The independent news organization of Duke University

How I learned to stop worrying and love the arts

staff note

So, this is my last editor's note ever. I've reported for The Chronicle since the first month of my freshman year, and have thought about what I'd write in this specific piece since then. During the last few years, I'd occasionally wonder: What infinite wisdom will I be able to impart in my last words as a graduating senior? What experiences will define my Duke career, and will be interesting enough to share with the rest of campus? As a reader of Recess, the answer is not unexpected: I've discovered that I really, really love art.

On this STEM-oriented campus, it's hard to come by people who declare their love for the arts so unapologetically. I certainly didn't, even as a full-fledged art history major with a voice in campus arts journalism.  When asked my major by strangers, I quickly learned that I couldn't just say art history. That answer would always be returned with a puzzled face, and the tentative question of "... Well,what are you going to do with that?", as if my four years at Duke could be written off due to a major with the word "art" in its title. And honestly, I wrote it off too. When nervously calling my parents to alert them of my major declaration, I consoled them with the fact that art history, just like more traditional humanities majors such as history and English, could also get me into law school if I worked hard enough. My reasoning was this: Art makes me happy, which makes my GPA happy, which makes law schools happy.

As senior year began and my daunting graduation date drew nearer and nearer, the reality of having to plan a life after college really sunk in. By the end of 2019, I will have relocated to a completely different part of the country, and will have a life completely different from that of a Duke student. Graduate school goals and possible career options are no longer vague daydreams motivating me through long days in Perkins. They are real, and they are now.

I needed to stop and be honest with myself. Although I felt this pressure — even though it was mainly self-applied — to be pre-professional throughout college, was a law career what I actually wanted? What kind of a person did I want to be in 30, 40 years? Most importantly, what makes me happy? The answer had been with me for years, a disregarded justification for a major I shouldn't have needed to justify in the first place: Art makes me happy.

My art history classes and opportunities through the Art, Art History and Visual Studies Department are what get me out of bed in the morning, and what have kept me relentlessly excited and humbled to be a Duke student the last four years. I've traveled to other countries on research projects, worked with many amazing professors and have taken classes that have genuinely impacted the way I view the world. I am currently writing a thesis on the historiography of Gothic architecture, a topic I knew virtually nothing about a year and a half ago, and have loved every (albeit sometimes stress-filled) second of it.

The experience of writing my thesis is what I think solidified my decision to pursue a Ph.D in art history after Duke; it helped me realize how impactful a career in academia can be. After a long day of thesis research at the Royal Institute for British Architects in London, I stood up to collect my things and realized a pair of my longtime mentor's works had been sitting on a bookshelf behind my desk the entire time. I was so surprised. Not only did she write books being used by scholars four thousand miles away from Durham, but she sent me there as well, to have my own experience in researching the topic she loves. Working with my thesis advisor, another professor, has been greatly influential as well; while he has many more important things to do as an important academic rather than help with my research ideas and essay structure, his guidance has made me a better writer, researcher and scholar. These two role models, as well as many others in the Art History Department, have made clear to me just how much studying and sharing art with others can impact another person's life.

When I called my parents last semester to tell them my change in graduate school plans, my always supportive father just laughed and said, "You know, Jessica, I thought you'd do this all along." While I wish he'd told me this nugget of information before I spent all of last summer studying for the LSAT, he didn't actually tell me something I didn't know. This is going to sound cheesy as heck (how else would I end my last editor's note?), but I believe somewhere, beneath my pre-law, arts-denying exterior, that I always knew it too.

Jessica Williams is a Trinity senior and Recess media production editor. 


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