Focus on Faculty: Rita Keane

“I want students to develop confidence and agency to produce their own knowledge about the world; their perspectives are important and we need to hear their ideas”

January 2024 – Drew University’s Professor of Art History Rita Keane joined us for our Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.

Keane, who was honored with the coveted President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2023, believes learning is critical inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to teaching varied art history courses to students of all levels, she leads students abroad on shortTRECs to southern France to delve into the rich history of art and culture—as well as day trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We sat down with Keane to discuss her courses at Drew and her research on medieval women and art. Read on to learn more!

Tell us about the significance of your research
My research is on medieval women and art, and more specifically, the collecting practices of women who amassed books, sculptures, paintings, jewelry, and devotional objects like reliquaries and rosaries in the late Middle Ages in northern Europe. These objects are lavishly described in archival documents like testaments and inventories, but very few of these possessions survive in physical form today, and are therefore not as well known as works that can be seen in museums. The lives and activities of women were also not prioritized in medieval narrative histories, so documents like testaments are often our only sources for the interests of these women. In my publications over the last few years, I have written about prayerbooks that were passed down between female members of a family, a relic that was contested as fake, a diamond ring that an owner described as “beloved,” and golden hair ornaments provided by a godmother to her goddaughters as part of her obligation to support them financially. One of my forthcoming articles considers the question of value in the late medieval collection; what did medieval owners think was most valuable among their possessions, and why? Most recently, I have been working on the collection of Jeanne de Rohan, a woman who lived in Brittany in the late fourteenth century who was an avid donor of vestments to churches, in part as a way of participating in the liturgical life of local parishes. For this project I have benefited greatly from consultation with Danielle Reay, co-director of Drew’s Center for Digital Humanities Scholarship and Pedagogy, who has helped me with digital humanities tools for managing the large amount of data in the project. 

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Professor Keane (right), shortTREC co-leader and French Professor Marie-Pascale Pieretti (left) with Drew students at the Musee Chagall in Nice, France.

How does your research and scholarship impact your students?
I talk about my research with students because it is important to model scholarly inquiry. I want students to develop confidence and agency to produce their own knowledge about the world; their perspectives are important and we need to hear their ideas. Understanding critical and creative inquiry as a process (including, more often than not, failure and moving on from it!) ideally provides a blueprint for them as they develop their own research projects, share their insights in their classes, and prepare for future careers. 

Caveats for reading evidence are another important part of my research that I share regularly with students; medieval women who were writing testaments, for example, tended to exclude possessions for various reasons (things that were broken, or had already been distributed), so we do not have a complete picture of their collections. In other words, it is very important to understand not just what archival documents tell us, but what they leave out. I also challenge students to think carefully about the questions that they ask about the past; what motivates the questions we ask and how might we reframe them productively? I am teaching a course on Cleopatra in spring 2024, and these issues are particularly relevant when considering her ancient biography, written for the most part by those who disliked her or who lived long after her.

Which are your favorite classes to teach and why?
I appreciate all of my classes for different reasons. I enjoy working with junior and senior art history majors in advanced courses because I know their academic work well and I can collaborate closely with them on addressing weaknesses while nurturing their strengths. But I also love introductory classes like Art History 101 that attract many students who are seeking to meet a general education requirement. These classes have a lot of energy precisely because they are composed of students who are beginners from many different majors; these students benefit from learning the methodological perspectives of art history and creative inquiry and they bring the approaches of their own fields, like physics or psychology, to the study of art and everyone in the class is richer for it. I am teaching Islamic Art this semester, and it is one of my favorite classes because so many of the works of art are visual showstoppers, like a medieval Qur’an painted a deep cobalt blue or the Iznik pottery that illustrates Ottoman love poetry. If I had to identify one favorite class above all, it would have to be the Ancient Art of Egypt, for the same reason that everyone loves Egyptian art, because it is just so very cool. 

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