Student Voices: A Conversation about Collaboration

The conversation below sheds light on the collaborative process between a professor and student as they co-authored the paper “On Frida Kahlo, Salma Hayek, and Linda Nochlin: A Case Study of Art, Gender, and Pain in the Wake of #MeToo,” recently featured on AHTR and presented at College Art Association’s (CAA) 2019 Annual Conference.

The Seeds of Collaboration

Ellen Caldwell (professor): At the end of my spring semester last year, I was impressed with many of my students who had taken my History of Women and Gender in Art class. I really believe in the growth and possibility that comes from scholars and students working together. So I decided to set out on a small pilot project, wherein I worked with two interested students on co-authoring an article or researching a topic together.

I approached one student, who had admittedly been a very knowledgeable Frida Kahlo fan, explaining that I had specifically been considering an article that would explore one of my lesson plans that focused on Frida Kahlo, Salma Hayek, Harvey Weinstein, and the biopic film Frida. I sent her an email to gauge her interest… Natalie, when I sent you the email with this proposal last summer, do you remember what your thoughts were?

Natalie Madrigal (student): I was absolutely thrilled. Your course impacted me so positively, and completely renewed my interest for art history and how I approach it. I also look for any and every chance to discuss what I love and what inspires me, so it was a great opportunity. And I felt flattered that you would consider me for a project this interesting. I had never considered the idea of working with a professor before, so I was nervous and giddy thinking about it.

EC: And I was excited that you were interested! In the next segment, we are going to share some insights into the collaborative process, including nuts and bolts items like how we did it and what technology we used, while also providing insight into what we learned and gained from the process of working together.


Our Process

EC: I am a huge fan of Google Drive, so I immediately suggested that we start a collaborative working document. That is the main technology we used besides checking in via email or phone as well. This worked out well because we were both traveling during the winter, so this technology allowed us to work remotely and independently in the document, while also using the comment features to have active and ongoing conversations that continuously shaped our paper.

NM: I’m new to collaborative projects like this, so I definitely had to adjust to using Google Docs and Drive. I found it very comfortable; being able to see your writing process and expanding on some of the ideas and formats you suggested. Once I was able to get used to the format, it was easy to insert my ideas and learn how to write harmoniously with someone else’s opinions. This was a great opportunity for me to get acquainted with the process of writing articles and on collaboration as well.

EC: I even found that I was looking forward to checking my email and receiving an update about new edits Natalie had made or with a comment from her about ideas and suggestions. Particularly during the winter, it was nice to continue working with a student, while also reflecting about pedagogy and changes I might make in the future.

NM:  I actually felt the same way about the correspondence while writing our article. It was exciting to get notifications that aren’t from social media. It felt more akin to having a really in depth conversation with someone about a subject we both care about. I felt eager to apply the lessons and ideas I had taken from our course.

EC: One moment that we both thought was important to discuss came towards the end of our writing process. I work really hard to try to make my classes as inclusive as possible, and Natalie shares similar goals in her writing and scholarship. In class, we talked a lot about some of the limitations of second wave white feminism as it applied to shaping social art history and we also discussed the importance of intersectionality. But when I read over one of our first drafts, that was not readily apparent. And the emphasis felt like it was solely on scholars like Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock — both of whom are arguably very important to the field, but both of whom lack the intersectional approach I felt that I had worked so hard to emphasize.

From there, a conversation emerged. This is when I feel like we really utilized Google Drive well. I wrote a note and Natalie responded. From there, we made additions and revisions to shape the paper differently.

[Screenshots showing examples of such discussions that arose]


NM: Yes, this was an important part of the process. While rereading through our first few drafts, I observed that while we were discussing Frida Kahlo, who is obviously known for her incorporation of her dual culturalism and her intersectional point of view, we were only referencing white, female authors. Luckily, Ellen was largely on the same page and before I had mentioned it, she proposed the idea of introducing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, as she had in class. And while I feel like that term is widely visible in today’s lexicon, it felt nice to take the time to expand on its importance in its application to art history.

EC: Yes! I have also found that in recent years, the term “intersectionality” is used more widely, but it is not always used correctly (as activist Brittany Packnett recently pointed out in “Living at the Intersection” at the New York Times). Additionally, people do not often credit Crenshaw with the coining of the term. Naming and labeling the varied conditions of intersectional oppression is so important that this felt equally key to my class and to our article.

NM: And, in addition to our like mindedness in the tone and inclusivity of our article, I found that this form of communication helped break down some of the uncertainty that comes with working with a professor. I like to sound knowledgeable and professional, but this also helped me realize that on these articles, Ellen and I are working as peers.

EC: And that is wonderful for me to hear. I am grateful that Natalie understood how much I felt like this was and is a symbiotic relationship. Because to me, the goal is not to be a mentor and mentee, but to be equals co-mentoring one another.


Lessons Learned

NM: Working with Ellen really opened my eyes to how professors are changing their pedagogies. I have often felt the shifted power dynamic in my experiences with professors. She provided guidance without making me feel inferior. Writing an article was and is a very new idea and process for me, so I expected to feel intimidated or out of my depth. But contrary to that, I was very patiently and effectively guided.

EC: Was there anything you would change or do differently to improve the process?

NM: I would disregard my insecurity and anxieties of writing too much and my fear of sounding like I have no idea what I’m talking about. I know that it was my first article, so it was expected that I wouldn’t be writing as much because I was trying to learn and be observant, but I definitely felt that I could have participated more but was too anxious to. I’d encourage more professors to try working in conjunction with their students. Working on a mutual level of respect, patience, and interest is beneficial for both the teacher and student.  

EC: I also really enjoyed the process of working with Natalie. I knew from our class that she is an exceptional writer and deep thinker. But I also knew that with publishing, particularly in this digital age, it is so important and also challenging to get your foot in the door and I wanted to try to offer encouragement and early steps to help on that road.

One thing I repeatedly tell my students is how much I learn from them (and how much I appreciate doing so!). As I told Natalie over a recent conversation, “I might bring more book knowledge to the conversation, but a student might bring more life knowledge.” And vice versa. I of course am not the expert in every field, so I am constantly learning, changing, and reshaping both my knowledge base and pedagogy. This collaborative process helped put this belief into practice, as we each guided one another in different directions.


Our Next Steps

EC: Based on this experience, I will definitely continue to offer this collaborative process to students in various forms. When I presented our paper at CAA, I was on a panel organized by Cynthia Colburn and Ella Gonzales — also a professor-student combo presenting a paper they had co-authored for Hyperallergic. This felt really important.

When I think back to my own life and education, I realize that as both an undergraduate and graduate student, I craved more mentorship, particularly from faculty. In fact, one of the best experiences in my undergraduate experience, was when a professor of mine (shoutout, Dr. Connie Cortez!) went above and beyond to develop an independent study specifically for me.

As a sophomore, I had taken an African, Oceanic, and Native American Art History survey with her and subsequently I had spent a semester of my junior year studying at the University of Ghana in Accra. When I returned, Dr. Cortez knew that I wanted to continue studying African art, but she also realized that our small art history department did not offer this subject area. So she reached out to a colleague nearby at UC Santa Cruz and arranged for the three of us to conduct an independent study together. We met in Santa Cruz a number of times and also visited different museum exhibits together, such as Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity, then at the Oakland Museum of California. This effort and time, that both Dr. Cortez and Dr. Elisabeth Cameron offered to me, inspired me greatly then and continues to move me now.

In hindsight, I think I craved this kind of support and mentorship throughout my education and found it lacking at times. I want to continue to work with students and offer my support in ways that maybe I unknowingly wanted as a student as well.

NM: I heavily understand and identify with wanting mentorship and guidance from someone who is passionate about art history the way I am. Through the two courses I’ve taken with Professor Caldwell, I was intrigued and inspired by how she taught her class, conducted herself, and made the environment open and safe for her students. It can be intimidating working with someone you have a lot of respect for; wanting to prove that you are worthy of the opportunity, and to live up to the expectations you think people have about yourself. But I felt none of that pressure working with Ellen on this project. She made my ideas and opinions feel valid and treated me as if we were peers. It is comforting to feel validated in this way by someone I trust and look up to.

I feel more confident after this collaborative experience and opportunity, and after seeing Ellen exemplify that art historians are lifelong learners, and that it is important to further my education and understanding of art. After working with someone I see as my mentor, I have been given a new perspective on what I am capable of.


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