In which Bwog Staffer Brendan Ballou tries desperately to find something to talk about with Kira Kalina von Ostenfeld — a German countess who graduated from
Why are grad students sad?
It’s part of the culture of graduate school. And this is something that’s happened for a very, very long time – it’s nothing new. It’s part of the intensity of the intellectual process we go through – it’s suffering. We’re supposed to be doing this for some higher call and we will enlighten the world. I mean we have a pretty sweet deal – the lucky ones of us get paid to be here. I think you’re being unrealistic if you come to graduate school and think it’s going to be cushy. It’s difficult, so the lucky few of us who are allowed to be part of this should appreciate it for what it’s for.
So you went to college at 16
So how did that happen?
Well, my parents are a little bit older, so when I came along my mother had already had kids, and so she considered me a little adult. I don’t think it was a negative thing at all – I very much appreciated it actually. I was never treated as a child – I was always treated as an adult and pushed accordingly when it came to academics. And so my parents were very lenient in terms of everything else that they did, so their one requirement was that, ‘if get A’s and keep A’s in everything you do you have free rein – you can go out with your friends, you can party, you can go to concerts, whatever, you can have a boyfriend.’
And so you had a social life in high school?
Absolutely. So that was how and why I kept this incredibly high average, and that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. Part of the reason why I excelled so fast was that I spent my formative years in
I went to boarding school – I ended up going to Deerfield in
Just turning 16? How are you not the most emotionally stunted person on the planet?
Because I ran for student president. So I was there at
How did you end up at the FBI?
Well, I got recruited by the FBI out of
So what did you do?
I was – I was – let’s see, how to do this. The FBI does quite a bit more than just domestic affairs. And they particularly get themselves involved – because of the nature of what they do domestically – at looking at international crime, or organized crime beyond the domestic sphere. And so with my ability with languages I played a part in understanding some of the transactions that went on.
Why did you quit?
I had had enough – I had shown my rebellion. I think where I was going was that I would have had to do more field operations and that wasn’t my thing. My mom called me up one day and we had a conversation, and I had been field trained, but she was like ‘could you kill someone?’ and I hadn’t really thought about it until she actually asked me. And that isn’t in my nature I always get very scared because I took the exams and they said that that was in my nature. They choose you based on what your aptitudes are, and when they choose you for field work you have to show that you’re able to do certain things or that you have the capability inside you to do certain things. I always joke about that – that somewhere in my I have the ability to kill someone – but I wouldn’t want to.
So how did you make the transition from being able to kill someone to art history.
Well, my father is a collector, and one day I was sitting in his living room and he was sitting surrounded by all these polaroids, and he was like, ‘it’s so frustrating – the insurance companies want pictures of all of my things, and they want polaroids’ – the reason they want polaroids is because they’re harder to fudge – and I said, ‘why don’t I just create a CD for you?’
How long ago was this?
Gosh, about 10 or 11 years ago. I had a boyfriend at the time who was very techno-savvy — and he was a computer scientist – and he developed a piece of software for me so that I could provide not only pictures but also do some of the research for it. And my father loved it and my father started telling people who were also collectors, and so I decided that I was going to do that for a while. So I started my own business, and it was fantastic because when you do stuff like that you get to travel on expenses and they pay for you to come to them and my father’s friends live in very interesting places.
So why did you become an academic?
Well at that point I was much more interested in doing the research for all that than doing the traveling, and I loved the art. So I applied to go to Cambridge and got in and got my masters in art history and once I was there realized that what I really loved about art was the history behind it and kind of the political social economic contexts that created it, and so I was like, ‘what I really love is history.’ So I applied to come back to the States, because I was given the opportunity to pursue my PhD at
It seems like so many people go to grad school out of inertia, but for you it was a conscious choice.
Perhaps that’s why I’m happy. If you come here out of that inertia then you fall prey to that while you’re here too. And that’s unfortunate because it will affect their ability to teach because they won’t be as passionate about it as they probably should be. In order to makea success in academia you have to understand that teaching and interacting and imparting what you learned to others is part of that process, and that’s something that’s been lost in academia globally, because as it becomes more rarified territory the professor becomes more removed. I find it to be frustrating.
Don’t you miss traveling around the world for art or for the FBI? When you’re teaching your CC class, don’t you ever think to yourself ‘I could be killing someone right now?’
No, what a terrible thing to say! No – that never enters my mind. No, no, no. Perhaps all of that glamour and excitement has its limitations because everything in itself becomes rather predictive and tedious. It sounds so exotic to go to fabulous places and go to exotic parties and to be surrounded by beautiful things, but in reality that in itself is rather hollow.