Students filed into the packed Shannon Room last Friday afternoon to listen to Associate Professor of Art History Linda Docherty’s Uncommon Hour, “Art Theft and Why it Matters.”
“I was very touched by the turnout,” said Docherty. “You know, students are always late to these things. Then all of a sudden I looked around and they were behind the refreshment table.”
Docherty plans to retire at the end of this year after 27 years of teaching at Bowdoin.
“I’m sad,” she said. “It’s never a good time to leave Bowdoin, but I think it’s the right time.”
Docherty was not always going to be an art history professor. She started out with a degree in economics, keeping in mind the practicality of the major.
“It wasn’t going to be my life’s work,” she said. “I only majored in it because it was clear that I would become a teacher if I majored in English or French, and that was the worst thing I could be in my mind at the time.”
Her interest in art history, however, proved irrepressible.
“The first course that got me really interested in art history was a course on the art of Japan,” said Docherty. “Then I graduated and got married and had my suburban period, but then I came back to it and just got hooked.”
Docherty’s chief scholarly focus is American art. A self-proclaimed “retread,” Docherty said it took her a little while to find her niche in the art history discipline as well, and that she actually had more background in other genres when she realized the possibilities that American art could afford her.
“I wouldn’t say [the study of American art] was just getting off the ground, but it was in a comparatively early state,” she said. “There was potential there; I could barely step out of my house without finding something that would be relevant to my study. I just love that access to the context.”
She said that this access to context was part of what brought her to Bowdoin.
“Bowdoin is a great place to come for American art because of the museum,” said Docherty.
However, she added that what truly drew her to the College were the students.
“Bowdoin really won my heart; I can tell you up front I detest cold weather,” she said. “But I came to Bowdoin, and I just truly fell in love with the students; they were so lively, so interested in learning, and I could see that coming to a place like this with very brilliant students—not even all art history students—I could teach them everything I had to teach.”
After all these years, Docherty maintained that the students remain her favorite aspect of Bowdoin.
“Without the students, Bowdoin would not be what it is,” she said. “They have kept me intellectually on my toes all these years, and many of them have become long lasting friends.”
When asked if she had a favorite course that she had taught, Docherty responded promptly.
“I love my ‘World of Isabella Stewart Gardiner’ seminar, which is tied to my research, which I can make available for my students,” she said. “One night working late I get an email, and it’s a picture that says, ‘Working hard or hardly working?’ And it’s a picture of all my students in the library with all the reserve books out.”
At office hours, Docherty’s friendship with her students was evident as students dropped by her office to hand in papers. She had a lighthearted personal interaction with each of them, whether it was to ask about the lacrosse game over the weekend or to commend a student on her creative insights in a journal entry.
Despite her ease of communication with students, Docherty said she has never thought of herself as a gifted public speaker.
“I just love being in the classroom with the students, but I’m not really a performer,” she said.
Her Uncommon Hour talk, in which her comments regularly incited gales of laughter from the audience, suggested otherwise.
“A former student came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You had the audience in stitches!’” said Docherty. “And it was funny because I was trying to give you a very serious talk…I guess you have to sometimes laugh a little and not make it weighty.”
Docherty said she has also felt a strong connection to her colleagues throughout her time here.
“I met [Pamela] Fletcher in ’89, my second year here,” she said. “I taught the survey course; I had 144 students in Kresge, and even with 144 students she stood out as a great student.”
Associate Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher ’89 remembers this first meeting well.
“I was an econ major and absolutely fell in love with the class,” she said. “Even in that large class, she clearly knew who I was, knew my name; she would comment on a paper I had written. In fact, she still remembers the papers that I wrote in 101 all those years ago. So I’ve seen her amazing impact on students now from the other perspective.”
Professor of Art History Susan Wegner has an even longer history with Docherty.
“She’s a dear friend and a really valued colleague,” said Wegner. “I’ve know her for over a quarter of a century. She’s a really beloved teacher. All you have to do is look at her classes that start at 8:30 in the morning, and they’re filled with people, because they want to be taking class with her.”
Even though Docherty is retiring, she said she has no intention of abandoning the Bowdoin community any time soon. She will continue to hold an office in the department a little while longer, and plans to audit some classes in the future.
“I feel like I’ll always be connected,” she said. “Bowdoin is that kind of community where you know you can just stay in touch not just personally but intellectually.”
And then there’s the campus itself, to which Docherty said she has always felt a strong connection, and, living only a block away, she plans on continuously enjoying it.
“There’s always that moment of walking to work and coming on campus, and there’s just that moment of realizing what a beautiful place it is to be,” she said. “But I think that without everything that’s inside that beauty, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
Her colleagues, in turn, said that the College just won’t be the same when Docherty leaves.
“It’s a little hard to imagine, because my perspective on the department is very tied up with Professor Docherty,” said Fletcher. “I think that it’s going to feel like a little bit of a hole for all of us.”
“There’s no one like her,” said Wegner. “Introduce yourself to her; she’s a lot of fun. She loves cats.”
-Michelle Hong contributed to this report.