The Professor Plan
For someone who’s made a career as a writer, professor, and cultural commentator, I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but here goes: During my four years at Colby, I made a proactive decision to take as many courses as I could, at least one each with every professor I’d heard was wonderful. If this meant I was able to do less work for each course, so be it.
To pull this off, I took the usual quota of four courses for credit per semester, but I also audited an additional two. I had a wish list of Colby professors who I’d either encountered myself or had heard legend of. Some are still teaching, others will ring a warm-toned bell for graduates about my age: Charlie Bassett, Cedric Bryant, Nikki Singh, Rob Weisbrot, Garry Mitchell, James Boylan (now Jenny Boylan), Larissa Taylor, Laurie Osborne, Elizabeth Sagaser, Nancy Reinhardt, David Mills, and others. Being in their presence was hugely rewarding, stimulating, exciting. I wanted to learn from them as directly as possible. Some of those reading assignments had to wait.
One of the best things about Colby is that its faculty members are there because they really love to interact with students. So many professors at other institutions look to teach as little as possible (and, when they do, only small numbers of post-grads have access to them), and devote most of their time to research and writing. Colby faculty are all about the students. I ate most of my lunches with professors, and learned as much from them outside the classroom as in.
Now that I live in Europe, and am a professor here, I see just how precious and rare this dynamic is. The default European approach is for professors to maintain a strict distance from students, certainly not interacting outside of class, and also—I see this all too often—not interacting inside of class, either. The general vibe is that the students should feel privileged to be in the professor’s presence. Students shouldn’t ask any questions in class because they should be “smart enough” to understand everything the first time the professor explains it. Tests demand regurgitation of what the professor said or wrote, and creative thinking and challenging ideas are discouraged. European, traditional teaching is the very opposite of what Colby offers and, in my mind, Colby is light years ahead.
So, when I look back on my Colby years, my fondest memories are of professors whom I considered to be friends. I respected them but treated them like friends and felt treated as such. David Mills (English) made me dinner regularly at his home, eating on his couch, warmed by a high-octane portable heater and listening to opera. Rob Weisbrot (government) and I liked to go to the Last Unicorn and talk about Hercules and the television show Xena: Warrior Princess. Larissa Taylor (history) would tell me about traveling to major history conferences with her cat on a leash. Garry Mitchell (art) invited me and some other students for a weekend at his home and art studio, where his wife, Debra Spark (English), made us a huge feast. But the most consistent faculty friendships of all, the ones that most nurtured me and made me the professional I am today, were with the art history professors: Michael Marlais, Véronique Plesch, and David Simon.
I ate many of my lunches with one or all of them. I loved their classes and drew inspiration directly from them. The idea for my 2010 book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, came from an off-handed comment from David Simon in one of his lectures, that Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece was arguably the most influential painting ever made and also the most frequently stolen. This led me to write a “biography” of this remarkable artwork.
Michael Marlais brought 19th-century French art to life (I thought he was endlessly cool, with his sleek white spiked hair and beard, and his all-black ensemble—I started buying black turtlenecks in homage.). Véronique Plesch was something of a “Mama Bear” for us art history majors, often throwing elaborate dinner parties at her home. We had great fun, but learned as well. Her beautiful dogs scampered between our legs as we sat at her dining table, while she explained that the lovely slate blue of the table was made with “milk paint,” (the addition of milk to paint a signature of 19th-century American furniture).
David Simon and I shared a love for Thai food, and we’d make rounds of the Thai restaurants in the area. I loved his evening seminars, where we’d order pizza and eat with our feet up on the tables, as he’d show us slides of architecture, showing a Brutalist megalith and saying, “Isn’t this just the best thing ever?” He helped me understand that architecture is not about walls and façades, but about what it feels like to be in spaces defined by walls. This sort of thinking led to my Ph.D. in architectural history.
There were times at Colby when I felt closer to professors than to my fellow students. The professors are the ones I remember with great fondness and gratitude. David, Michael, and Véronique made me into an art historian. When I continued after Colby at the Courtauld Institute, University of Cambridge, and then my Ph.D. at University of Ljubljana, I had them to thank. Which I have now done, again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have about four years’ worth of reading to catch up on.
Noah Charney ’02 is an art historian and novelist, and an expert on the subject of art theft. He lives in Slovenia.
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