As you may have seen, we’re adding some contributors to Wonders & Marvels. We want you to get to know each of them, so we’re planning on doing a Q&A (like the one below) with each new contributor. This time around, we’re hearing from Christine Jones. Christine’s first post for Wonders & Marvels was on the Porcelain Trianon at Versailles.
Q: It’s always so interesting to learn about how people end up where they end up. What has been your trajectory? Did you always know that you wanted to be a college professor? Where you always certain that you wanted to specialize in 17th and 18th century material culture?
A: Nothing that I’ve done has been planned. It all seemed to choose me. I had no idea I wanted to be a college professor. All I knew when I got a taste of college-level thinking is that I needed to figure out how to keep doing it. My B.A. is in philosophy, but I gravitated towards the literary expression of philosophy, especially Absurdist theater. I got away with writing a senior thesis on Samuel Beckett, but my mentor made clear that to go further, I would need to work in a literature grad program. Suddenly I was a literature student! The long story short is that my stint as a 20th-centuryist lasted through the M.A., but once I took an 18th-century seminar the first year of my PhD I was hooked. So, no, I was never certain. If you told me when I started grad school that I’d be writing about Enlightenment material culture now, I’d have laughed and said, “What’s that?”
Q: Your most recent work has been centered on the history of porcelain making in France. Could you tell us a little more about that? What have been some challenges of working in this field (besides the fact that it must be frightening to actually hold some of that precious and fragile porcelain!)?
A: Most frightening for me about 18th-century porcelain (which I have never held!) was how alien the world of museums and art history were for me as sites of study. I worked in libraries and preferred to be a spectator at museums. And I never set out looking for porcelain. It showed up innocently in a literary study I was working on—a fairy tale—but before I knew it, books on tea cups and chocolate pots were all over my shelf. The story of how French artisans struggled with clay and with the state to make France a world leader in porcelain had never really been told. And after a few years of reading excitedly through archives and teaching myself the basic science of ceramics, I decided to tell it.
Q: You and I have been working together for several years now as writing partners. We talk a lot about what it means to be a writer and what is (at least it was for me) a long process of developing into a “writer” after spending years preparing to be a “professor.” What has your journey been like? What advice would you share with readers?
A: I’m so hooked on writing partnerships (and the joy of working with you is the reason I took to it so fast!) that I don’t want to write in isolation anymore. My journey to a writing practice came very late in my career as a professor—after tenure. It’s not that I did not write, but I did not write with the best part of me and I did not always write for me. The institution made me goal-oriented rather than idea-oriented for a long time. Instead I excelled at Socratic teaching and mentoring—the performing arts of academe—and wrote on the side, essentially as a professional obligation. Now writing feels like a performance art, albeit with a time delay, and I strive to go public with my ideas. The advice I’d share? The longer writer goes unshared, in my experience, the harder it is to share it and the more shattering it feels to get criticism (even constructive criticism) on it. Academics are under so much pressure to be smart and intuitive and innovative that putting ideas out there can feel paralyzing. But it’s precisely through sharing that the pressure diminishes, especially if you can swap first with someone you trust.
Q: And as always, the predictable question: If you could show up unannounced in some past moment, where would you go? Who would you see? What would you do?
A: When I was asked what figure in history I’d like to meet at the age of 18 during my interview for a Presidential Scholarship at Villanova my answer was Lizzie Borden. That answer was memorable, if a bit daft, especially for the priests in the room, and I ended up getting the scholarship that enabled me to go to college. Today I think I’d opt to meet people who did NOT make history. Ceramics artisans tinkering formulae in dirty Parisian ateliers and trying to beat the Chinese at their own game of course come to mind. Did they have any idea that they might make history? What did it feel like to invent something and then have a king take credit—and profit—for it? Did they think they were da Vinci, or were they just glad to make enough money to eat? How bad was the stench in trade environments in an 18th-century city? These are things I’d like to experience—with the caveat that I could come back and get 21st-century food and medical attention when it was over.
Q: And the unpredictable one: Is there a past moment that you would never want to experience?
A: Epic wars rank high among things I’d prefer to avoid. But maybe the Crusades are at the top of that list, partially because they so cleanly and frighteningly aligned human destruction and salvation. At least the Romans knew it was sport. But to kill and be killed to liberate the soul from the body—this is the mindset of a community that is capable of embracing, and therefore recklessly inflicting, pain to a degree that I find incomprehensible. In other words, it’s not just their lack of antiseptics and analgesics that terrifies me, but also the fact that there was something spiritually desirable about bodily suffering—causing pain could even earn you points in heaven. Not that we’re entirely over that theory, especially in the current American political climate, but what we call gruesome now probably doesn’t hold a candle to what the average 13th-century soldier on both sides of the moral divide lived every day.