The art of being

Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year takes broad view of art history

Brad Collins loves art history, the subject he has been teaching at the University of South Carolina for 30 years, calling it “the queen of the humanities.”

And Collins loves teaching his students to appreciate art, to understand it and to realize its importance. He strolls around his classroom, asking questions, pushing students to look at things in a new way, having a conversation — even in a room filled with 200 students.

His methods clearly work. Students describe him as: “absolutely amazing,” “engaging,” “the best professor I have ever had,” and “I would take any class he chooses to teach.” A sampling of art history majors always finds some who say, “I’m an art history major because of Brad Collins.”

This year, the university presented Collins with its highest honor: the Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year award. For Collins, being honored for his teaching is the ultimate reward.

“I am a scholar. I love what I write. But I’m more of a teacher-scholar than a scholar-teacher,” he says. “I care more about the teaching. So this — this is the award that matters to me.”

Collins always knew he wanted to teach. As a high school athlete in Massachusetts and the captain of the basketball team, he says he spent a lot of time helping his teammates with their schoolwork.

“My friends were all the jocks, and I was a smart jock,” he says. “I got an enormous amount of pleasure out of helping them with their studies. It was wonderful when I would take one of my friends and explain something to him and watch the expression on his face change” as he understood the lesson.

It’s the same pleasure Collins still gets when the lightbulb goes on for a student in one of his art history classes.

“We live in a world loaded with imagery. The problem is, we are lazy lookers. For a simple reason ­­— there is too much to see,” Collins says. “We can’t give close attention to everything we see. We are scanners — we look quickly. The advertisers know this; they become very good at conveying information quickly.

“Art isn’t like that. Art requires more attention. I teach them to spend the time, not just to look at it, but to see it. And that requires effort.”

He discovered art history late in his undergraduate career, during his senior year at Amherst College where he was an American studies major.

“I remember walking into the room, the lights were turned down and suddenly there was this imagery on the board. I thought, ‘Wow.’ And I immediately fell in love,” Collins says. “What is more, art history brings the entire range of the humanities. It’s the whole ball game. That really appealed to me.”

By the “whole ball game” he means that while he is showing pieces of art and teaching visual literacy, he also is offering meaning and context to explain events, philosophies and writers, including Freud, Nietzsche, the Counter Reformation, Renaissance humanism, the Enlightenment to Post-structuralism.

He expects students to leave his classes with a better understanding of human history, along with a clearer idea of what they believe and a feel for their place in the world.

“I do tend to be very passionate about the subject. And that delivery is a key. If you’re bored by what you are talking about, they’ll be bored by it,” he says. “If you are excited about it, they’ll be excited about it. I like to think students leave my classes excited about art and its history. And that they’ve developed some analytic and visual skills.”

Collins says when he was in graduate school, one of his favorite professors started his lectures with a question: “Why do humans make art?” The class answered, “Because we can.” But the professor corrected them: “No, because we must.”

“We are the only animal that doesn’t instinctively know how to be,” Collins says. “Animals don’t need art; they don’t have the same problems or the glory we have. We get to decide who we are, decide how to be. The history of art really is the history of people struggling with that issue of ‘how to be.’

“That’s what the students are here for. They are here to figure out what they should be doing with their lives, what they believe. That’s why the history of art is important.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about