How to become a professor in ART HISTORY

In this inspirational episode Stanford professor Alexander Nemerov explains why he never followed a detailed career plan but rather listened to his inner desire to do what he loves doing: conducting research on art history.

More specifically you will learn:

  • Why passion beats intelligence.
  • Why networking is overestimated.
  • Why publishing your own book is a precondition for getting tenure.

About Prof. Alexander Nemerov


A scholar of American art, Prof. Nemerov writes about the presence of art, the recollection of the past, and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly as well as topics in American visual culture–the history of American photography, for example–he is a noted writer and speaker on the arts. His most recent books are To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America (2011), the catalogue to the exhibition of the same title he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War (2010).
His new book, Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s, will be published by Princeton University Press this fall 2013.

Raw Transcript

If you want to learn how to become a Professor in Art History, stay with me.

Hi and welcome to, the web show to learn from proven professors and experts. My name is Stephan, I’m the Founder and Chief Interviewer here and today you will learn how Stanford professor Alexander Nemerov will plan his career in the field of art history today. A scholar of American art, Professor Nemerov writes about the presence of art, the recollection of the past, and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly as well as topics in American visual culture, the history of American photography, for example, he is a noted writer and speaker on the arts. His most recent books are To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America published in 2011, and the catalogue to the exhibition of the same title he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War published in 2010. And his new book, Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s, will be published by Princeton University Press this fall of 2013.

Stephan: Professor Alexander Nemerov thank you so much for taking your time for this interview it’s a tremendous honour to have you on the show.

Professor Nemerov: You’re welcome! I’m glad to be here.

Stephan: Alright! The very first question I’d like to ask you is could you share with our ambitious audience how would you plan your academic career in the field of art history today? And if it’s possible please be specific and actionable as you can.

Professor Nemerov: Well, if I were to plan it today that’s a different thing from how I suppose planned it back when I was a young man so which would you like for me to speak to?

Stephan: Well, I think both parts are quite interesting maybe you could start with your career and then yeah, and then tell us what are the differences from the past career path and how young scholars were especially interested in art history should plan their career today.

Professor Nemerov: Sure! Well, I think my plan was not really a plan. It was unconventional in that sense. It was, I was an English in our history major as an undergraduate of the University of Vermont and I had no special dream or desire to be a professor though my father was a professor and consequently I guess believe or understood something about that job. But, I went to graduate school without any grand ambition or thoughts merely my own I suppose love of learning and automatic interest in the arts and didn’t really think twice about it, I was naïve in that sense. And I also, I wouldn’t say I was a great student either. So, I, when I say my plan was not a plan I hope you will begin to see this is well. But I suppose the moral of the story is that there is, there is some wisdom to not being overly career centred and that the irony is that, you know, you can do well by not fixating on a career. As you’re be all and end all you know, extrapolated to graduate school something, someone once said I think it’s true. Do you want a good job? Do you want a good job? Well, write a great deprecation in other words don’t assume that it’s all about networking and  making your CV look proper and attending all the right conferences, though, I think it’s practical wisdom to say that some of that is very important for sure. But nonetheless, notice again that naive is simple statement write a great deprecation both in enormously difficult and as it were basic task and so, again I guess my feeling is that one errs is in focusing too much on a career on a milestones and yards sticks and all different sort of pre-professional and professional achievements that one can imagine a career consist of. And that you know the real way I feel I have done okay is to not think about a career really to just in touch with my love of learning. And they took kind of become ever more absorbed by that over the years.

Stephan: Right. Okay I understand. This was a quite inspirational actually and, so when you’re saying basically is that everything developed organically, isn’t it? Without much planning in your case.

Professor Nemerov: Yes! I think that right. I’m the first to feel that I have been fortunate in that way. I don’t think you can just assume that if you love books or love paintings that it’s all gonna work out just fine. There are many people who are far smarter than I am who love books and paintings, who for one reason or another have either chosen not to become academics or have chosen this path and it has not gone as well as it might. So, there’s good fortune involve for sure.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: But I still stand by my point that I would, I’ll now phrase this in terms of what it would mean to apply graduate school now. And I think, the only real reason to do it would be if you do have this sort of passionate commitment that I just spoke of. Then anyone might say that they do but it does really involve some pretty serious soul searching to determine if what one believes really is the case. What I mean by that is, it’s not good enough to be, let’s say interested in art history or to even I would say to love learning or love the study of such an, such a thing. It may not even be enough to feel that you’re very smart and learned when it comes to say critical theory. I feel that there has to be some other thing which makes it almost impossible for you not to pursue this line of work. That is finally the elemental stuff or the fuel that in able want to succeed at in graduate school to stay the course to overcome the inhabitable difficulties that is away one not at least graduate student but moving forward in a career, you know. If in every point in your career for the first day a graduate school to your time as a professor you can still be in touch with what is most meaningful to you? What matters to you most? Which in my case, might be, I don’t know, let’s just say the capacity of certain works of art to move me or to cost me to feel change or move off of a common course of my everyday life. Then one it is possible to would stand a number of the regular shocks and humiliations and disappointments that inevitably a way one in this line of work, as they do in any line of work.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: If you don’t have that passion then it’s a very difficult to would stand those shocks and disappointments. Because you don’t have like a central core or spine of result and not just result but pleasure and kind of dignity and deep reserved kind of intensity in your everyday life and if you don’t have that then it’s again very hard for, to justify to others and to oneself as a line of work. So, a word, you know, that’s my word, you’re gonna apply to a graduate school and if you go to a graduate school get a PhD in Art history I think you have to be very temperamentally incline to that rich interior life. Because it is the thing that it will not only enable you to would stand but also to flourish.

Stephan: Alright. Professor Nemerov could we talk a little bit more about, you know, your mentioned shocks or the crisis you’ve gone through and maybe encountered during your career and how you manage to overcome them?

Professor Nemerov: Well, I think mine are no different from those about the people I had to be get a job or not get jobs I’ve had to be promoted, I had to send my work out and to be reviewed, peer reviewed many script some for books, for articles and so to take that last category, you know, you often, and the work I do is counter in to it, there a lot of it. So, it involves saying” Well, what you think is true actually” “I don’t think it’s true I think it’s actually another”, it’s another way to look at this and inevitably that involves some disagreement and people can be very critical of the suppositions or frameworks that I put forth. And the thing that enables me I think to feel okay, no often hurt because after all I’m a human being. But the think that enables me to find feel okay is that I actually believe in what I’m doing.

Stephan: Uhuh.

Professor Nemerov: So, if I were doing a just the kind to get another kind of article on my CV.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: Well, it seem to me that would be insufficient reason to that wouldn’t give me enough strength sense of purpose, passion, dignity, everything to not feel you know, really thrown out course by rejections, criticism that kind, you see?

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: But, if I happened to have the married of believing in what I’m doing then I can say as I read the critical account of my work. Okay well, you know I just agree with some other things other said. I kind of I have to say kinda makes me wins, but I kinda agree with some of the criticism those are fair but overall, you know, I, I’m not budging you know I can smile sweetly but not y give an inch.

Stephan: (Laughing) Okay. Alright! I’m a little bit scared to asked next question, but I’m doing it anyway and I’m trying to rephrase a little bit or rephrase it a little differently. I’d like to ask you what are in your opinion the essential milestones on the road to professorship?, and which kind of journals do you think are the most relevant and not necessarily career wise but which journals would you recommend for young scholars in the field of art history to submit their original work to and really start to gaining experience, the process of peer reviews and so forth?

Professor Nemerov: Well again, you know, my approach you’re maybe talking to the wrong guy because I’m, in many ways I’m not too typical academic at least that’s what I believe. Because I, I’m not a player, I’m not a person who especially prices, networks and contacts and CV building. I don’t think you should feel as you said afraid to ask me this question, I just don’t think particularly good at answering them,

Stephan: Okay.

Professor Nemerov: However, let me try base on what I’ve observed over the years. I think that a lot of times when people starting  out as young professors they, it can be hard to write a book it’s a little easier to maybe disperse ones energy  across a great many projects giving papers, etc. And I feel, I believe very much in the consolidation of energy and really focusing intensively on producing a book. A book is still the coin of the realm as far as getting tenure many in American universities. Whether or not that continuous to be the case is an open question. It may be that fewer and fewer people are reading books now and including academics. And consequently the criteria of judgement need to be changed. But I believe in a book still I guess because a book when it really is a book that is more than just a physical item that is available for sale in book stores and on website but, when it’s a book in philosophical sense that is being rounded in composing argument of the kind that the length of the book allows one to pursue, then that’s a very novel thing. And the hence, it is fair to for tenure committee for example to expect a book as at least one book maybe a second book as a basis for a tenure. So, that’s one bit of advice to consolidate energies. Commit to a book not just the a matter of humourless grind that is meant to meet your, you know, to answer, to getting a promotions but again with the sense I say with pleasure, you know. I take a lot of time this people I’m a big believer in acting while the iron is hot too, so think that sometimes people can get into trouble with books they, they, there’s a kind of rising level of momentum as they research and begin to write and then I feel you have to act at that point that is act to finish the book commit completed get it out there while the energy is on the as ascendant.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov:  And that many people for many reasons because being a professor is an extremely hard job it demands a lot of you being a good teacher, being a good scholar, etc. Many people actually don’t act on the ascendant and then there’s a point where the book in the feeling, in momentum in the energy behind it start to go downhill. And then it becomes very, it becomes harder to do, harder to write and, so I feel that at any stage in one’s academic career one needs to be animated by a sense of urgency and in a writing of a book I think that’s one instance of the one scenario of urgency you know, I think one of the mirages and confusions and actually dangers of academic life I think is how relatively on structure it is.

Stephan: Uhuh.

Professor Nemerov:  And consequently me talking about the sense of urgency can seem a little bizarre, I mean imagine in your first day as an assistant professor at a place you might not especially feel that there’s a sense of urgency there, might, you might walk to library and you might you know, generally can enjoy of the idea of beginning to take things in and become part of the workshops and become part of reading groups and so on. But I feel very strongly that from the moment you set foot on campus you should be there, your projects, your ambitions, your dreams should press upon you. And they should always be exerting a kind of demand on you to be done, to be addressed. Last that sound too humourless and too much of a matter of a grind I guess the passion in the task, the thrill in the demand, the acceleration and the discipline of academic life are all bound up together tightly, as to be almost one and the same thing.

Stephan: Uhuh.

Professor Nemerov: And it’s not that different from an artistic life at least my estimation, in that sense, in other words an artist. Doesn’t wake up thinking you know, I must make this, I want to do this but, I must to make this. They wake up thinking you know, I must make because there is, and there can be no other way. My material, my dreams, my project, my imagination, my fantasy demands that I, that I bring this ideas this way of thinking in to light and the that’s a good kind of urgency but it’s again it’s very much connected with discipline. Discipline in demand and the kind instead of you know, very kind of strenuous and even harsh expectations that I would say one puts on oneself.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: Other than except as always coming from outside parties you know, tenure committees and so on, you know. I think that can be an issue if you in academic life you get into a sense of it’s me and then it’s all this people who are making all this demands on me then it can become a very adversarial and even a kind of artificial situation were one sits down at one’s computer everyday not in order seek out the pleasure and fascinations and let’s say even political commitments that animate one’s  own work but one does it because one is trying to meet the expectations of parties and persons that one feels resentment towards and that’s just a bad road to get down. The primary demand in other word should be from within oneself.

Stephan: Uhuh.

Professor Nemerov: If you can’t if the demand is not coming from within oneself the statement basically you must do this. If that’s not coming from inside yourself then it’s going to feel, it’s gonna be a lot harder and a lot less of rewarding that’s what I would say.

Stephan: Right.

Professor Nemerov: Because then you’re gonna be doing things for other people and not for yourself and you know the doing for oneself is not I needed a narcissistic it has to do with actually a generosity in sense of honouring ones ideas and commitments honouring them by trying to bring them give them permission, give them form is a way of giving to other people, so I believe.

Stephan: Okay, wonderful! The very last question I’d like to ask you is about your routine you know, as you mention before being a professor is an extremely hard job because there’s so many different tasks and responsibilities to juggle simultaneously in most cases and how do you prioritize the tasks and how do you go from one test to next in a course of one day?

Professor Nemerov: I think I’ve learned over the years obviously you have to have many things in balance at one time. And when I was younger and less busy I had the luxury of not meeting to do that, I could concentrate on one thing then another and so on. But now I’m comfortable with having many writing projects in play at the same time, though they’re all short.

Stephan: Uhuh.

Professor Nemerov: It doesn’t bother me, so I guess that comes with experience. I don’t have my email on, all the time. I don’t multi-task. I try to be present for whatever event situation I’m engaged in, I don’t, if I’m writing an essay, I’m writing an essay.

Stephan: Alright.

Professor Nemerov: I don’t, I’m not checking my email. I don’t even understand a lot of the various communications devises that enable one to be constant contact with the world. I guess I believe in solitude and playing old fashioned hermetic retreat from the world as a way to get things done. And then I will, you know of course periodically emerge from that, by periodically I mean pretty much every day for some time and answer my email participate to the best of my ability in whatever university requirement or expectation maybe may have come my way, etc. So I think you know that’s my answer is keeping things, a number of things in place simultaneously but also partitioning them you know, one from the another so that I can set my full mind to accomplishing one thing at a time.
Stephan: Okay. Professor Nemerov thank you so much for, yeah, for your thoughts and yeah, this was a very inspirational talk that I just had with you. So, thank you so much for sharing your experience and wisdom so generously with us and I’m sure that many of our uses specially those that are interested in the field of art history with benefit tremendously from your advice and as always, I’d like to end my interview with following quote, “The best advice is worth nothing, if it’s not put into practice”.

Mentioned books, links and resources

Show Notes

Books by Prof. Alexander Nemerov

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