Real Womxn’s Voices: Nancy Lin

The assumption that there is a universal and singular experience as a womxn erases the nuances and variety that exist. This column seeks to address the many intersections that overlap in an individual’s life. All this is done in an effort to celebrate the reality of womxnhood in the various ways it may be expressed.

Assistant Professor of Art History Nancy Lin worries that a hypothetical autobiography may be too straightforward — a person who loves to read and write doesn’t always produce page-turning content. But in Lin’s case, her affinity towards those things reveal an interesting, considerate and erudite person whose journey has taught her essential lessons of life. 

Lin, as an individual, feels part of a distinct Lawrentian culture — mostly because she recognizes the shaping role she plays in the lives of her students as a professor of art history. She treats the responsibility that comes with that influence with delicacy. In her eyes, teaching should never involve an impersonal classroom where she preaches her own thoughts as answers. Instead, there should be an unspoken, mutually beneficial process that occurs when she asks “why?” The discussion that springs forth has the potential to be eye-opening, giving her a breadth of various perspectives to consider a work of art through. In this way, she considers herself just as much of a student as those officially enrolled in the registrar. When she enters the classroom, above all else, she hopes to learn.  

“Every interaction I have with a student is a gift,” she said. “It’s a split second of their time, but it gives me a chance to know them and for them to know me. The classroom shouldn’t just be about the lecture, but the intellectual engagement. I’m okay with that openness.”  

The openness Lin now possesses as an educator took time to develop and apply practically in her life. Like most young people looking hopefully forward into the future, a younger Lin envisioned herself in the midst of an adventure. A career in archaeology meant the possibility of becoming Indiana Jones in her own right — namely, an Asian-American womxn adventurer utilizing her extensive knowledge to discover and learn. She often fantasized about entering the Temple of Doom. Her parents, meanwhile, hoped that she would enter the STEM field alongside the many other members of her family. Her interest, however, did not wane and was renewed with dedication as she grew older. She spent much of her childhood and adolescence preparing to become an archaeologist. 

As a high school student, Lin got the opportunity to participate on a dig in Pompeii. To physically be at the site referenced so many times in the books she had fervently read meant everything to a sixteen-year-old Lin. The reality of sifting through the same patch of dirt under the baking desert sun for the entire summer disappointed her. Mainly, it made her inwardly realize that archaeology was unequivocally not for her. 

The same summer, Lin left the ruins of Pompeii and found herself in Rome after her brief stint as a low-tier archaeologist. She wandered the streets of Rome, she said, still recovering from the unraveling of the future she had imagined and entrenched in “the drama of it all.” It seemed like the end of the world. Then, she stumbled upon a cathedral with a triptych of Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew” on its wall. The religious message of the artwork meant little to her, but the works themselves fascinated her. “They were really powerful works,” she explained, “just in terms of composition and craftsmanship; they come to life in such a way where the figures come out of the frame. I think, in that moment, I fell in love and thought, ‘This is what I want to read about.’” 

In retrospect, Lin wishes she could have guided her younger self through the feeling of failure in the immediate aftermath of the dig. The younger Lin, however, successfully turned her curiosity in that moment into an eventual career just on the basis of her passion for reading. 

“Art history just seemed like the better fit,” she said.  “It’s amazing to think about how all the problems in society are manifested in this creative output. It’s the evidence of your presence.” She continued, “Artists are [also] really interesting problem solvers — they take the materials available to them and ask really interesting questions about society and culture. They provide answers to their own questions. I always think, ‘Well, how can I understand the message?’ I love that about my field.”

Art history places Lin in the position where, in order to analyze, one has to draw from a multitude of different fields. Historical information, anthropological theories, psychology and science are all readily available for use if needed for understanding. Lin considers the world through that particular lens of careful consideration and deconstruction, always aware of the never-ending process of learning.