Student Spotlight - Jackie Lombard

2018/19: Jackie Lombard is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the department of the History of Art and Architecture. A scholar of Medieval art, Jackie has been a graduate research assistant in the department’s Visual Media Workshop, where she has learned about the digital humanities through hands on experience. How can a Medievalist use digital tools? Read below to learn more about Jackie’s research on race in the Middle Ages and how her assistantship has impacted her research.

Update: In AY21, Jackie Lombard held a Humanities Engage curricular development fellowship. Read up on her experiences in her blog posts.

Explain the area and the importance of your research. 
My dissertation investigates a series of art objects that were circulating in the Holy Roman Empire in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Each object contains an image of an African person, though they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons; some are liturgical objects that contained images of Maurice, an African Saint, and others are luxurious items like ivory caskets that use African bodies as a form of ornament. I study these works alongside medieval and modern theories of identity and portraiture to examine how medieval peoples conceptualized the relationships between a person's appearance and their identity or character, and how these relationships were then activated or manipulated for political, or even racializing, ends.

What is the Visual Media Workshop and what do you do there? 
The Visual Media Workshop is a humanities research lab in the Frick Fine Arts building. The work produced by the people involved with the VMW is both art historical and digital. Because so many digital humanities centers at universities tend to emphasize text-based research, it’s really wonderful to have the VMW here at Pitt. These collaborative projects span from something like Itinera  (a tool that visualizes the Grand Tour through travels, as well as networks of 18th and 19th century peoples and objects) to digital sustainability projects. The VMW has also been the site of university-wide research partnerships that have resulted in seminars and lecture series on digital humanities and methods. It also functions as a pedagogical space, running tool shops in conjunction with the Frick Fine Arts Library and sponsoring undergraduate research assistants.

The lab usually has at least one art history graduate student and one student from the School of Computing and Information, who work collaboratively throughout the semester on a handful of projects. This year I am the art history graduate student working there. I have a few roles this year, but my primary responsibility is managing Itinera. I’ve been supplementing the site by inputting data on objects that were being transported across the globe in the 18th and 19th century, and I’ve also been developing a more historically accurate network visualization for the website.

How do you engage differently with your discipline as a result of your work in the Visual Media Workshop? And has this research assistantship helped advance your longer-term career goals?
My work with Itinera has demanded that I study Javascript and HTML, which I would have never seen myself doing before. Redesigning the visualizations to make them more accurately demonstrate how human networks has forced me to learn how to work with code, while always keeping our humanistic research goals in mind. I had actually taken computer science twice in college and dropped out both times, it was one of my biggest failures at the time. But now that I’ve been able to approach computing through history it actually makes sense for once, and that’s been a huge breakthrough. Furthermore, because the data I’m working with in Itinera addresses the movement of both objects and peoples, I’ve been able to do all this work while simultaneously thinking about how these methods translate to my own work which also deals primarily in things and people that move over great distances. Writing through these problems is really one method for parsing through these histories, but being able to visualize their networks and global impact is sometimes a more effective tool of both research and communication.

How do you build mentoring networks that support your academic and broader professional development?
I’m best at developing relationships when I can speak with someone face-to-face, and so I’ve developed my mentoring networks largely by being active at conferences, by being as active as possible in my department, and by attending lectures and their subsequent receptions, etc. As a graduate student who is somewhat young, I’ve often felt as if I have nothing to lose by just being as outgoing as possible when it comes to networking, and I think in many ways that’s paid off as I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people that I’m still in contact with just and it all started with just an introduction. I’ve also been incredibly lucky, and I’ve had some amazing undergraduate and graduate mentors from Carleton and Pitt, and they’ve been so generous which has really given me an unbelievably strong mentorship foundation. Finally, medievalists love Facebook and Twitter for academic discourse- and I find this has been a nice way to sustain connections with people I otherwise don’t see in person all that much.

What are your career aspirations, and have these changed since you entered your doctoral program?
I really want to teach. I applied to graduate school so that I could become a professor. I really wanted to be like the professors at my undergraduate college (Carleton College) who were always so energized by their work and always so willing to help their students. In nearly every way, I still very much want to be like them when I’m eventually on the job market. What’s changed for me since coming to Pitt is that I’ve been introduced to a really broad array of pedagogical methods and opportunities. I’ve seen how mentoring can work in a university, K-12 classroom, workshop space, and museum, and I’ve become much more invested in learning about pedagogical methods as much I have become invested in the material I want to teach.

How do you frame your disciplinary expertise and doctoral training for non-specialist and for non-academic audiences?
My research centers on ideas of race and identity in the Middle Ages. When introducing my topic, I usually start by talking about the intersections of identity, race, and art, because these are things that modern people usually have thought about at least a little bit. It’s not hard to start up a conversation this way. I’ve found also that a lot of people are genuinely interested in medieval history, usually by way of an interest in loosely medieval-ish popular fantasy. This is in some ways good because it means people like to learn about this Middle Ages, but it also means that I have to often act as a myth-buster which I think is a little tiresome for everyone involved. So, in general, I always try to find some way to connect my work to the person I’m speaking to because as soon as I do, then my research no longer seems so foreign or removed, it actually becomes apparent why it matters. 

Thank you, Jackie, for sharing your experiences, networking tips, and sense of humor with us! Keep up the great work – we wish you the best of luck as you continue to learn, grow, and thrive as a digital scholar!