Janet Marstine visits her 'Alma Mater'

In September, I had the honour of returning to the Department of Art History at the University of Pittsburgh where I earned my PhD some 25 years ago. I was asked to give the distinguished alumni lecture. The invitation came as quite a shock because I was not a stellar student but, in fact, very much a work-in-progress; it took me a long time to learn how to write clearly, to make an original argument and to speak up confidently for what I believed. In fact, when I got the surprising news, the first thing I did was to email my supervisor, now retired and living in New Hampshire, in disbelief. ‘Who’d have thunk it?, I asked’.

I was both excited and anxious when I arrived in Pittsburgh. This is my hometown and the occasion provided an opportunity for my father, at 85, to hear me speak in public for the first time. It also prompted me to wonder how I would measure up to scrutiny among the current generation of academics in the department and the graduate students as well.

So, on that crisp September afternoon, I arrived a bit early and took a few moments on the steps of the building to take a deep breath and, moreover, to take stock of my journey from past to present. I allowed my older self to talk to my younger self and tell her that she did ok after all, that, through a combination of determination, good fortune, generous mentoring, and family support, she eventually found her way to Leicester where she has amazing colleagues and students and work that is truly satisfying. I also acknowledged to my younger self the gender-based barriers I didn’t quite understand then that had contributed to my inability to see myself as a promising emerging scholar.

By the time I got to the familiar old hall where my talk was scheduled, I felt ready. Of course, the talk went fine. My retired supervisor surprised me by travelling down from New England to be there and he was proud. My father was elated. I really enjoyed the discussions that ensued with the new generation of academics and students. But most of all I relished that conversation with myself.