Liza Oliver is an Assistant Professor, Art History and South Asia studies at Wellesley College. Her area of research is 18th- and 19th-century Europe and South Asia, focusing on the visual and material cultures of trade, liberalism, and colonialism. She also is interested in the intersections of art and science and has written for the New York Times.
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of research and how did you find your way into academia in particular?
I started out as a fine arts major—painting—in undergrad, but soon realized after my first history course that I liked reading and research a lot better (and was also better at it than painting). I chose art history because it was the perfect synthesis of my interests in both aesthetics and history. It wasn’t until my MA program that I honed in on my specific historical interests—namely 18th-and 19th-century colonialism, which eventually led me to South Asia. I suppose I was always interested in understanding different forms of power and how they manifest in historical contexts, along with understanding how people understood and interacted with one another in those contexts.
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
Looking back, it all came together in a pretty coherent way, but at the time it always seemed haphazard, never knowing where I would be the following year until word from admissions offices, or grants, or jobs—such is life in academia. I was on a postdoc at the Met when I interviewed for my job at Wellesley. It was a long shot, as all jobs in academia are. I think my hire came down to 1) my research interests aligning pretty well with what the department was seeking, 2) not embarrassing myself too badly during my two-day campus interview, and 3) more than a smidgen of luck.
Q: Can you tell us a funny/amusing story from graduate school?
Oh boy. Well, there was a notoriously difficult professor in my PhD program. After a series of notoriously difficult email exchanges with said professor, I forwarded the chain to a friend, in which I expressed my thoughts on said professor in no uncertain terms. Only, I accidentally hit reply instead of forward, landing my thoughts in the prof’s inbox. The fallout was pretty severe at the time, but looking back, the incident never ceases to make me laugh. Moral of the story is to always check the recipient line before pressing send. Or don’t….and let the chips fall where they may.
Q: What is the funniest/quirkiest/weirdest side job you ever had?
During my PhD program I often took side jobs inventorying art collections for a friend who owned an art appraisal business. This landed me in some pretty cool places like Cairo, but it also brought me into the homes of a few characters. I went to inventory a private collection outside of Chicago shortly after Obama was elected to his second term. The owner wanted his collection appraised so he would know its value for when “Obama comes to steal it all.” He spent the duration of my day-long inventory yelling at the TV while Fox News blared. Good times.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
I can’t say that there is any typical day, but it is usually a selection of the following: lecturing, scrambling to finish preparing a lecture, meetings and more meetings, advising students, grading in the wee hours of the morning because I (we all) put that off till last. I manage to squeeze in some of my own research and writing during the semesters, but that’s mostly saved for winter and summer breaks.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
I would say the biggest challenge is being stretched thin across teaching, research, and college service commitments, while being expected to perform at one hundred percent across those categories at all times. Tenure, tenure, tenure.
Q: What is an unexpected but essential skill that you picked up “on the job”?
Academics are trained to think of their work only in terms of their intellectual output, but we do pick up a lot of useful skills along the way—languages, fundraising (i.e. grant writing), public speaking, juggling lots of balls in the air at once, etc. I think patience (yes, that’s a skill) is the most essential for being an effective teacher.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
I never thought I would say this because I became an academic out of a desire to research, not to teach. But I do really love the students. Advising independent studies and theses with bright students is one of my greatest pleasures at Wellesley, as is time spent in the classroom. Smart, curious students make all the difference.
The traveling and living abroad I get to do for research is pretty great, too.
Q: What are the objects/themes that compelled you to your specialty? How did you choose/come upon it? What are the things that continue to inspire you about this area of research? How do you get out of a creative/research rut?
Ships, honestly. Ships and the stuff they carried in the 18th-century—tea, textiles, porcelains, opium, and indigo. To this day, I want to rent quarters on a commercial shipping barge that travels from the Indian Ocean to Europe, so I can get a sense of what it was like to make such a journey. It’s on my bucket list.
As for research ruts, I try to not be too hard on myself. That usually just makes the rut deeper. Sticking with the material in small, manageable doses until I find my hook usually works. Sometimes, though, sheer force of will is necessary.
Q: How do you start an ambitious/large-scale research project (like your books)? What is your creative process like?
I don’t seek it out—I let the project find me, so to speak. And I make sure I’m really passionate about the subject before throwing myself into it, because books are such a long process that you will invariably get burnt out at some point or another. I enjoy archival research the most—getting lost for months in 18th-century records and correspondence, and the discoveries and realizations that come from that. It’s in archives that my ideas about my subjects really cohere.
Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?
Cross-cultural histories beyond Europe.A significant amount of work has been done on Europe’s engagements with many countries. Less so on, say, cross-cultures of the Indian Ocean world, for example.
Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
There’s a little thing called “imposter syndrome” that’s pretty prevalent in academia. I think we are trained to be so critical of everything that it’s only normal we turn that lens onto ourselves. I’ve learned to leverage this for the positive. If I’m always convinced (as I am) that I’m not going to get the fellowship/job/postdoc/etc., then I’m always pleasantly and genuinely surprised if it actually happens.
Q: What advice would you give someone starting out in the field? Alternatively, what advice would you give your younger self?
To someone starting out in the field: Never begin a PhD in the humanities unless it’s fully funded with a stipend and tuition waiver. And if you do it, only do it because you love the process and not because you have a fixed idea about the end result. In today’s academic market, the end result may not be what you hope for.
To my younger self: Enjoy every minute of grad school, despite its many stresses. It’s probably the only period in your career when you’re going to have that amount of time to read about exactly what you want to read about. What could be better than that?
Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about your field of study or art history in general?
I think people are generally unaware of the extent to which visual information impacts their understanding of the world. Art history as a discipline is central to unlocking this.
Q: The arts/humanities often get the reputation of being elitist, irrelevant, and detached from the so-called “real world”. How would you respond to someone with these assumptions?
I would ask that they please define “real world” and then think carefully and critically about their implicit assumptions behind that definition. Should they struggle with the latter, I would remind them that careful and critical thinking is made a lot easier by an education in the humanities. Should they then question the overall value of careful and critical thinking in society, I would refer them to the 2016 election results.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
Yes, I hear this from a good deal of my students, and I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t feel the need to address the parents as much as I do my students. To them I often say some version of this: you only have one (short) life, and living through a career you don’t like to accommodate your parents’ worry is a really bad way to spend it.
Just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any comfort drink/food combo) to us?
Put any super Tuscan or Provence rosé in front of me and I’ll be a happy camper. Even better if it comes with the seared Manchego at Juniper in Wellesley. At home, I’m more likely to drink a bourbon alongside a bowl of sambar—a vegetable South Indian soup that’s a staple in my house.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
Aside from the bourbon above, I read broadly outside of my field for pleasure and look to my cat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for decompression. Animals always do the trick.