A Profile on Amy Woodson Boulton: Someone you should really get to know

By Sam Wilson

My interest in the humanities, people, and cultures I largely owe to my freshman year High School teacher, Ms.Rae. She taught our class with passion, humor, and sincerity. We learned about the ancient Romans and Greeks fighting for their empires and wealth and the bloody battles that wrote history. At the end of the year, Ms. Rae assigned us Beowulf, one the oldest epic stories that follows a hero trying to slay a vicious monster. She would read us excerpts in Old English, which is an extremely different language from the one we use today. She loved what she was teaching, and I loved learning from her. Ms. Rae taught us the logistics of the BC era, but more importantly, she taught me to follow the things that interested me. I’ve found that again, this time in my freshman year of college. My first year seminar class, “Art and Power”, is taught by Professor Amy Woodson-Boulton. She brings me back to Ms. Rae’s class in the way that her passion and excitement to teach is unmatchable. I look forward to attending her class and learning how racism, sexism, and imperialism are deeply systemic and how we are still trying to “undo” social inequalities that originated long before these issues were verbalized. We combine discussing these social issues with exploring different forms of art, specifically artists and influencers such as Vincent Van Gogh and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We analyze their powerful role from the 17th century to present day.

I had the wonderful opportunity of sitting down with Professor Amy Woodson-Boulton  and having a conversation around many topics. We talked academics, feminism, anthropological issues, and social issues. I asked her multiple questions to listen and learn more from such an empowering and inspiring person. I wish I could include out entire 45 minute conversation but I’m going to limit myself and part of the recording for reading purposes.

 

What made you interested in teaching college students? What about your area of study?

As a college student, I was going to be an environmental activist. That was my thing. I was very involved in an environmental group as an undergrad and then I studied abroad for a full year. It was then that I just fell in love with European history, I was already a history major, but somehow I had just done American History at that point. I also realized, this might sound terrible, but it was a lot happier to not be an environmental activist (laughs). I was also really interested in acting during the time and was doing a lot of theater. I thought I wanted to go into acting but I realized it wasn’t academically stimulating enough for me. When I came back from studying abroad, I had a very empowering professor of modern European intellectual and cultural history that really got me excited about history and academia. I got much more interested in pursuing that. Then I actually started a PHD program in London that was in cultural studies. It was an interdisciplinary program with the British Film Institute, the Architectural Association, and the University of London. It was amazing but I realized that was in cultural studies and I really thought like a historian and I needed the questions to be historically grounded. The program did introduce me to studying museums and so I came back and did a PHD at UCLA in history and then my first book was on the history of art museums. I used to joke with my family because it’s a little bit like activism and a little bit like acting because I get to have a captive audience and teach critical thinking which I see as activism. I remember talking to my friends from the environmental group, because I felt so bad for abandoning the struggle, but one of them told me “If I get up every morning knowing I’ve pissed someone off at Exon, that’s a good day. But if that doesn't get you out of bed or make you happy, you need to find something that does.” I’ve been so glad that I’ve taken this path and I feel so lucky.

 

What is your favorite time in history?

I always circle back to that generation before World War I and the war itself and the moment after. Thats a long moment but it’s funny because I feel like I keep trying to get further into the 20th century but I keep getting pulled back. My center of gravity is that generation, even from the 1880’s to the 1930s. Sometimes I wonder what is it about that period that I find so fascinating? And I think it is because the culture of imperialism, the culture of nationalism, and this really racist and sexistst exstablished truths were very very powerful. But at this moment, people were starting to articulate alternative visions and by the end of this period that kind of edifice was starting to fall apart. The suffragettes, the Indian and Irish nationalists you know people who were fighting against colonialism like Oscar Wilde. There was crazy energy around rethinking things.

 

Can you talk about a time where you have experienced sexism in the workplace and how did you dealt with it?  

It’s something my colleagues and I have talked about because there are so many things that we have learned to accept. This (Loyola Marymount University) in general has been a wonderful place to work and I’ve had wonderful colleagues. I haven't been subject to harassment or abuse or overt sexism of any kind I would say but I think I am also an extrovert and I’ve grown up as a very confident woman. I haven’t been afraid to be assertive and I’m also white so I’m able to enjoy that privilege of being able to be assertive without repercussions. That said, I think there were times when I was a junior faculty member that in retrospect people were asking me to do work, it was nothing inappropriate, but it was levels of work that I should not have been asked to do. Once I became chair I thought back to the things that were being asked of me and it was not an appropriate level of work. Even though it’s not necessarily because I am a woman I think the gender-dynamics of me saying “yes” or “no” was inflected by my gender. The other thing that I have experienced is that when I was chair from 2013-2017, during that period I’ve seen many more female chairs, which is wonderful. At the same time though, these roles are getting more and more circumscribed in terms of their actual power authority. As a professor, I can’t help but see how many professions got feminised and their prestige feel. For example, a secretary or a telephone operator. There are times that it feels like, my friends and I talk about this, but that we have become professors right at the time when the status that we have achieved has fallen. I can not help but feel that is part of a broader cultural pattern.

 

What about being a working mother?

I was super lucky being in a place that gives a semester maternity leave, but for instance when I was first hired, the chair, who was a man, told me it would be great if I could have the baby in May or January and I was like “um I’m not ordering the baby online” (laughs). He meant well but it was just these moments of reality between work life and having kids. I think in general, being a professor is actually one of the best jobs because I can do so much from home but obviously we have not figured out the whole work life and home balance.

 

What do you teach in your course that encourages conversations around equality for people of color, women, and minorities?

Well you’d probably be the better person to answer this one! But I guess what I try to do is make people feel less like these issues like racism and sexism are a personal failing but are baked into the structure of thought that we are now trying to “unbake”. However you “unbake something? You know, deconstruct. That is the cultural project that we are involved in, we certainly aren’t going to finish it but we are engaging in it. I think too often, and because this is the logic of liberalism, everything is about the individual. So people think of racism or sexism as an individual way of thinking. But when you think historically and structurally, you see that these are aesthetics and structures of thought that have been about power relationships and again help explain the origin of our disciplines, our political structures, language, and it’s written into our daily lives. Once you start seeing that, you can begin to deconstruct it and say this isn’t about me as a person, it’s not if I am a good or bad person, but to what extent am I aware of these structures. Thinking about the fact that they still exist and how we are able to think about European thought and history as one way of seeing things opposed to the only way of seeing things. How can we bring in the voices of marginalized and colonized peoples. It’s been years of thinking about these things to realize that that is what I’m trying to teach.