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Meet the Dean

Jerrilynn 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).  Sarah Lawrence spoke to Dodds about mosques, her favorite building, and why she wanted to work at the College.

Tell us about your scholarly work in art history.

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.

When you consider the history of religious groups-say, Christians and Jews and Muslims in Medieval Spain, it becomes particularly poignant. In Spain there was a really profound interaction between people who might on one level have defined themselves by religion But religion was for them only one part of culture.  So much of their culture was shared that it became the basis for common identity.

The recent war in the Balkans brought me into Bosnia to work on the reconstruction of city of Mostar. It was a city with an extraordinary architectural heritage dating from the 16th century: mosques, houses, shops, and the famous bridge. Muslims, Catholics and  Orthodox Christians had lived there productively before the war, but it was torn apart, especially in the second Balkan war.  Religious difference was popularly blamed for the hostilities, when in fact people were much more bound culturally and socially than separated by religion.  Religion can be an extremely potent excuse for political or economic domination. And once again, architecture was a way of helping to understand what was shared, as well as what was different. 

In 1993, I became very upset about the 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 New York City.  We talked to communities and imams, and we tried to understand how Muslims, as a minority in New York City, create identities for themselves through architecture. 

And of course what we learned is that there was an impressive group of Muslims who were intent on assimilation and who were proud to be Americans, and that, like most Americans, they embraced 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 wanted to present that in the book [New York Masjid], as a way of defying the media's impulse to go directly to the popular notion of the hostile Muslim. 

We turned in the manuscript for the book about a week before 9/11. The publisher said, "Oh, it's going to take us about a year to get it out." And of course, they called up the day after 9/11 and said, "We're fast-tracking it." We added a part at the beginning bearing witness to the fact that Muslims died in the World Trade Center; and 9/11 was not about Islam.

So the work that I began as a medievalist in Spain began to inform my experience about the visual world and about religious minorities in the present day.  I was very lucky to have work that I could draw into my present-day experience. Then my conversations with New York Muslims began to transform my historical work. I began to see the religious minorities I studied in the Middle Ages in ways that were more complex, after those years of fieldwork in New York.

What did you find when you were looking at the mosques?  What did you find in the architecture that spoke to this idea of assimilation?

I was absolutely sure that I was going to find Muslims who felt embattled and who would go back to traditional forms to give themselves a sense of identity.  After all, some of these were small communities of people who had come from the same village in Bangladesh or Bosnia.  But what I found instead were a number of different positions.  There was no one Islamic identity.  Their visual identities were affected by different social positions, different economic positions, the mores of the countries from which people came. 

There was a push to create something that really hadn't existed, which was an American Muslim visual identity.  People wanted to be both Muslim and part of the United States, in a rhetorical way. They wanted a visual identity that still felt American.  And that was very moving.

Another thing which I found was really interesting was a resistance to the whole notion that architecture could form your identity.  There was one imam I interviewed who said, "Stop talking about architecture.  Architecture is meaningless.  It's the deeds of the mosque that count." He thought the branding of a religion with architecture was a superficial thing to do, that it distracted your mind.

Are you working on anything in particular right now?

I just finished a book called The Arts of Intimacy:  Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture with Maria Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale.  We try to trace the ways in which Castilian cultural identity-the same Castile that brought you the Inquisition-was in fact formed in an intimate dialogue with the very religious groups they would later try to eradicate. The collaboration with a literary historian and a linguist was thrilling. 

I'm working on a project now called On the Destruction of Monuments.  It consists of 12 very short case studies of monuments that were purposefully destroyed, for political or social reasons. It talks about the meaning of destruction and its aftermath and how visual culture interacts with the urban context.  And how all of this changes the meanings of monuments through time. 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 672 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. In the process there is a humility about the monument before nature that we might want to listen to.

What do you think about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center?

I think there's still too much polarized, nationalistic jargon around it  The events of 9/11 were so heart wrenching, so horrific.  To respond with a gradiose monument with jingoistic overtones ... well, let's just say that the idea of a Freedom Tower makes me extremely uneasy.  I see the compromises people make in order to get that kind of commission, how they'll elide or not really even try to separate themselves from the cultural strategies offered by patrons, in order to get the job. These are things which are really of concern to me. 

In the School of Architecture, we never talked about the World Trade Center as a great, historical work of architecture before 9/11.  Never.  We had a fair amount of contempt for the building, which came from the fact that its design was almost entirely subjugated to the notion of optimizing square footage.  Just real estate.  There was not one major design gesture that cut into the possible exploitation of square footage.  The idea that it's architectural form has become somehow fetishized, or sanctified now is fairly upsetting to me.  The lives lost were sacred, and ought to be remembered.  And improving the lives of those who remain in the neighborhood ought to be the architect's sacred trust.

What's your favorite building in the whole world? 

I have different favorite buildings.  One is the Great Mosque of Cordova, which is a miraculous building. It's a mosque that was turned into a cathedral, built on the site of an ancient church. I just love that complexity because it's a real expression of what that place was like.

And it's beautiful.  It has an abstract, aniconic, Islamic visual language, which uses this complex decoration and manipulation of geometric forms to make it a kind of a meditative, intellectual design, together with the very figurative and rhetorical designs of Catholicism.  All of these things together-that's life.  That's real, messy, complicated life.

I also like Frank Gehry's Bilbao.  Lately it's not fashionable for architects to like it. The moment ladies in New Rochelle started liking it, the architects said, "No, no, no, this is not for me-too accessible." But Frank Gehry makes a very humane architecture, an architecture that really speaks to human experience.  He transformed the city of Bilbao, making a very ugly piece of post-industrial riverside into something that is being used by the residents in a really wonderful way.

And he created a building with a great deal of textual, sensual presence.  It's a different take on deconstructivism, which is an extremely cerebral construct, and often alienating by design. But Gehry constantly turns to physical experience.  What it's like to be in a building, what it's like to be in a city with the building, how it interacts with urban life.   

Why did you want to come to Sarah Lawrence?

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.  I was so lucky to come to the School of Architecture at City College, a studio school with small classes and an activist student body. I had that experience of teaching subjects with which I was deeply connected and of having the students' interests and questions transform those interests for me again and again.  I think for that reason  I've always had a yearning to be part of an institution in which the interaction between student learning and faculty learning was a guiding principle. 

The best thing about Sarah Lawrence for me right now is, I think it's the only institution which is really dedicated to progressive education and its powerful pedagogic practices.  Other places have fairly open curricula; no one else has conferencing and donning. For me, Sarah Lawrence is the place that can hold its head high and say, "We are really delivering this, and we're the only place that is delivering it with the passion and responsibility that we began with." We have a real mission - something that's a real flag to fly.   

Do you have any thoughts about how you're going to shape the curriculum or the faculty?

Nobody else works as hard as Sarah Lawrence faculty. I'm trying to find the words that will not make this sound like diplomatic-speak ... but it's really the case that the faculty creates the curriculum.  Otherwise they wouldn't be able to spend all that time teaching and developing students' creative and intellectual independence. 

The curriculum grows from individual faculty passion and research, without their passion, I can only think they would burn out in about 20 seconds. So I don't see myself taking the 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.

A more complex answer to this question would probably have to wait until I've been here for six months.  I see the broad outline of what I have to do, but it's really, really true that this is a job that you just don't come into like gangbusters. 

Sarah Lawrence has the most powerful faculty I've ever seen.  By powerful, I mean idea rich, with more constituents really invested in the process.  I've never experienced any other place where this is the case.  I think it's going to be a question of harnessing some of that energy and sort of nurturing the way different groups are heard by each other.

Do you have any thoughts about what the biggest challenges are for the College, from the dean's perspective? 

The biggest challenge is the challenge that the current fiscal crisis is presenting us, right?  It's not going to be a challenge, though, to defend and preserve donning and conferencing, and I'll tell you why: These are the things that make Sarah Lawrence unique, and these are the things that are at the heart of the institution's identity.  Any attempt to water down the basic concept of conferencing and donning would eviscerate what's most extraordinary about the institution. 

There are two parts to the fiscal crisis.  There's the tightening of belts, but that only works up to a certain point. The next thing is, you stand proud with the thing that represents your identity, because in the end, that's what makes you unique.  And that's where your value lies. At a certain point, that will be the thing that propels us from an institution that's tightening its belt to an institution that's flourishing, that's leading.

So, on a personal level, what do you do for fun?

I make watercolors-old fashioned landscapes, like ladies in Jane Austen novels make, only not really. And I read Victorian literature.  I'm a sort of a junkie for Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James. I've read Middlemarch four times.  No, five.  I've read Middlemarch five times.  It's the best book in the world.

Dean Jerrilyn Dodds

I've read Middlemarch four times. No, five. I've read Middlemarch five times. It's the best book in the world.