By Susie Allen
Photo by Derek Li Wan Po
Aden Kumler studies Western medieval art, architecture, and material culture. Kumler, AB’96, has taught Core courses on medieval art, as well as advanced classes on the politics of luxury and the art of the book in the Middle Ages.
What advice would you give to a new colleague about teaching University of Chicago students?
The best thing is to have the students talk as much as possible. When the students are engaged, they produce insights that change the way I see works of art or monuments that I have been looking at for most of my life. Students will routinely say and write things that are completely original.
The other thing I would say is that you cannot set the bar high enough. I don’t mean by being draconian, or assigning too much reading—which I’m sure I do—but simply that you should go to class prepared for them to impress you, and they will.
You were an undergraduate at UChicago. Are there any professors you’ve tried to emulate?
The reason I’m a medievalist art historian is because of the undergraduate classes I took with Michael Camille. Michael’s lectures were so incredible that when I started teaching, it was impossible for me to conceive that I could ever do what he did. He had this palpable sense of excitement and pleasure in medieval art. It was completely intoxicating. I could not get enough.
Bernard McGinn at the Divinity School was also very important to me. He allowed me to take a graduate seminar that had a profound effect on how I think about religious thought and practice in the Middle Ages. And he was willing, with Michael, to co-advise the unorthodox BA project I cooked up. He's a deeply generous person, and I still very much feel that I'm his student.
Another person who stands out is Françoise Meltzer. Her class was terrifying in the best way! It really gave me a sense that important things could take place in seminar. I came out of undergrad with the idea that hard questioning can be the biggest sign of respect. Françoise cultivated an ethos in the seminar room that made a big impression on me; I still hold onto that ethos as an ideal.
Anne Robertson takes subtle, beautiful, and complex aspects of medieval musical practice and theory and translates them to students without in any way dumbing it down. It’s a lot like what an art history class should do when it’s working well: suddenly you’re hearing things and seeing things you didn’t hear or see before.
I still feel deeply connected to my undergrad experience, not least because I’m walking the same campus I walked, and I have the luxury of having colleagues who shaped me intellectually as an undergraduate.
Beyond imparting information about medieval art, what are your goals for your classes?
It’s important to me to acknowledge that looking at things carefully is quite difficult. We see lots of stuff, but to stop and seriously engage something in all of its materiality, in all of its visual specificity, in all of its historical difference, is something you have to practice. But if you practice it attentively and intelligently, it never leaves you. It’s an analytic muscle. I really want students to leave my classes seeing both works of art and the world differently.
What does this award mean to you?
The Quantrell is extremely meaningful because you know that it comes from the students, and the students are the people to whom I feel most accountable.
So often at the end of a term, I have a profound feeling of thankfulness that the students have been in the classroom looking and talking with me. To know they've reciprocated that feeling will be one of the high points of my career.
I’m quite a verbose person, and this makes me speechless.
Originally published on June 3, 2013.