Shared Academic Experience: Class of 2022 and Transfer Students

Programs During New Student Orientation

This year's Shared Academic Experience consists of two programs on Saturday, September 8:

  • Choose Your Own Adventure between 10:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. - click here for more details.
  • Culminating lecture by Professor Coffey at 3:00P.M. in Hopkins Center, Spaulding Auditorium (attendance is required; please bring your Dartmouth ID).

Also, check out the Rauner Library blog  for a preview!


Each year, a member of the Dartmouth faculty is asked to curate a Shared Academic Experience to meaningfully engage incoming students and encourage community dialogue and personal reflection.

This year, Mary Coffey, a Professor in the Art History Department, has selected Dartmouth's treasured Orozco Mural to launch our shared "Experience."

Background Information

 Modern Industrial Man: Orozco mural

From Professor Coffey on The Epic of American Civilization:

Did you know that José Clemente Orozco, one of the “three great” Mexican muralists, lived at Dartmouth between 1932 and 1934 while he painted a large mural cycle in the reserve reading room of the library?

Did you know that this mural, The Epic of American Civilization, was designated a National Historical Landmark by the National Parks System of the United States in 2012, making it the first work of art by a Mexican artist to receive such an honor?

How did a Mexican artist end up at Dartmouth in 1932? Why has a mural, painted by a Mexican artist, come to be valued as a landmark of the United States national history? What does this work of art have to say to us today? Why should you care about The Epic of American Civilization?

While most Dartmouth professors have chosen a novel or a non-fiction book as the Shared Academic Experience, I have selected a monumental work of art. This poses some challenges: unlike a book, which can be reproduced and circulated widely, Orozco’s mural is very large and best experienced on site at the library (although we will provide you with online resources that will allow you to “tour” the mural before you get here). Unlike many works of literary art, the communicative properties of visual culture can be hard to understand or even be seen as too “subjective” to ground us in a common experience. We all grow up learning how to read, but most of us do not get a lot of formal training in how to interpret visual art.

My goal is to present Orozco’s mural as an open text, as an artifact of Dartmouth’s past, but also as an argument about “American civilization” that is as relevant to us today as it was when Orozco painted it. Therefore, my hope is to engage you in an interactive series of encounters about the themes in Orozco’s mural. I also intend to use the mural to introduce you to the many resources on campus that allow Dartmouth students to undertake original and self-directed learning through the liberal arts. In addition to the materials I provide through this website and Dartmouth’s Canvas platform, I will also be including a number of materials that have been produced by Dartmouth students just like you.

The Mural:

José Clemente Orozco painted The Epic of American Civilization between 1932 and 1934 in the basement reserve reading room of Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library (now referred to as the Orozco Room). This mural wraps around the west, north, and east walls of the rectangular corridor relaying a vision of American history that originates in pre-Columbian civilization and which seems to culminate in a Christian Apocalypse. The Epic is divided into two wings situated on either side of a reserve desk, which opens up a chasm within its sequence that the viewer navigates physically and conceptually as they move through the corridor. This breach marks the violence of European conquest of the Americas, cleaving the Epic in two. In a niche opposite the reserve desk, on the south wall, Orozco painted a supplement to the cycle entitled “Modern Industrial Man” where we see a racially ambiguous worker reading a book much as the Dartmouth student checking out reserve materials might.

Orozco’s America is continental, not a synonym for the United States. His Epic, therefore, provokes Dartmouth students to reconsider the settler narrative of Manifest Destiny that underpins U.S. American history. When proposing a topic to the College, he argued that in this mural he would interpret the “forces, constructive and destructive, which have created the patterns of human life in the Western Hemisphere.” He selected the myth of Quetzalcoatl, a myth he described as a “living” American myth, “pointing clearly by its prophetic nature to the responsibility shared equally by the two Americas of creating here an authentic New World civilization.” By organizing his Epic around this myth, Orozco insists that we recognize the priority and significance of indigenous cultures to American civilization while also acknowledging the devastation upon Native America brought about by European conquest and settlement.

Our task will be to consider what he meant when he referred to the “two Americas?” What is our “shared responsibility?” What are the “constructive and destructive forces” he identifies in the formation of our America? How does one answer to the violence of the past? And what forms can social justice take given the legacies of violence at the foundation of American modernity?

I propose to you, that the themes of Orozco’s Epic bear distinct traces of his experience on this side of the U.S.-Mexican border. Of all of his murals, the Epic is the one that most reflects the ways that this change in geographical location affected his understanding of history, identity, and power. As such, it is as much a statement about U.S. cultural heritage as it is a work of Mexican art. In fact, this mural reveals how we have come to imagine the differences — national, cultural, racial — that the U.S.-Mexican border attempts to naturalize, and why this bordering is not only historically inaccurate, but also a barrier to reimagining America in ways that are more socially just.

José Clemente Orozco:

José Clemente Orozco was born on November 23, 1883 in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He grew up in Guadalajara, and then moved to San Jacinto where he spent three years studying agricultural engineering before entering the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, briefly pursuing architecture. However, he eventually abandoned these studies to pursue his passion for art at the Academy of San Carlos where he was a classmate of Diego Rivera, among other notable Mexican artists. In addition to the murals for which he is famous, Orozco painted and executed countless drawings and prints. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) he worked as an illustrator for oppositional newspapers affiliated with the Constitutional cause. This experience would inform his graphic drawings of the horrors of the Mexican Revolution, as well as his critical perspective on war and mass politics thereafter. With the establishment of the post-revolutionary regime under General Obregón, he joined Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others in the public art initiative spearheaded by Minister of Public Education, José Vasconcelos. While often at odds with their federal patrons, the artists employed by Vasconcelos inaugurated what is now known as the “Mexican Mural Renaissance,” painting monumental cycles throughout the Americas. In 1924, they organized themselves into a union and wrote a manifesto in which they proclaimed their allegiance to socialism, decolonization, and Mexico’s working classes and indigenous populations. Orozco came to the United States for the second time in 1928 to paint his first U.S. mural at Pomona College in Claremont, California. After that, he painted a cycle at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and then the Epic at Dartmouth. He then returned to Mexico, where he painted some of his most famous murals in Mexico City and Guadalajara. He would come back to the United States one last time in 1939 to paint a portable fresco at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC as part of the blockbuster exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. Orozco died on September 7, 1949 at the age of sixty-six.

Biography: Mary Coffey

Mary Coffey, Art History

I grew up in the rural suburbs of Indiana in a middle class family. My father became a doctor on the G.I. Bill, and my mom finished her education after putting all four of her kids through college. Both were first generation college students. For much of my education, I was a poor student and an even worse standardized test-taker. But I had a number of tough-love teachers who supported me nonetheless. For that reason, I believe in second chances and late bloomers; I'm skeptical of standardized tests and conventional metrics of "excellence." And I know first-hand the power of a great teacher. I know we don't all start out as "geniuses," and that most of what we accomplish derives from hard work, a willingness to take risks (and fail), and an open mind. As a teacher and a scholar, I seek to cultivate those values by upholding high standards, but also by recognizing that everything is a work in progress and that it is the process, not the final product, that matters most. Students often say that they left my class with more questions than answers. And while that isn't always meant as a compliment, I take it as one.

I went to college and graduate school in the Big Ten. In addition to studying Art History, I also pursued cultural studies, a track that has influenced the idiosyncratic way I write and think about art and visual culture. My cultural studies training pushed me to take popular culture seriously, to ask questions about the politics and stakes of knowledge, and to integrate ideas and approaches from other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, cultural geography, performance studies, feminism, and decolonial theory, to name only a few, into my research.

I taught at Pomona College and New York University before coming to Dartmouth where I am Associate Professor of Art History and an affiliated faculty member in the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies Program and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. While an outsider to the Ivy Leagues, small colleges, and New England, I have come to love teaching at Dartmouth and to fully appreciate the value of a liberal arts education.

My research and teaching concern the modern art of the Americas, with a particular emphasis on Mexico and the United States. I have published widely on Mexican muralism. My first book, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums and the Mexican State, explores the role murals played in the development of Mexican museology after the Revolution. My forthcoming book, Orozco's American Epic: Myth, History, and the Melancholy of Race, is the first in-depth study of José Clemente Orozco's fresco at Dartmouth College.

In addition, I have published essays on the politics of museum exhibitions like The Art of the Motorcycle or Great Masters of Mexican Art. I often write for or work on exhibitions of Mexican art, such as Paint the Revolution and Prometheus 2017. I like to bring my museum experience into my teaching by involving students in curatorial or web-based projects with the Hood Museum of Art, the libraries, DALI lab (Dartmouth Applied Leadership and Innovation Lab), and Jones Media Center.

At Dartmouth I promote Orozco's mural by generating scholarship, offering tours, and involving students in creating materials for the public. I also work closely with students involved in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, and I am a faculty ally for Co-FIRED (Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality, and DREAMers) in their efforts to support undocumented students and their families. I am a member of our American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter, and in that capacity I seek to support the College's efforts to increase diversity and equity on the faculty.

My new work focuses on the way race, racism, and racial violence appear in Orozco's murals and prints. This has gotten me excited about the genres of speculative fiction and horror, particularly the zombie as a figure that haunts American visual culture as a specter of slavery and rebellion. I will be giving a public lecture on this topic in the fall as the speaker for the annual Manton Foundation Lecture on Orozco at the Hood. Come check it out if you want to know more!