Interview with photographer, Jim Schaefer’70

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by Yolanda Zhang’18

Jim Schaefer, class of 1970, recently retired after 24 years as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University. Dr. Schaefer majored in Theatre Arts as an undergraduate at Beloit, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota. 

When Dr. Schaefer first arrived at Georgetown, he taught courses in dramatic literature. However, for almost 50 years now, his real passion has been photography. For the past ten years, he has taught graduate-level courses about the history of photography.  

Dr. Schaefer’s  favorite photographic subject is the urban landscape. Last October, his exhibition—“What is Space For?”—was featured in Gallery ABBA in downtown Beloit. Much of his work includes large-scale panoramic prints that capture the movement of time. View Jim’s work at jimschaeferphotography.com or on Instagram at jimschaefer0013.

COULD YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AT BELOIT, AND HOW STUDYING THE LIBERAL ARTS INFLUENCED YOUR POST-GRADUATE LIFE? 

I graduated in 1970; it was the middle of the Vietnam War. I couldn’t work because I was about to be drafted, so I spent the summer writing things to my draft board and working temporal work out of Madison. Eventually, I moved to Minneapolis…[and] looked for work in a hospital because I was hoping to do alternative service and that was one of the things they had people do.

…Between about 1971 and 1979, I did all sort of things. I worked in hospitals. I did physical therapy [and] worked in the therapy unit in the University of Minnesota hospital. For 5 years and two weeks, I was a senior secretary at the University. [In 1979], I went back to graduate school.

In 1984, I left with a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota. That was in the middle of a recession, when there wasn’t even a job to apply for in my field. So I took some temporary administrative clerical jobs and some computer programming jobs. Then, I [worked] for five years for academic affairs for the graduate school at Minnesota. Then, I got a job offer from Georgetown University; I worked for about 25 years doing financial aid, then eventually became the associate dean for academic affairs for the graduate school.

…What I eventually came to understand was that what I learned at Beloit was how to learn…The skills that I picked up [bloomed] when I went to graduate school, got all A’s, finished my Ph.D., and did really interesting work….

Starting in about 2000, I started photographing again…I learned Photoshop and went to workshops…[Around] 2005, I started teaching the History of Photography.

…Eventually, I ended up teaching in the American Studies program because I was not interested [in] teaching people how to use Photoshop. I wanted to let my students get a feel for the cultural importance of photography, and how we have used it historically since it was invented in France. I had sections in my courses on landscape photography…in one of my courses, we talked about gender and sexuality…The ability to absorb ideas from all sorts of different directions was helped by the fact that I have such a varied background of experiences that I had at Beloit….

COULD YOU SHARE WITH US YOUR DEFINITION OF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION? 

The main objective at first is to make you question something that is assumed: something that you’ve been told, something that you learned and then begin to see from a larger perspective. To understand that there are some eternal questions people have been asking over and over again for 2,000 years because there aren’t really answers to them. There are just more questions…[Studying the liberal arts is about an] openness to new experiences and new ideas from a wide variety of other sources—experiences that you wouldn’t expect to have; books you didn’t expect to read.

Part of the definition of liberal arts is two people reading the same text and discovering that they are reading two different books. They understand the text differently. The idea of you bringing your experience to your work— and somebody else bringing their experience— is the ideal of liberal arts education because it isn’t somebody standing up in front of you and lecturing. It’s that people from multiple backgrounds and experiences gather together and have a common educational stimulation in their own different directions, and they come back to share those. That is the wonderful thing about teaching students like that because they teach the teacher as much as the teacher teaches them.

AFTER 25 YEARS AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY, YOU’RE NOW RETIRED. WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE WHAT YOUR LIFE LOOKS LIKE NOW? 

I’m doing more photography now. My wife and I are doing a lot of traveling this year and took photographs along the way. I also got a lightweight camera that is easy to use. Also, I have a project that I’m working on. I grew up in the Midwest, so the project is about using photographs to explore the cities and towns from where I was born— all the way along the Mississippi River— to Minneapolis, where I lived for 22 years.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR CURRENT BELOIT COLLEGE STUDENTS?

I will give you the same advice that I got from my advisor. (This is the smartest thing that anybody has ever told me.) In Hamlet, there is an old guy named Polonius. Before Laertes took off to Paris, Polonius gave his son some fatherly advice. He said, “By indirections find directions out.” The idea is that you don’t get the idea as many people do, especially people who come from a place like Georgetown. For example, you come to Beloit, and you know you are going for pre-med, but you may not end up doing that. Suddenly, you find yourself interested in something else. Making wrongs can lead you to a right. One’s mistake can yield benefits.