collaborative process opens your eyes and makes you
question what you read and what you're spoon-fed every day."
Kreilkamp, Nahum, and Savage, too, are converts to the process that
has brought them together. As Savage says, "We're always looking
for ways to make teaching more interesting. I go into class and
I watch this unfold. Sometimes I feel like a student."
Sanders is editor of
Boston College Law Magazine.
Photo: "Éire/Land" professors Katherine Nahum
(left), Vera Kreilkamp, and Robert Savage, in the McMullen Museum.
By Lee Pellegrini