Category Archives: Scholar

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

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This Rough Magic: “Teaching the Crusades in a World Literature Survey Course Using Interactive Media”

Just a note (okay, shameless plug) for my article in the latest issue of the This Rough Magic (A Peer-Reviewed, Academic, Online Journal Dedicated to the Teaching of Medieval and Renaissance Literature). It is an overview of my approach to teaching the Crusades in a World Literature survey course. Enjoy!

“Teaching the Crusades in a World Literature Survey Course Using Interactive Media: An Overview”

–Kisha

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MassMedieval in the HMML Illuminations

It is very exciting that a revised version of a previous post here on MassMedieval has been published in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library‘s Spring 2013 edition of their magazine Illuminations!

HMML

Click to enlarge

To see the entire magazine, click here.

Also, we are grateful to a Fitchburg State English Studies colleague, Ben Railton, for including us in a list of  teaching blogs he follows in his post “June 10, 2013: AmericanStudier Blogroll: Teaching Blogs” on AmericanStudier.

–Kisha

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Of Drama and Marie de France: Day 3, Kalamazoo

Day 3: Medieval Drama and Marie de France

Today began with me playing moderator to a session sponsored by the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society, “Post Death/After Life on the Medieval and Early Modern Stage. Two of the presenters are friends and colleagues of mine, and I was pleased to moderate for them. The three papers were really thought-provoking. For instance, the N-Town Lazarus and the Chester Antichrist plays have a great deal of conditional language in them – “if…then.” The Antichrist in the Chester states (paraphrasing), “If I can indeed bring these people back from the dead, then you shall believe in me.” The consolers in the N-Town make conditional statements concerning what Lazarus should do on his death bed. It made me think about the nature of such statements and how they would work very well in drama. For one, it encourages anticipation – will this indeed happen? Or will such and such character really “fall for it”? It also encourages the audience to consider the conditions on offer. Do they believe it? Would they react differently? Is a character presenting “truth” or is he offering “false truth”? The conditional statements work well in developing engagement.

Another thought this panel raised concerns the Ars MoriendiI have studied the Ars Memoria quite a bit, and it occurred to me while listening to the paper on N-Town by my friend that I should look in to the Ars Moriendi as well. Its discussion of what to do at the end of life, how to meet death, might have some great implications for memory.

After this session, I attended the International Marie de France Society business meeting. I have decided to join, which means I need to return my membership form (note to self). Afterwards I stayed for the Teaching Marie de France roundtable I mentioned here yesterday. Some interesting points of discussion were raised. The first was a link to the site Performing Medieval Narrative Today, which I think is going to be an excellent resource for teaching. In addition, an historian was on the panel, who talked about using Marie de France – Bisclavret, in particular – in his history courses. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I feel history and literature are almost inseparable, and I enjoy hearing about teachers who make the connections between them. I am going to consider using his primary source suggestions in my own teaching of Marie: Fulbert of Chartres, “On Feudal Obligations” and Ranulf de Glanvill, “Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England”. Juxtaposing these next to Bisclavret could promote some productive discussions about lord/vassal relationships, as demonstrated by Bisclavret and the King. 

All for now – I am off to a business meeting of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages!

–Kisha

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The Program: Day 2, Kalamazoo

Day 2: Thinking about the Kzoo Program

This morning I am reflecting on the program of sessions. It’s part of the ritual (or my ritual – I don’t know about anyone else!) to plan out the sessions I want to attend and think about the broad spectrum of work offered by my fellow medievalists. It’s often a mind-boggling experience, given the depth and breadth of topics and disciplines. The sheer number of subjects of which I haven’t even previously heard is humbling as well as exciting.

I am rather conditioned at this point to pick out those sessions and papers with any reference to memory in them. This year, the vast majority of those about memory are Anglo-Saxon-specific. Two sessions in particular, “Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England” (413) and “Memory at Work In Anglo-Saxon England” (519), are entirely devoted to the subject. The first is primarily comprised of papers on Beowulf; the title “Burning to Remember, Eating to Forget” has immense possibilities. The latter session includes a title that intrigues me – “Memory and Identity Formation: A Cognitive Construction of the Self in The Wanderer.” I often teach this text through the concept of memory, particularly its bittersweet components. Is it better to remember or to forget? Which causes the most pain? This title makes me consider the possibilities of the loss of memory dealing the final “death blow” to The Wanderer’s previous life. Is it in the pain of remembering that he still retains what is left of his kin, of his role in society? If he forgets, will he, in essence, cease to exist? Another session, “Text and Image II: Memory and Visual Space” (232), looks interesting. As is not uncommon, there are several individual papers exploring the connections between death and memory.

Coinciding with being hired at Fitchburg State, I have found my interest in panels shifting. Now, at least half of the time, I choose sessions based upon what might be beneficial to me in the classroom. For instance, a roundtable on Friday (260), “Teaching Marie de France” (sponsored by the International Marie de France Society), is calling to me. As I was just mentioning last night, my students adore Marie de France. It has been one of the biggest surprises as a teacher; for some reason, I did not expect her to be such a draw. However, she does have everything – romance, intrigue, werewolves, knight-saving damsels, resurrecting weasels. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. At any rate, I am curious what others have to say.

Then there is always the almost hagiographic torture of the sessions that are happening while I am already booked!

I need a rest, and this is only the program!

–Kisha

 

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The Path of the Scholar

I received in my Inbox this morning an announcement concerning the Heckman Research grants to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Minnesota. I was immediately taken back to my stay at HMML when I was a Heckman Scholar in the spring of 2008. The grants are available from two weeks to six months to graduate students or scholars who are within three years of completing a terminal master’s or doctoral degree. Given my schedule then as a doctoral student, I opted for the shortest amount of time, two weeks.

I remember, the first day I arrived, I sat at my desk – empty then – a bit bewildered. My guide had left me, the paperwork was done. It was just me and my laptop and a blank sheet asking what microfilm I wanted delivered. I was at a loss. I wasn’t a novice to research; I had been a graduate student for several years. I had prepared seminar papers, conference presentations, even journal articles. Yet, now, I had no idea where to begin. The possibilities were overwhelming, limitless. I was there to work, to accomplish. I had a two-week deadline to make the trip worthwhile, to take advantage of the time. The clock was oppressive.

Falling back on the familiar, my skills at organizing, I gradually put together a routine: request microfilm manuscripts in the morning, compile texts to look at later, spend time writing, examine manuscripts, take a walk to the main stacks to check out sources, return to mine them for their knowledge, and go back to the dorm, exhausted but feeling productive, in order to rest and prepare my agenda for the next day.

Slowly, the rest of the world disappeared and all that was important was the next epiphany, the next discovery. For those two weeks, I was a pure scholar. I had nothing else to do, nothing else pulling on my time. I awoke in the morning, admired the  snow-covered silence of St. John’s on spring break as I walked from the dorm to the library, and spent the day hunting for medieval memory in confession manuals. The library was at my disposal. The manuscript collection was my playground. I would search their catalog, create a list of what I wanted to see that day, and, magically, it would appear outside of my designated area, ready for me to look at on the machine provided for me for as long as I wanted. I squinted, I studied, I pondered, I compared. I had a mound of books to my left and right, pulled from the stacks with my very own visitors library card, to converse with as much I wanted.

At some point, it wasn’t about working on the dissertation, although certainly that was why I was there. It was time out of time, wherein the search, following the path of the scholar, was the limit of my existence – or, I should say, the expansion of my existence. One thought leading to another…and another…and another. Other avenues of research opening up, painting images, filling in colors in what were black-and-white sketches of ideas.

In some ways, the experience was surreal. It was almost like those stories wherein the main character draws the veil back from reality in one way or another only to discover there are parallel existences beyond the mundane. Cloistered away in my scholar’s cell, I felt truly multi-dimensional during those two weeks, able to see and touch cultures and minds normally far removed from my own.

I reflect on my time at the HMML with a sense of reverence. I was enamored of the academic’s life beforehand and I have experienced similar feelings since then, but this was my first true immersion in the adventure of being a scholar. It is the memory I carry with me, reminding me of the charm of the path I walk, even when real life offers its detours and ruts. 

–Kisha

For information on how to apply to be a Heckman Scholar, click here.

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