Guest Post – M. Wendy Hennequin: What a Medievalist Does All Day

We are very excited to have our first guest post here at MassMedieval, and we hope to have many more in the future. At last Kalamazoo, our roundtable for and about blogging medievalists really highlighted the importance of these types of collaborations. In fact, our guest poster of the day attended that session, inspiring this particular collaboration. It is wonderful when our conversations come to life!

Dr. M. Wendy Hennequin is a medievalist working in the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy at Tennessee State University.  She teaches a wide range of classes, including both writing and literature courses.  She’s published on a variety of subjects, including Beowulf, teaching medieval texts, medieval drama, and Harry Potter.  In her copious spare time, she writes poetry and fiction, practices a number of arts and crafts, and reads mystery and fantasy books. She also is the author of Expecto Curriculum, a blog about the “adventures in teaching Harry Potter and his Literary Ancestors.”

Thank you, Wendy!

I trained long and hard to be a medievalist.  The majority of my doctoral classes concerned medieval language and literature.  I took extra classes in medieval topics.  I learned Old English, Old Irish, Old Norse, and Latin.  I translated texts.  I read many Old English and Middle English works and learned everything I could about those works for my dissertation, and I also read dozens of other related medieval (and sometimes ancient) works.  I spent years of my life—nine years, if you’re counting—learning about medieval literature.

Now that I am now full-time professor (with tenure and everything), you might think I spend my days immersed in the subject: teaching medieval classes researching medieval literature; looking for cool new discoveries about the Middle Ages; reading and re reading medieval texts; and writing about them.

I wish.  Ironically, I rarely get to work with medieval texts.  Granted, I spend most of my time teaching and working for the university, but almost none of that work concerns my specialization in Old and Middle English literature.

Like most English professors, I spend most of my time teaching: not only teaching in the classroom, but preparing for class, re-reading the texts, grading, running the on-line elements of the course, grading, creating materials, revising and editing materials, previewing multi-media, holding office hours, grading, answering student e-mails, completing paperwork and other administrative tasks, and finally, grading.  And most of my classes (and most of the grading) are writing courses: Freshman Composition 1 and 2, and occasionally technical writing.

(Why would a medievalist be teaching writing?  All English professors, except for those lucky enough to get positions at universities that can afford a lot of graduate students, teach writing.  And writing takes time to teach and grade, more time than anything else we teach.)

I do get to teach some literature.  Sometimes, I teach English Literature I for the general literature requirement, but normally, I teach World Literature I, a course which includes the Middle Ages, but doesn’t include much medieval English literature.  I’ve also taught a variety of the junior / senior level literature courses (including, oddly, a Gothic Novel course and a Harry Potter seminar), but most often, when I teach an upper level course, it’s Shakespeare.  No, Shakespeare isn’t medieval.  In seven years, I have taught exactly two exclusively medieval courses.

So what else does this medievalist do all day, besides teach a lot of not-medieval stuff?  During the semester, I spend a lot of time on what administrators like to call “service,” very time-consuming, often unexciting, absolutely necessary tasks for running the department and the university.  I generally serve by participating on committees, and I have also been made Freshman English Coordinator for my sins.  Both the committees and the coordinator position are work intensive. I leave every committee meeting with research to do, course proposals to write, numbers to check, information to read and review, and / or reports to compose.  The post of Freshman English coordinator requires much the same sort of work and adds crunching data, a number of administrative tasks, and metaphorical fire-fighting to the pile.

In all, I normally spend at least 65 hours a week, often more, working on teaching and service during the semester.

I am also required to do research for my job, and that does concern medieval texts, but the teaching and service don’t leave any time for it during the school year.  I therefore do most of my research during the summers: reading and writing articles on medieval texts; reviewing books on medieval topics; attending and presenting papers at medieval conferences.  But even during the summer, I don’t do medieval work all day.  I spent a good part of this past summer working as the Freshman English Coordinator and developing a new course with a colleague in History.  At least it was a medieval course.  But during many semesters and even in the summers, I won’t even touch a medieval text.  My research projects this summer concerned teaching medieval literature, not the medieval literature itself.

So what does a medievalist do all day?  Work.  Teach.  Research. Write.

But not about the Middle Ages.

If I sound bleak, well, yes, it is a bit bleak.  But I’m not alone in this situation.  Many medievalists, both in English and in other disciplines, are in the same position: teaching, researching, and serving in ways that ultimately benefit the university, but that do nothing for our particular discipline or our personal passion.

But what can we do about it?  From what I’ve observed, options depend on the particular university, its culture, and its curriculum, both within the department and in general education.  Much, too, depends on the background of the students.  In some universities, the Middle Ages are romantic and cool, familiar to students through video games, movies, and science fiction and fantasy novels.  In other universities, the Middle Ages aren’t even on the radar—or worse, interest in medieval topics is considered weird or even sinful.

But if we have cooperative administrations and the right culture, sometimes we can bring the medieval studies onto the university stage.  One of my friends, who found herself in a position similar to mine, used a combination of recruitment, creativity, and sheer determination to woo students from her general education and non-medieval courses to medieval studies.  She added medieval texts to courses that allowed for it, and in some cases, she skewed non-medieval courses, such as Rensaissance literature, towards the Middle Ages.  She found students who enjoyed the Middle Ages and formed a medieval studies club. She arranged for her visiting medievalist friends to give lectures.  Eventually, this translated into more medieval courses.

My particular situation doesn’t lend itself to these strategies, for curricular, logistical, and cultural reasons.  Most students at my university do not have to take literature beyond the sophomore level, and I don’t consistently teach World Literature I or English Literature I.  Add these issues to the infrequency of the medieval courses (an administrative problem), and you will see why recruiting students from my sophomore classes doesn’t work for me.  Space, too, is at a premium at my university; it is often difficult to reserve a room for any purpose.  And finally, at my university, the Middle Ages are the opposite of cool.

Only three of my strategies have met any sort of success.

First, like my colleague, I add medieval English literature to my courses whenever I can possibly get away with it.  In Shakespeare, I cover two of the medieval Corpus Christi pageants to familiarize the students with one type of drama that Shakespeare would have known from his childhood.  In World Literature, I cover Beowulf, a few of Marie de France’s lais, and selections from Morte Darthur.  In English Literature I, I increase the medieval section beyond the basics covered in most surveys, nearly doubling the usual reading.  I’d add even more, if I could.  As it is, I cut the Long Eighteenth Century very, very short in English Literature I.

My second strategy: I go where other people want to study the Middle Ages.  I attend medieval academic conferences.  I participate in the medieval studies seminar at another local university.   I occasionally offer classes to members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) on everything from Old English language to medieval sources for stories and songs to women warriors in medieval literature.  Many professional medievalists look down on the SCA, but these folks love the Middle Ages, and they love to hear what we have to say about our fields.  (Hey, colleagues!  It counts towards your service.  Call it a “community lecture.”)

My third strategy: in the summer, I research medieval texts.  See above.

These strategies succeed intermittently at best.  I am not always assigned courses that cover the earlier periods of literature, where I can appropriately add or expand the medieval selections.  My teaching schedule often conflicts with the medieval studies seminar on the other local campus and doesn’t allow me to travel to SCA events.  Other commitments during the summer—conference work, administrative work, blah blah blah—sometimes keep me from researching medieval topics.  These strategies are merely stop-gaps, and often meager ones at that.

Yes, I am still bleak.  But I am still a medievalist.  And nothing can change that.

–Dr. M. Wendy Hennequin

1 Comment

Filed under Guest Post, Professional stuff, Scholar, University

One response to “Guest Post – M. Wendy Hennequin: What a Medievalist Does All Day

  1. Pingback: Medieval Lecture Series | The Richard & Beryl Ivey Visual Resources Library

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