Faculty Spotlight: Gwen Robertson, PhD

Gwen Robertson, PhD, has been teaching Freshman Seminar and upper division Humanities classes in Art History at Colburn for eight years. She previously worked in the education department next door at MOCA. Dr. Robertson is from Coronado, CA.

This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

What brought you to Colburn?
I was working at MOCA and I was told that Colburn needed someone to give an art history talk, so I was sent next door to talk with them. I was like, I’ve never been to Colburn, I don’t really know what it is. I walked in and met with the then Dean, Director of Academic Programs, and Humanities Chair, and they were like, ‘Well why do you think you’re right for this job?’ And I was like, ‘Pardon?’ They’re like, ‘We’re looking to hire an art historian.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, how fantastic, I would be great for this job! I love teaching and I missed teaching when I was at MOCA and what a wonderful opportunity that would be.’ And that was it.

How has your experience been?
It is wonderful. I was at one of the accreditations with the full applied and academic faculty, and they were going around talking about what it is that everyone likes best about the students. Everyone on the applied faculty was saying, ‘I like working with the very best students. They’re the very best at what they do in the world.’

When it got to me, I thought, ‘I see the exact opposite. I like working with these students who have never been exposed to most of these ideas.’ I get the pleasure of showing them this world of the arts that is right next to them.

What’s it like teaching musicians?
I’m still not sure I have it quite right, but I’ve spent a long time trying to study what I can offer them that they need most. Sometimes I think of my class as wellness, like we get to leave the building. Sometimes students will say it’s the only time they’ve left the building all week, because we spend one day a week at either MOCA or The Broad, and one day a week in the classroom.

Another thing I tell them is to remember that whatever concert hall they’re playing in is probably going to be very near to a wonderful museum all over the world. One of the things I can offer is to remind them that some of their closest peers are in the museum, not the concert hall. Certainly, their audience is in both places. It’s opening up a world that I want them to know that they’re welcome in.

Are there specific ways that you approach teaching for that different audience?
Before, I had been teaching art students. They need a lot more of the craft of how things work and why things work. I try to emphasize to my musicians more how the worlds operate similarly across their arts, of creating, educating, and engaging an audience. The places that they intersect are more generalized, like how arts institutions work.

Sometimes the musicians can see issues in a museum that they wouldn’t obviously see in a performance venue. Like that it’s imposing to walk into a museum, that the doors are sometimes hard to find, there’s all sorts of codes about how you go in to the front desk, and what you can and can’t do. Musicians know all the codes in the concert hall, like where you sit, how you clap, and how you act, but sometimes they need to be more aware that the audience might feel that as an imposition the same way they’d feel that in an art venue. It’s something that they can then think about how to address in a different way.

Do you have a background in music?
I played the flute in youth symphony, but I stopped in college. I was a very, very mediocre flute player. I do play the piano just to amuse myself.

What have you learned about music since working here?
Mostly what I have learned is the depth of what I do not know. I would have said before that I was relatively musically literate, but I am astounded at all times of the scope of what my students know. I absolutely enjoy their lessons to me. I’m an excellent candidate for them to explain things that they know, that I do not. I have learned a great deal and I am more than ever aware of how much I do not yet know. I’m always humbled in the presence of all that they know.

What’s something that you’ve learned recently?
Often it’s quirky things. I’m always fascinated by how hard it is to make oboe and bassoon reeds. In my Art History classes, the students create artworks from their own lives and about their own context and I’m always absolutely floored by the scope of what they can pull together and how they think of that. One of my students did a whole sculpture out of the razor blades that he had to use to make reeds. You think, ‘Oh it’s really hard to play a bassoon or an oboe.’ But the artwork made it concrete what the amount of work and materials was that went in to make a tool to play the instrument.

Their end of year artworks are always amazing because of the number of things they’re thinking about and how complicated it is to be a performer, and a young performer. The concerns are both specific to their instrument, but also universal: we all want to succeed at what we do. I see in these artworks how complicated the world they’re seeking to succeed in is. And I think in the artworks they’re able to put it into context. Our students are wildly creative when they get a hold of it.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give your students?
To not be afraid to go out into these new contexts, even if that new context is only next door. Don’t be afraid to go next door and to see the world and to step outside a little bit more. I think it makes them even better musicians, being empathetic and engaged in the world right near them. I see it happen in front of my eyes when they do.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.