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Dooley Mixes Dynamism With Dramatics

Facing the Faculty

By Jonathan A. Lewin

Assistant Professor of History and Social Studies Brendan Dooley is not a traditional lecturer.

On the first day of classes this term, he asked students shopping his history class what they possibly hoped to gain by taking History 1321: "Spain From the Habsburgs to the Illustracion."

"You probably won't talk with a bum in Harvard Square about the material in this class," he said that day. "You probably won't ever see any of these readings again. So why bother to take the class?"

"Maybe if you're on the T and someone says to you, "What are you learning at Hahvahd?' you'll be able to say something fancy," he concluded.

As a professor and in person, Dooley likes to cut straight to the point.

This semester his nine-student history class has no teaching fellows or section leaders. Instead, he teaches the course conference-style, peppering students with questions as he works through the material with them.

"The lecture process should be a creative one," he says of his course, which he teaches in an animated, Socratic fashion.

A specialist in the history of modern Italy, Dooley teaches in both the social studies program and the history department--duties he calls complementary.

"The advantage historians have is that they are not specialized," he says. "They are not anthropologists or literary critics. But the great thing is they can be amateurs in those things."

Dooley himself was a relative latecomer to the field of history. He started out as a music major at Syracuse but switched to history in his last year, when he realized he would never be a star musician.

"I took something like 12 history classes, an insane number, in the last year and successfully switched majors," he says.

His interest in music naturally evolved into a fascination with musicology and the history of music.

"How do you read the 15th century notation for choral music?" he asks. "It's not easy to do."

Dooley says the history of music lead him to the history of culture and then to the history of places that had, in his words, "culture par excellence," such as early-modern Spain and Italy.

After studying at Syracuse, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in a program which included three years of study in Italy. There he met his wife Barbara, whom he married at the City Hall in Florence.

Dooley credits his experience in Florence with influencing his method of relating art and the aesthetic to history in his classroom.

After a stint at Notre Dame, he went back to Italy for another two years on a Fulbright scholarship.

Then he went to Princeton's famed Institute for Advanced Study, where he engaged in pure research, which was followed by a "bit of a shock": a teaching appointment at Cleveland State, where he taught a large Western civilization classes.

At Cleveland, Dooley taught nine courses a year, a load which he says shut out the opportunity for any research.

"There were no sections, so all the work of the course was on the instructor," he says.

But it wasn't all bad, Dooley says.

"It was actually a bit of a power-trip, to get to tell students what the low-down is in the 13th century," he says. "Although it was a shock, it was a good experience. I think my first lectures were a little rough, but the students were very tolerant."

Dooley has been at Harvard for the past five years, spending the last year abroad in Rome in the American Academy.

When asked about whether he enjoys the academic life, he says he is reminded of a page he read in a job manual a long time ago.

"It said, if you are an academic and you want a career change, you are crazy," he says.

"Academics are private contractors of our research funds and of our disciplines," he says. "In some ways it is like we each are the private manager of our own university. And the academic life is very unstructured, which is exactly what the creative process needs."

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