Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why I'm a Medievalist Meme Ruminated: Warning Terribly Autobiographical and Rambling!

Being on the job market has reminded me of "meme" not long ago that addressed why one becomes a medievalist. I started this journey a long, long time ago, well, a long time ago to me. While I've defended successfully, I'm still finishing the editing, so it'll be January before I have a piece of paper in hand. That's ten years after I walked in Paul Szarmach's office in the middle of snow storm to have our first face to face, a little over 12 years since I began to apply to graduate schools, and about 14 years since I had a sit down with myself and said I "gotta finally do this thing" and began researching what it would take to get me there and started buying books and reading. For me that's ahead of the story.

So how did I become a medievalist? I'd like to be able to list all these grand scholarly things that sound impressive....but I can't. I became a medievalist more or less through the back door and well, out of love.

My family has no tradition of higher education. My father's father, whom I never met, apparently went to college in Minnesota for awhile. I have notebooks that my father gave me where Granddad did his botany homework, drawing plants and making notes of their physical descriptions and properties. But when he went West to the then "wilds" of Montana, working to take the railroad across the state, he apparently left family and education behind. I know few details, as my Dad's family is dominated by my grandmother: anytime I ask my father or his siblings about Granddad, the focus quickly turns to Grandma. Anyway, point is, Granddad had a college education at the turn of the last century: and that's it. None of my father's siblings went to college, my father didn't even finish high school and later earned his degree.

My mother's side is new American. Both my mothers parents came to the US just a hair before the first world war, one in 1910 and the other in 1914. Both were of good, German, peasent stock, and when they married in 1915, they set up farming in North Dakota. Needless to say, they didn't go to college either, and neither did any of their children.

Well, that reading thing....reading was the one thing that I was good at all the way through school. So I read. All the time. English classes introduced me to adapted versions of the Aeneid and the Odyssey and Shakespeare and of all the stuff we read, I found that that was the literature I loved best. So when I went to library and slowly but surely my reading evolved into three areas of interest: current politics, history, esp. pre-modern, and classical and medieval literature. Now when my poor high school councilor was dubious about me making it in college he stirred my inner Beowulf. I was ok: areas I was good in I excelled, areas I wasn't, I bombed. Hence PSAT, SAT, and ACT scores were mixed and my grades were B average. Rather than rip his arm off, though, I worked like a dog. Since my councilor wasn't really going to help me much get into anything except the local college, which I didn't want to do, and my parents had no clue, and there was no internet to use, I started researching colleges at the public library. I had no idea what I was doing. Quite by chance, someone asked me about Seattle Pacific Univ and if I thought that would be a good school. I looked it up, applied, and got in.

Now, a major....given my interests at the time, I thought that I'd become a Relgion-Philosophy major. I spent the summer before and after my freshman year on fishing boats. The great thing about gill netting is that you have periods of intense activity, followed by a few hours of inactivity. So I'd sit on deck and read. I even had a library card for the Juneau Public Library--yes, I've seen Sarah Palin's house--well the governor's mansion which I walked by on my way to the library when we came into town after the weekly fishing period was done. Go to the laundromat, buy a shower while the clothes are in the washer, head up the hill past the mansion and over to the library was my weekly routine, return and set about swabbing decks, repairing and cleaning nets, and joy of joys....occasionally scrubbing the bottom of the boat....a most unpleasant of jobs. Give me shoveling manure any day of the week (yes, done that too). Anyway, I read on deck. I read all of Shakespeare, tried to read the Fairie Queene, read Augustine's Confessions and City of God, read all of C. S. Lewis and read Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, read Milton, read Chaucer, read the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Bible.....When I got to college however I found out that reading some Augustine and Aquinas wasn't the same as being a philosophy major. So I switched to Religion-Greek and Linguistics. there's something. I'd already had some German and Latin in high school. Now I added Greek and Hebrew and during a History of English course, discovered Old English and Beowulf...and I was in love! I think of it this way now: Greek is a great intellectual challenge that I love working in. Latin is like my lifeblood, I love working in Latin....but for those moments of linguistic FLOW, moments at which I completely lose myself and its all about the task in hand....those moments belong to working in Old English and Old Norse. I'm not sure yet where Old Irish and Hebrew fit on that scale, but I enjoy those too.

So, my career as a medievalist was sealed: I kept reading these texts, I loved learning and working in these languages. I can't point to some grand intellectual thing, but I can point all the way back to elementary school for the initial elements that led me to become a medievalist. It took me 14 years with stops and starts to get from college graduation to graduate school in medieval studies. But I did it for the simple reason that I love it: I love the stories, I love the manuscripts, I love the languages. Its my personal love affair with this material. And should it happen, heaven forfend, that I not be in academia, I love this material enough to grab that proverbial, figurative arm and rip it off: i. e. I'll still be working in it because I love the material.

So that's why I'm a medievalist. Nothing grand. Just a love affair that's been growing stronger for forty years now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - I know the feeling! Two medieval-related fellowships and a masters degree later, I still can't pull myself away - even after being accepted into a well-regarded PhD program prior to the first fellowship and being denied admission to same PhD program the next year. Something keeps dragging me back...