It’s 10:45 on a Wednesday morning in the Arts Building and Elizabeth Mitchell is busy preparing her classroom for another day of Art History 123C – Modern Art of Mexico. She has just a few minutes to brace herself for teaching two full lectures’ worth of material.
Mitchell quickly loads her slides into the two projectors at the back of the room, then moves to the chalkboard. She spends the next few minutes furiously scrawling terms across the board, then flits back over to the projectors to double-check the order of the slides.
The bells in Storke Tower start to chime as she finishes organizing her notes.
“I’m sorry this is so hectic,” she says, “but it’s a good indication of what my life is like.”
The last of Mitchell’s students amble into class by about 11:05. Today she is trying to cram two lectures into one to make up for a lecture she missed the week before when she presented a paper at a conference in Chicago.
After apologizing to the class for the jam-packed lecture, she announces, “Let the squishing begin.”
The room is dark, save for a soft glow emanating from the slide projectors. In the dim light, the students start copying down the long list of words on the board – words like “Cuauhtemoc” and “Polyforum Siqueiros.” The slides in the projectors are a collection of Mexican paintings with titles, when translated, like, “Echo of a Scream,” “The New Democracy,” and “Symbolic Landscapes (tree with glove and knife).”
Mitchell draws inferences from the art, extracting intricate details about the artist and time period from each subsequent work. The terms on the board serve as an outline for the lecture, making it easier for the students to transcribe the most important points into their notes. As expected, the lecture is a race against time, but she handles it well.
The 75-minute-long class flies by – in the end, it’s still not completely in sync with the syllabus, but it is certainly more on track than it was at the start of the period. Mitchell’s students don’t seem to mind.
Fourth-year art history major Joseph Fry, who already had Mitchell as a teaching assistant for another class, says he thinks she is doing a good job, is easy to relate to and is a fair grader.
“I think she presents the material very well,” Fry says. “I love this class.”
Mitchell says it can be stressful teaching an upper-division course. Many of her students are from other majors like history, global studies and Spanish, and there is a lot of pressure for her to get all of her facts straight.
“I don’t want to make a jackass out of myself – it’s kind of a tough crowd in that class,” she jokes.
This is sophomore CCS painting major Adam de Boer’s first art history class, but he shares Fry’s opinion of Mitchell’s teaching.
“I think she’s good,” he says. “She’s really knowledgeable, and she makes the material easy to absorb.”
Life on the Outside
Mitchell divides her time outside of class between her dissertation research, her part-time job at the architecture and design collection in the University Art Museum and countless other side projects.
“There’s lots of extra stuff that takes up a lot of time,” Mitchell said.
Her adviser, art history Professor Ann Bermingham, said she knows that if anyone can handle the heavy workload, it’s Mitchell.
“She is probably one of the most competent people I know and is able to juggle the demands of research, museum work, teaching and writing,” Bermingham said.
At one point, Mitchell was head TA for Art History 6C – an 850-student class in which she taught a section and supervised 13 TAs – while also studying for her doctoral exams and organizing an exhibition for the University Art Museum, Bermingham said.
“Everything was due the same week and everything was done perfectly and on time.”
When asked about her hobbies, Mitchell laughed.
“You know, I really lost a lot of my hobbies when I went to grad school.”
She said she still enjoys reading, photography, going to movies and sports, especially soccer – she just never has any time for them.
“I don’t have cable anymore,” Mitchell said. “I just read and read and read.”
Mitchell said although she manages to stay ahead of all the deadlines, the intense time commitment required has taken its toll on her personal life. She said she has dated some, but that her work always made it too hard and the relationships inevitably fell apart. She takes it in stride – just another occupational hazard of her field. Mitchell used to have cats but her current apartment does not allow them.
“I do have a fish,” she said. Its name is “Catfish.”
Before the Art
Originally from Casper, Wyo., Mitchell majored in Spanish at the University of Wyoming before heading south to the University of Arizona for graduate school. It was there she got her first job as a TA for a small upper-division class on Dutch art while working toward her master’s degree in 19th-century British art. After finishing her master’s degree, Mitchell received an internship at the prestigious Fogg Art Museum, a division of the art museum at Harvard University, and soon found herself bound for Boston.
Before working at the Fogg Art Museum, Mitchell was seriously contemplating pursuing a career in teaching.
“It changed my professional goals,” she said, “and led me to see that curator work is where my strengths lie.”
She said she now hopes to someday work as a museum print curator, a position that would put her in charge of acquiring, documenting and displaying a collection of prints for an art museum.
Pregnancy and Mechanization in the 1700s
It was also at Harvard that Mitchell became interested in the work of William Hogarth, a famous 18th-century British artist who specialized in creating print engravings but was also a painter and writer. While putting together an exhibition of the work of Hogarth, she noticed he was the only artist representing pregnant women in paintings of the time. She is currently doing her doctoral dissertation on his prints, paintings and writings – specifically the metaphors for artistic creativity they contain that involve references to pregnancy and mechanization.
While interning at Harvard, Mitchell began corresponding with Bermingham, who was doing research in a field similar to her own area of interest. After the internship ended, Mitchell came to UCSB to study, with Bermingham as her adviser.
Working in Santa Barbara
Mitchell has been at UCSB for five years and worked as a TA for several years before starting to teach her own classes. Her first experience as a TA in Santa Barbara was for a huge six-series art history class with over 800 students.
“It was overwhelming at first,” she said – a big step up from TA-ing the small class at the University of Arizona.
She quickly got the hang of dealing with such a large class, however, and eventually took a job as head TA for Art History 6C. She taught her first class in Summer Quarter 2001, staying in familiar territory with Art History 6C, but this time with a greatly reduced class size of only 90 students.
Her current class, which only deals with Mexican art from 1785 to the 1960s, is much more specific than any of her previous classes at UCSB.
Mitchell said the work is rewarding, even though she does not plan to have a career as a teacher.
“I do like teaching,” she said. “I really like helping a struggling student ‘get it.’ That makes it all worthwhile.”