Q&A faculty spotlight: Karl Whittington

June 26, 2023

Q&A faculty spotlight: Karl Whittington

Karl Whittington

Karl Whittington is a specialist in European medieval art and architecture, particularly issues relating to the history of science, gender and sexuality, materiality and reception. His next book project, Queering Acts of Making: Desire and the Creation of Medieval Art, explores the ways in which the material processes of different media put the bodies of medieval artists into situations that can be read through the lens of queer desire. At Ohio State he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on medieval art, and his teaching has been recognized by the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching (2015) and the Ratner Award for Distinguished Teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences (2017).

Please list your educational history including degrees earned and universities attended.

I got my undergraduate degree in History of Art at Middlebury College in Vermont, and then attended the University of California at Berkeley for my MA and PhD. I came to Ohio State in 2010 after finishing my doctorate. I am now Associate Professor and Department Chair in History of Art at Ohio State.

Please describe your current research/creative activity or area(s) of interest.

I study European art and architecture (paintings, sculptures, books, churches and textiles), particularly from the Middle Ages – the period from around 500-1500 CE. My research focuses on two main questions. One is the role of visual art in the history of medieval science. How did people in the premodern world use images in the fields of medicine, cosmology, cartography, botany and other scientific investigations? It turns out that artists and scientists were deeply influenced by each other. The other area that I research is gender and sexuality in medieval art: what art can tell us about gender roles and queer sexualities in medieval culture.

What/who influenced you to select your area(s) of study and how has that impacted your career?

I always knew I wanted to study something in arts and culture; I have loved art since I was a kid, and I loved learning foreign languages and traveling. I was really lucky to get to travel a lot because of my parents’ work; I lived in Africa and Europe as a child, and seeing beautiful works of art and architecture in these places really influenced my desire to learn more and study them. Then I had two teachers in undergrad that really inspired me and set me on the path to graduate school.

What undergraduate classes do you teach? 

In addition to graduate seminars and upper-level courses for art history majors, I teach several GE classes that I really enjoy. One is History of Art 2001: Intro to Western Art I. This class is basically an introduction to art history and we study incredible monuments and artworks from the ancient Middle East, Egypt, Greece and Rome, medieval Europe and the Islamic world. The other GE course that I teach is a new course in the Race, Ethnicity and Gender Diversity category called History of Art 3010: Gender and Sexuality in European Art, which is basically an introduction to race and gender studies through art history.

Why do you think a student should take these classes and, if appropriate, why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?

Both History of Art 2001 and 3010 are perfect for students in any major who want to learn about art. You don’t need any background for either course, but they prepare you for a lifetime of appreciating the role of artworks both in history and in our world today. A lot of people feel overwhelmed or alienated when they go to an art museum or visit a historical monument while traveling, and taking an art history course can help you get more out of those experiences. These courses also demystify art objects; they aren’t just beautiful things in a museum, they are complex embodiments of cultural tensions, conflicts, values and beliefs.

What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?

I love introducing students to the discipline of art history. Most students don’t get a chance to study art history in high school, so they come into my introductory courses not really knowing what to expect. I love helping students see how complicated artworks are and how much we can learn from them.

Please share information about any education abroad programs you lead.

I have been leading study abroad programs since 2013 and it is one of my favorite parts of being a faculty member. I lead two study abroad courses: a course in Paris on “Gothic Art, Architecture and Ecology” and a course in Italy on “Medieval Art in Rome and Florence.” Art History is the perfect choice for study abroad: there is no substitute for studying works of art and architecture in person and I love introducing students to these incredible European cities. I am teaching the course in Paris in May 2024, so get in touch with me this fall if you are interested!

What book/movie would you recommend or what music do you enjoy? 

A great book related to my own area of study is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it’s basically a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, but it gives a great sense of what life in the Middle Ages was like.

What is the most interesting place you have visited? 

When I was in college I did a semester abroad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. One weekend that fall I took two trains, a boat, a bus, and then another boat to visit a tiny island by myself on the western coast of Scotland called Iona. In the Middle Ages there was a monastery there; many scholars think it’s where the famous Book of Kells was made. I had always wanted to go there and it was incredible.  Less than 200 people live on the island; they are definitely outnumbered by sheep. When I got there, it had already gotten dark and I couldn’t find the place where I was supposed to stay, but I’d brought a sleeping bag and just climbed up a hill and slept in the grass on the side of it. When I woke up, the fog had come in and I couldn’t see anything except the sheep sleeping on the hill around me. I stayed two more days, visiting the ruins of the monastery, hiking to beautiful rocky beaches and imagining what it would have been like to live in such a remote place hundreds of years ago. I’ve never forgotten it – I really want to go back.

What is the best advice you have received? 

Learn how to say no to things that you don’t want to do or that are holding you back.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students? 

Try to enter each of your classes with an open mind. You might not initially be excited to take a particular course, but give the professor and the class a chance – you might be surprised at how interesting a subject is that you didn’t think you’d like. That’s what college should be about – exploring and learning about things that are unexpected and challenge you.

Feel free to stop by my office hours.

I’m always happy to chat with undergrads about anything. I particularly like talking about study abroad – I’m happy to help you figure out what kind of experience or course might be best for you.

Would you like to share a fun/interesting fact about yourself?

I was a college athlete at Middlebury, which is a Division III school. I swam all four years I was there, making a nationals qualifying time in the 500 free. I still like to swim, and have now convinced my eight year old daughter as well – she’s on the local YMCA swim team.

Learn more about Professor Whittington’s work, email and office location on his department page.

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