Janet Hess: not just a professor

With a gleam in her eye and pep in her step, Professor Janet Berry Hess went back to instructing after almost a year on sabbatical. Most educators take advantage of that time off for relaxation and vacation- but Janet spent her year educating herself further on what she calls “a personal journey.”

Janet has been aSonoma State Hutchins Department professor for 15 years; she received a B.A. in History from the University of Iowa, her Masters in Law from Columbia, and earned her PhD at Harvard. She currently teaches a variety of Liberal Studies courses; currently LIBS 201: Exploring the Unknown, and LIBS 320C: African American Culture. She has also taught the core course: Unblocking Creativity, a class that allows students to achieve dreams or goals in their life.

Before her PhD, herlove for art began at an early age, as her father was an all-medium artist. African Art specifically appeals to her because of all the mediums she grew up with. This familiarity allowed her to begin collecting the pieces that she loved from around the world. Examples of African American art and literature consume the walls of her classroom, as it corresponds with what students will explore in her course.

From 1988-1990 Hess made her way through Ghana, Tanzania, and South Africa, collecting hand painted art and advertisements. Most pieces live with her, though she had recently donated three to her alma mater University of Iowa to showcase the beauty of African Art.
She explains her love for her collection and says she “has an eye for popular culture” and thatsince African culture changes so rapidly, many types of art she owns may not be around much longer.

Being a woman of many trades, Hess has published two books this past year, publishing a total of three within the decade. Most recently she published “Osage and Settler: Reconstructing Shared History Through an Oklahoma Family Archive,” and “The Art of Richard Mayhew: A Critical Analysis with Interviews.”

Both books relate to her personal passion for African and Native American cultures as well as her experiences exploring her own family history, and the history of the U.S.
Hess credits a trip she describes as a “spiritual journey” as a great inspiration in her life.  
Hess travelled through Oklahoma, where she made visits to Cherokee, Modec and Osage Nations.

She continued onto a self-planned Civil Rights tour where she made her way through Tennessee, visiting where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the majority of his life. She went on to the Natchez Trail towards New Orleans, and she traveled through Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, and finished the trek in New Mexico and Arizona.

After traveling across the United States she realized that history was not only about other cultures and environments.  

“I really found out who I was,” Hess said of her trip with an audible awe. “You have to find your own history.”

It’s clear that her life experiences and her passion for understanding is contagious , especially to her students.

“Janet Hess has impacted my life in ways I never could imagine a professor could. She showed me that I can embrace and achieve any dream I pursue,” said Riley Nichols, a former LIBS 201 student. “I have a greater appreciation of human diversity in the United States and internationally. After taking her class, I truly believe I am a better person.”

When asked what lies ahead for her, she was reminded of her days at Harvard, when a professor created AfricaMap, a program that locates regions and gives access to ethnicity, language, and currency information.

What she plans to do is create a program with the same concept, but geared toward Native American nations. Hess explained, “It is my dream for the future.”


Profesor Hess of Sonoma State University is an avid traveler, art enthusiast, and author.