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Art and Archaeology

Nora M. Gross ’08

Candidate for Master’s in Sociology of Education, New York University

I entered college with a wide array of interests, and I think I initially worried that I might not be able to find a major that satisfied all of my seemingly unrelated passions. I was intrigued by new developments in science and the ethical questions raised by them; I was moved by the history of injustice and efforts to right wrongs; I was excited by literature and art (but usually not the “old stuff”). How could I fit all of these interests together?

By sophomore year, I was still relatively unfocused and began stressing about choosing my major. Somehow nearly everything seemed like a valid option; my interests—or at least some of them—could fit into nearly every department: biology, psychology, sociology, politics, English. But none of them really felt like “the one.” How was I to choose? And, once in the department, could I feel confident that I would find my way and begin to focus my enthusiasm for learning more productively?

I lucked out sophomore year and took a class that provided some unexpected clarity. It was a course about the art of Weimar Germany, a time and place I knew nothing about. Over the course of the semester, though, I was introduced to the political views of the period, the economic situation, the feminist struggles, the industrial and scientific transformations, the aesthetic preferences, and the moral dilemmas of the time. Through the art, I was able to explore almost every aspect of a society and a culture—and see it through the eyes of a variety of people. I had found my match in art and archaeology. It was a field as diverse as my interests, but a department small enough to give me individual guidance and attention.

Learning to dig deeper

I spent one summer while in college interning in the education department of a museum. I loved that experience, but quickly realized that it was much more the education aspect than the fact that I was doing it in a museum. When senior year came around and it was time to consider my next steps, I thought I would give teaching a try. Through a Project 55 fellowship I was lucky enough to get a one-year position at a charter high school in Chicago.

One year turned into two, and it seemed to be a perfect match: I set up a writing center at the school and trained students to coach their peers in academic writing and research. The skills I’d honed writing junior papers and my senior thesis made me a valuable asset to the English department; teachers often asked me to come into their classrooms to teach workshops on research or stages of the writing process. During my second year, I developed my own English course, “Hip-Hop Literature.” As I encouraged students to think critically about texts, visual texts were often the precursors to written texts—and sometimes the main event. Developing students’ media literacies and their skills in visual analysis was one of my primary goals as a teacher, and I know these are skills I value because of my undergraduate studies in art history.

I also never lost the deeper mode of thinking that being an art historian instilled in me. Two years of teaching in a troubled neighborhood and building relationships with young people who’ve had an array of experiences often different from my own left me with questions. I wanted to understand the history of American education, the complexities of its challenges, and the opportunities for improvement. Just as my art history professors had taught me to dig deeper than the surface of the object—to understand its context and that of its artist, to investigate the method of its production and even the earlier drafts, and to use it as a lens to discover the artist’s perspective on his time—I began to feel the itch to dig deeper.

This itch led me back to school this past fall. I began a master’s program in sociology of education at New York University. Now I am learning different kinds of research methods, and as I sit in the backs of classrooms observing students and trying to understand their experiences of school, I realize how much the Princeton art and archaeology department gave me. Even more important than the content I learned, my major at Princeton taught me how to think critically and analytically about texts (visual or otherwise) and contexts, and how to experience history (and the present) through others’ eyes. These are skills that have set me on my path forward and skills that I know will continue to be valuable to me as I figure out my next steps.