Monday, July 21, 2008

Let Knowledge Grow

I was in conversation recently with one of our faculty who observed that "medieval studies is a difficult field." The context concerned the chances of a particular student "making it" through exams, and I began wondering whether a mediocre pass might be reason to counsel against continuation in the program. This train of thought got me making connections to a couple of other random comments I've noted. A visitor bemoaned the fact that as the only medievalist in the department, it was difficult to impress non-medievalists with a tenure dossier when much of the evidence offered would fail to elicit the oohs and ahhs that ought rightly to accrue to work produced through intense manuscript research in several languages. Colleagues used to working on a text in a language they speak every day and reading secondary sources in the same language (albeit with postmodern meta-language incursions), were unlikely to grasp the inherently more difficult process of accurately transcribing and translating, much less analyzing, a single sentence in Middle English and comparing it to versions of the same thought in Anglo-Norman French, Latin, or Middle High German.

I also recall discussing the importance of overseas archival research for our medieval history students with the departmental graduate studies director (a specialist in colonial America) and finding him astonished by the odd opening hours, strange usage limitations, and general technological intransigence of some European document repositories. He opined as how it was probable that such peculiarities might, indeed, make it more difficult for a medievalist to complete a dissertation on the local economy of the Loire Valley in the same amount of time allotted to a graduate student using 20th century newspaper and magazine accounts to demonstrate a shift in the political sentiments of the urban middle-class.

One more point that fell into my mental melange was the notorious article about the Kalamazoo Congress, written by Charlotte Allen, that appeared in the 6-2-08 installment of the Weekly Standard. Postmodernism and waste studies came in for some serious satiric stabs in the story. In among the jibes is the reasonable question of whether the world needs 3,000 medievalists with varying degrees of academic erudition. At what point is "good enough," indeed, good enough?

And my last bit of cogitational stew focuses on the amount of effort required to maintain a flourishing undergraduate medieval studies major. My fellow discussant and I agreed that, even in an arts-and-letters-friendly environment, it was harder to make the classic liberal arts case for medieval studies click in the minds of prospective majors, than to do so for English or History. (Those who teach a medieval field at schools with weighty science programs may feel free to laugh at the "degree of difficulty" to be found in a liberal arts institution, but I still think my statement holds its subjective truth.)

So, what IS the point (or points) I'm trying to make? I guess it's something like this. Medieval studies IS a difficult field and you have to like it very much in order to do all the things that you must in order to be a first-rate medievalist. As with most endeavors, everyone is not going to be a superb practitioner, but perhaps enthusiasm does count for quite a bit in stimulating the interest of students who may have what it takes to surpass the academic accomplishments of their teachers.

This gets back to the beginning issue: does one encourage an "average" student to pursue a degree in a demanding field of study where excellence is both hard to achieve and often overlooked. As an ABD with an M.A. in medieval history, my conclusion may be a reflection of my own desire for self-worth, but nonetheless, I would argue that the likelihood of future career success as a medievalist should not be the primary benchmark in determining a student's worthiness to pursue a course of study in which he or she may never becoming a leading light. Rather, the stick-to-it-iveness of the average student should be rewarded by the chance to do the thing he/she loves. In no way do I advocate lowering standards or cutting more slack to the eager but inept, or in some other way decreasing the value of the degree earned. What I do advocate is setting the bar of "good enough" at a level that shows reasonable competence, without the added demand of brilliance.

I would add that all students need good counsel about their career aspirations and the odds for or against achieving the goals they set for themselves. The actual likelihood of success must be clearly (and compassionately) spelled out, so that with mature reflection, students can make their life choice based on a realistic assessment of their skills and with full knowledge of the challenges their career path is likely to hold.

My final answer is: yes, there is room for 3,000 medievalists in the world, even those with a "B" or two on their transcripts or a passion for waste studies. Crescat scientia vita excolatur. ("Let knowledge grow from more to more, and thus be human life enriched." Motto of the University of Chicago)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Life Matters

One of our undergraduate Medieval Studies majors, Kevin Healey, is visiting Lourdes with his family. This is not just a summer vacation trip, but a true pilgrimage. Kevin is battling stage IV cancer. His family and friends have asked the Notre Dame community for their prayers while they are in Lourdes on the 150th anniversary of St. Bernadette's last apparition. On this past Wednesday, the day's-end Mass held at the Basilica on the Notre Dame campus was offered for Kevin. For information about his story, see Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers, or offer an expression of concern in a way that best suits your own spiritual practice and inclination.

There is a great deal of discussion on our campus and many other Catholic institutions about the meaning of "Catholic education." To me, one of the most enriching aspects of life at Notre Dame is the opportunity to seek the prayers of others for personal intentions. I am also very grateful to be in a "catholic" environment that allows interaction among different religious viewpoints. People of many faith traditions are in evidence on campus. In a single day, one can see a traditionally garbed nun, a grad student in a yarmulka, and a Muslim woman in a headscarf making their religious practice visible to others. Less-obvious signs of spiritual practice appear in lecture topics, announcements for groups like Zen@ND, and in kindnesses from those unattached to a specific faith tradition but with deeply held spiritual values. For example, yesterday's South Bend Tribune carried a story on a new book that came out of discussions between two Notre Dame professors--one an evangelical Protestant and the other a Catholic.

I am very glad to be in a place that values personal spirituality. The challenge, I think, is to provide ways for the inclusion of all persons within a framework that is dominated by a specific faith tradition. I rejoice when Notre Dame succeeds in doing so, and I feel deep concern when it fails to accomplish that goal. Kevin's response to his illness seems deeply grounded in a single faith tradition, but I think it offers something valuable to people outside that tradition. Courage and persistence in adversity sound very old-fashioned and cliched, but they are very basic to life success, nonetheless. Kevin's example is one that encourages me and moves me. I hope it does the same for you.

Friday, July 11, 2008

New from Notre Dame Press

Our friends at the University of Notre Dame Press have just published their Fall 2008 catalog. As usual, they have some strong medieval offerings, along with a quite varied list of other items (short fiction to patristics; poetry to business ethics). The UND Press publishes the Medieval Institute's yearly Conway Lectures, see for the titles by Ulrich Horst, Rosamond McKitterick, and Paul Strohm.

UND Press will have an English translation of >Jacques Le Goff's Saint Louis coming out in January 2009, as well as a paperback edition of Pope Innocent III by John C. Moore.

Something unusual that caught my eye was The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book, edited by Michael J. Crowe of the Notre Dame faculty. And the Press is starting a new series in January 2009 called "ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern" under the general editorship of David Aers, Sarah Beckwith, and James Simpson. The initial outing is Against All England: Regional Identity and Cheshire Writing, 1195-1656 by Robert W. Barrett, Jr. Also of interest to medievalists: Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages by Samer M. Ali.

If you're not familiar with the Press's book list, I encourage you to take a look. And of course, they do have plenty of titles dealing with Catholic education, the history of Notre Dame, and that varsity sport whose fall at-home schedule determines the likelihood of weekend events being held on campus.

Three Cheers for Margaret!

Yesterday, we celebrated the birthday of our first-rate administrative assistant, Margaret Cinninger. Anyone who has visited the Medieval Institute in the last 6 years has met Margaret (and probably been helped by her). The MI is enormously lucky to have this talented, warm-hearted individual on its staff. I can say without any qualification that Margaret is the best AA I've ever had as a colleague. All of us (students, faculty, and staff) receive tremendous professional support, personal encouragement, and a wonderful work ethic example from her. She makes my job much easier, and I want to tip my hat and curtsey low to this special friend and coworker. Hip-hip-hooray!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Back Home in Indiana

Thanks to the various correspondents who have visited this blog and offered comments about movies for medievalists, blogs and blogging, the meaning of graduation ceremonies, course syllabi, and lightbulb jokes. It's good hearing from you.

We're getting an international cast of registrants for the SIEPM conference in October. So far, 2 from Japan, 1 from Poland, 1 from Canada, and Americans from Wisconsin, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

This year's Fourth of July celebration was especially memorable for some of us in South Bend. I was the winning bidder at an Arthritis Foundation silent auction for the mayor's "skybox" at Covaleski Stadium for a Silverhawks baseball game. For those who don't know, the Silverhawks are a Class A minor league team that is part of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. The "Cove" is a lovely little stadium and watching a game there is truly a throwback to baseball in an era before million-dollar paychecks were common occurrences. My crew of 22 neighbors, family, and Institute folk watched the Silverhawks beat the Lansing Lugnuts, 2-0. My favorite moment was listening to one of our distinguished senior faculty humming along to "Shout" while watching a clip from "Animal House" on the scoreboard, and then, mirabile dictu, correctly identifying the Beatles version of "Twist and Shout" being played over a clip from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," despite the lip synced scene from "Wayne's World," defied his powers of identification, but nonetheless, it was an enchanted moment while we waited for the sky to darken sufficiently to view the fireworks.

The weather was absolutely perfect and during the game, we got a personal visit from Swoop, the Silverhawks' mascot. Apart from late delivery of a can opener and our peanuts and Cracker Jack, it was a great success. At times, the small-town character of South Bend can be a bit disheartening to the strongly urban-hearted among us, but on this occasion, it was a joy. In particular, the build-your-own-burger competition (a person dressed as the top half of a hamburger bun had to collect human-sized (plastic) burger components, stack them on the human "bottom half" of the bun, and then fall on top of the stack) offered a possible addition to the next full-scale, social event sponsored by the Medieval Institute. In order to retain an appropriate sense of propriety, I would assume that we would field distinct faculty and student teams, least some over-zealous student "top half" try to seek revenge for a poor grade by flopping too hard onto a faculty "bottom half." Other between-the-innings merriment included the vegetable race (won by the carrot after a valiant effort by the broccoli and a directionally challenged performance by the corn).

I urge you to catch a Silverhawks game next time you visit.