Catherine Scallen

The door is always open for Catherine Scallen’s students

On eve of sabbatical, Art History and Art chair Catherine Scallen is recognized with John S. Diekhoff Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring

Catherine Scallen’s students know she has an open-door policy that’s especially for them—even as she juggles the responsibilities that come with serving as chair of the Department of Art History and Art.

“Other things can usually wait, but when students need you, they need you right then and there,” said Scallen, who is also the Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor in the Humanities. “I made a vow to myself that, when I became chair, students would never come second.”

As a result, Scallen admits she’s had to set aside her scholarship to an extent. This sacrifice, and its embodiment of her dedication to mentoring, above all else, was cited by students in their winning nominations of Scallen for a 2017 John S. Diekhoff Award for Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring.

Catherine Scallen
Scallen poses after 2016 commencement with MA graduates Victoria Hepburn (L) and Molly Phelps

She will be recognized along with other award winners during commencement ceremonies May 21.

The honor comes on the cusp of Scallen stepping down as department chair to spend the next year traveling, researching and writing a book.

Since joining Case Western Reserve’s faculty full-time in 1995, Scallen has seen the demographics of her field shift; now the majority of students are women, whom, she said, sometimes are still unsure of their “right” to evaluate the scholarly work of others and to come to their own conclusions, as well as develop new ideas.

Seeking to empower her students with the confidence crucial for scholarly pursuits, Scallen is known for the empathy she offers.

She is also unafraid of honesty that can be blunt and setting expectations in stone.

“Professor Scallen knows when I need a friendly, but firm push, and when I need a pep talk,” wrote a student, in nominating her for the award. “When I do good work, she always lets me know.”

Along the way, Scallen aims to establish mutual trust and respect with students strong enough to weather the grind to graduation.

“I have the utmost faith in my students, yet sometimes life throws out unexpected challenges,” she said. “The compassion and sincerity you show students must be heartfelt, while also having their best interests in mind.”

Joseph Duveen
Joseph Duveen (courtesy of the United States Library of Congress)

With some students, mentoring can be more effective than teaching, Scallen said—channeling an approach learned firsthand from her graduate-school mentors at Princeton University in the 1980s.

“Their example is as present for me now than it was then,” Scallen said. “You’d think the opposite would be true. If anything, my understanding of what they did for me has only grown with time and become more central to who I am.”

Even as she is eager to indulge in the uninterrupted pursuit of her new project—a study of British art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, who soothed Americans’ art-buying insecurities in the early 20th century by turning to the expertise of professional art historians—she admitted the year ahead looks a bit bittersweet.

“I will miss my students,” she said. “It’s selfish how much I enjoy working with them.”