In Other News

In Other News

Meet the Dean

Dean Jerrilyn DoddsJerrilynn Dodds, the new dean of the College, is an art history scholar who originally focused on the art of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in medieval Spain. Studying this society—where a shared culture flourished despite religious differences—gives her a fresh perspective on the tangle of modern identity. Dodds comes to SLC from the City College of New York, where she was an administrator and teacher. She lives on the Upper West Side and has two college-age sons, Theo and Sandy; “a really important dog named Rocky”; and a taste for Victorian literature (she calls Middlemarch the best book in the world). Here, she talks about her research and why she wanted to work at Sarah Lawrence.

Minorities, Mosques, and Monuments

My work is about how different groups within a society, especially minorities, express identity through art. It’s a take on post-colonial theories of art, which suggest that there’s never one stable identity, that we are all constantly transforming as we encounter one another.

In 1993, I became very upset about media coverage of the first World Trade Center bombing, because it was very polarized, associating Muslims as a group with terrorism. I joined forces with the photographer Ed Grazda to document the Muslims who were part of New York, visiting close to 90 mosques in the city. We talked to communities and imams, trying to understand how Muslims create identities for themselves through architecture.

There was an impressive group of Muslims who were intent on assimilation and proud to be Americans, and they represented the whole spectrum of political positions. We also found that there was an attempt to create a new Muslim American identity through architecture, and we presented this building up of the city by Muslims in our book [New York Masjid], as a way of defying the media’s impulse to go directly to the popular notion of the hostile Muslim.

I’m working presently on a project called On the Destruction of Monuments. It consists of 12 case studies of monuments that were purposefully destroyed, for political or social reasons. It will include well known historical examples like Kristallnacht and the World Trade Center, but some surprising ones as well.

The culminating example will probably be Ise Jingu, a Shinto shrine in Japan made entirely of joined wood. It was first rebuilt in 692, and it’s been dismantled—purposefully destroyed—every 20 years since, and then rebuilt in exactly the same way, forever ancient and yet forever new.

SLC vs. Barnard

I applied to two colleges: Barnard and Sarah Lawrence. And when I was accepted to both of them, a faculty member at Barnard said, “Well, you clearly can’t go to Sarah Lawrence if you want to go on to graduate school.” (As dean, I promise to dedicate myself to eradicating that notion.)

So I went to Barnard, in many ways a wonderful school, but in some ways an awful mistake for me. I became nauseatingly pre-professional and estranged from the passion that I had about art history—a passion that would have been completely nurtured at Sarah Lawrence. It was only when I came back to teaching that I reconnected with it. At the School of Architecture at City College, I had that experience of teaching subjects with which I was deeply connected and of having the students’ questions transform my interests for me again and again. I think for that reason I’ve always yearned to be part of an institution in which the interaction between student learning and faculty learning was a guiding principle.

Defender of the Pedagogy

Nobody else works as hard as Sarah Lawrence faculty. The curriculum grows from individual faculty passion and research; without their passion, I think they would burn out in about 20 seconds. So I don’t see myself personally taking a curriculum anywhere but where the process of faculty/student interaction indicates it needs to go. I see myself as a sort of defender of the pedagogy. And in a way, I can be a passionate defender because I’ve been outside admiring it for so long. I understand the kind of alienation that can occur when you’re teaching a curriculum you didn’t help create.

+ Read further about Dodds, including her favorite buildings and her take on the World Trade Center.