Saying Goodbye to Medieval Studies (for now, at least)

Every May I attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.  It is both a chance to engage with the field that captured my mind and my heart almost 15 years ago, and also (even more importantly) to reconnect with some very dear friends of mine.  This year’s conference will be a bit different for me, though, as it marks–at least for the foreseeable future–an ending point to my career as a medievalist.

Three forces have converged to lead me to this ultimately inevitable realization:

1. Quite simply, my research interests are changing.  I do have two books under contract, but neither of them has to do with the Middle Ages.  One focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning and the other on disability in the Oz narratives.  When I have time to write, I tend toward my interests in pedagogy and in children’s literature now.  This is certainly not a bad thing, but it definitely marks a new direction for me as a scholar.

2.  Logistically speaking, my opportunities to teach medieval courses are very limited.  I do facilitate graduate seminars on teaching, and I also teach in Rice’s wonderful Program in Writing and Communication, but a course on medieval literature will be rare to say the least.  I miss teaching Chaucer above all else, as I have seen many students utterly transformed by their study of the poet.

3.  As a full-time administrator, I have not been able to find the time to keep sharp the kinds of skills you need to be a successful medievalist: language study, paleography, etc. When it comes to staying current on the latest research in journals and books, I again have found myself doing so with the teaching and learning literature, but less so with medieval scholarship.  This, more than anything else, has been a signal to me.

When I moved from my faculty position into administration, I knew that there was potential for some of this to happen.  What I didn’t expect was how much my research interests would shift and–quite frankly–how hard it would be to find ways to teach medieval courses.

So, what now? I will still attend Kalamazoo every year.  In addition to seeing those aforementioned friends, I still wish to organize and moderate panels for the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages.  It is important to me to see this small field thrive and to give a platform for scholars who are asking important questions about the subject.  I won’t be producing new research in the area, though.  That is a somewhat bittersweet acknowledgment, but an important one nonetheless.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work done by my students in the medieval courses I have taught over the years (especially those at Columbus State University in Georgia), and I am grateful for the time that I spent deeply embedded in this field if for no other reason than it allowed me to meet some of the most important people in my life.  It’s time now, though, to see where these new paths are going to lead me.  I may someday return to my medieval work, but I’m just not sure.  I’ll always keep a weather eye on what’s happening in Medieval Studies in order to celebrate the great work of all those who devote themselves so completely to this wonderful field.

Before I end this post, I want to say one more thing:  medievalists often get a bad rap as being intellectually myopic or solitary scholars or even out of touch with other disciplines.  I have rarely ever found any of these to be true.  For me, the spirit of Medieval Studies will always be embodied by the time I spent as a graduate student in the Charles A. Owen, Jr. library at the University of Connecticut learning and laughing with Frank Napolitano, Andy Pfrenger, John Sexton, and Kisha Tracy. We shared our work, hashed out our ideas, and–through this field–grew as scholars, teachers, and individuals.  I can’t think of anything that better captures the generous spirit of Medieval Studies and those who work within it.



8 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to Medieval Studies (for now, at least)

  1. An excellent post, and one with which I can closely identify. The very best years of my education were passed at the Medieval Institute in Kalamazoo, and the friends I made there were the key to that wonderful experience. Medievalists are, I think, among the most lively and energetic of all academics in the humanities (or so my sometimes hazy and no doubt bibulous memories of experiences at WMU–and at Congress specifically–would argue). Your post resonates with me further because, for reasons closely related to but different from those cited here, I also am no longer pursuing Medieval Studies as a professional field, something that I don’t see changing any time soon. But recognizing that your interests and circumstances are moving you away from a field like Medieval Studies is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t retain a connection with that field (as you, Josh, obviously will) or that that connection won’t be valid, valued, and valuable. The historical past will always be there for us to access, and for me at least, my adoration of that past is bound to those people with whom and those places where I first experienced it so deeply. If anything then, moving your professional life away from the historical past can only serve to strengthen your personal connection with it. Doing so will make that past, as well as the people and places tied in your experience to it, all the more to be cherished. Dic vale, et deinde laetus es.

  2. This isn’t a terribly surprising announcement, even though, as your not infrequent partner in crime, I’m left a little wistful…I’ll save the inevitable razzing (and occasional manly sniff) for Kalamazoo, but I will say that I believe this swan song as a medievalist marks, at best, an incomplete ending. I predict, here and now, that I’ll get another medieval CV line out of you inside of a decade.

    In some ways, learning to follow our noses into new areas of study is what medievalists are taught to do. Perhaps, at times, at our peril qua medievalists from a disciplinary standpoint, but to our great strength as active and curious intellectuals.

    Your work and subject may have changed, but your passion for it hasn’t–and that’s as much a part of what we learned in grad school as anything to do with (gawd’elpus) spiritual athletes or sanctuary saints. As it does for you, the Medieval library gang (and the community of medievalists that has made a toad-in-a-stone place for itself at UConn) will always stand as my dream and ideal of professional camaraderie. Everything I try to teach my students about how to treat their subjects as a labor of love and how to challenge one another as colleagues (and themselves as intellectuals) comes from my time there.

    In the meantime, of course, I’m still as excited and proud as ever of how well you’ve done for yourself.

    Enough mawkishness. See you in a couple of weeks. Get back to work.

    • You may be right, my friend. As I mentioned, I don’t think you’ve seen the last of me, but I’m not sure when my next cameo will be. A decade sounds about right at this point. See you soon…

  3. Josh,

    I’m saddened to hear of your movement away from Medieval Studies. Your scholarship and research has always been innovative. I hope that John is right, and that we’ve not heard the end of you yet.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors,
    Michael Torregrossa

      • Josh,

        Thanks for writing back. Sorry I won’t see you at Kalamazoo. My presence there has, unfortunately, become very virtual. I organize my sessions, but others (with bigger budgets and real jobs) preside.


  4. Hi Josh,
    I found this post encouraging — because we, the academics, tend to think that we ought to stick to specific academic identity gained through our graduate programs, and while it’s often helpful to have stable identity, one never knows what doors open as one enter into the higher ed as a faculty. And, I think your post encourages those of us who find many exciting new areas of work and inquiry — that it’s okay change one’s academic identity and changing the identity is not the end of “academic” life. To be able to say that one’s interests has changed, I think, is more liberating, and encouraging. 🙂

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