In nominating Prof. Sinclair Bell for the Presidential Teaching Professorship, Judith Testa, professor emerita of the NIU School of Art and Design, described Bell as “that rare individual among university faculty members: a brilliant, innovative and extraordinarily productive scholar who is also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.”
Bell, professor of art history at NIU, is a world-renowned scholar and researcher with the ability to bring his knowledge of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, architecture and archaeology, and his experiences in the field, to his students in the classroom. In recent weeks he has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study ethnicity in antiquity, was awarded an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as being named one of this year’s four NIU Presidential Teaching Professors.
Fittingly, recipients of a Presidential Teaching Professorship are those who have demonstrated their commitment to and success in the many activities associated with outstanding teaching. As one undergraduate student wrote, “Professor Bell is a highly knowledgeable instructor who takes teaching seriously. He makes students work hard and think critically. These are both very helpful tools for the real world.”
For Bell, his interest in art history and archaeology originated from his parents, beginning with their travels together when he was a child.
“My parents have a passion for history, even though they both had careers in medicine. When I was eight, we left the US for Saudi Arabia,” he said. “As a result of being there for several years, I ended up seeing ancient sites all over the Mediterranean. I was not only able to visit all of the great monuments of antiquity in Egypt, Greece, and Italy, but I also witnessed firsthand my parents’ passion for the ancient world. It was very encouraging for me at an early age to know that studying the past was a legitimate interest.”
Bell majored in classical studies and history at Wake Forest University. He furthered his studies through a summer term at Oxford University, followed by a semester in Athens, Greece. He went on his first archaeological excavation in Carthage, Tunisia in 1994.
“In Carthage, we were digging at a site near a Roman circus—a venue for chariot racing—and that was when I first became intrigued by Roman entertainment,” he said. “It sparked a real interest in this topic.”
That interest led Bell to develop an expertise that has provided opportunities to present his research at conferences all over the world, write for dozens of publications including book chapters, journals, and encyclopedia articles, and to serve as lead presenter for the Smithsonian Channel series, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar.”
He says that one of the things he most enjoys about teaching ancient art and architecture at NIU is the challenge and the opportunity it provides to expand students’ horizons.
“Most students have only the slightest background knowledge of the material I teach every semester in my introductory and upper-level courses,” he said. “Few, or none, possess any knowledge of the ancient languages—Greek, Latin—that are key to the understanding of these cultures. There is no better example of this than my course on the Etruscans, a once-powerful but now-obscure ancient Italic people who lived in the modern region of Tuscany.
“They are commonly referred to as ‘mysterious’ because we lack a full understanding of their origins and their language, and because they were largely written out of history by the Romans who conquered them, the Etruscans are the subject of very few college courses nationwide. But in teaching this unfamiliar material to mostly first-generation college students, I frame it broadly as the story of a people who – although ‘mysterious’ now – left a material record of their lives, hopes, and dreams that is both radically different from and hauntingly similar to our own. Students learn several words of Etruscan and their English derivatives (such as the word augur) and hear about the contributions that the Etruscans bequeathed to our own civilization.
“By the end of each semester of this course, many students confess their enchantment with this ‘lost’ civilization: it is as if an entire new world has opened up to them. Each year, several even head to Italy on digs, to personally search for the Etruscans. This is my greatest source of joy in teaching: to promote a passionate interest in the past by those who had no or little previous knowledge or interest.”
Bell is returning to the field again as part of an excavation near the city of Viterbo in central Italy, a project which is directed by two colleagues, Profs. Lea Cline and Kathryn Jasper at Illinois State University. NIU students are already asking him, “Do you need any help in 2022?” He said he feels gratified that so many of his students develop an interest and enthusiasm in material that they had little or no exposure to before taking his classes.
“It’s not that they just graduate and disappear,” Bell said. “They tell me about how they continue to try to find ways to gain access to the material, whether by integrating ancient imagery into their own artistic practice or through visits to museums or going off on a dig in Italy.”
Bell said one of the things he appreciates about teaching at NIU is the opportunity to work with and learn from other faculty members who are able to integrate their fieldwork into the classroom. He considers retired colleagues Dan Gebo, a professor of biological anthropology, and Jeff Kowalski, professor of art history, to be two of his role models in this regard.
“Students really appreciate when you can ground your lessons with specific examples and not just speak in generalities,” Bell said. “That is, provide examples of you as a researcher at work, so that they can actually imagine: How does art history work? How does archaeology work? I’ve always done my best to illustrate my arguments through examples, such as ‘When I was in the field, this happened.’ I try to contextualize my lectures with examples from my own professional experiences and research interests.”
This approach has clearly resonated with his students. As one undergraduate wrote, “Dr. Bell’s knowledge and stories back up his claims. I love when professors can bring real life experience to their lectures.”
Echoing Prof. Judith Testa, another student remarked, “Dr. Bell is a spectacular professor who creates an environment that inspires his students to do their best work. I came in for a writing infused course and left an educated mind with a greater art historical appreciation.”
This article originally ran in the April 15, 2021 edition of NIU Today.