, ,

The Interdisciplinary Advantage: Being a Medievalist in a Small Program

There is no official medieval studies program at my university. Nor is there any organized certificate program; there isn’t even a university-run group or lecture series. Besides myself, there are three or four other students reading in or writing dissertations on medieval English literature (in a department with well over 100 postgraduates). In other departments, the situation is similar: two or three postgrads each in Romance languages, history, art history, music, religion. I’m not at a small school—my university is the largest in the northwestern US. I’m happy at my institution and I have a wonderful advisor, but I must admit that my first few years in the program were a struggle.

Being one of the only medievalists at a large university can be isolating. Selecting relevant coursework with an eye toward both breadth and depth, acquiring languages, navigating interdisciplinary conferences: these are challenges that my colleagues in, for example, 20th century American literature don’t have to address. I have been reduced, more than once, to figurative hair-tearing and gnashing of teeth when communicating with departmental or university representatives who don’t understand the unique challenges of my sub-field. Cross-disciplinary coursework is not encouraged by my department and language acquisition is seen by my peers in other fields as a year-long requirement to get out of the way rather than as a necessary part of their scholarship. My department’s attitude is similar, and there is no support, financial or otherwise, for school-year or summer language coursework.

As medievalists, the necessity for interdisciplinary coursework is a unique challenge. No matter our field, we must have a working knowledge in history, religion, the arts—and of course we all need multiple foreign languages. Not to mention the fact that “medieval studies” covers 1,000 years and three continents, and we’re expected (by potential employers, and others both within and outside academia) to be familiar with these vast temporal and geographical ranges.

However, this necessity can also work to our unique advantage: for one thing, we have natural allies outside our primary department. Furthermore, we’re able to neatly sidestep the ever-present academic pitfall of tunnel vision—the necessity of learning broadly as well as deeply is frustrating when not supported by our department and/or university, but it also provides us with chances for vital, informed scholarship. Moreover, it gives us ready-made opportunities for cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration. And where the individual departments at my university can sometimes seem indifferent toward medieval studies, there are structures in place to support interdisciplinary projects.

When I decided to start a reading group for medievalists at my university, the first people I approached were my professors. I found them hugely supportive—after all, they know as well as I do what it’s like to be at an institution with a small contingent of medievalists. My advisor connected me with a new student I hadn’t met, who was eager to donate her valuable organizational (and grant-writing!) skills and her boundless enthusiasm to the project. Several professors also put me in contact with other postgraduate medievalists I hadn’t met—students who were dissertating and weren’t often on campus, for example—as well as advanced undergraduates with a strong interest in medieval studies. Some of these undergraduates are returning students with a good deal of knowledge and even publications under their belts, and many brought impressive language skills to the table as well. Once I started getting the word out (primarily via departmental email lists) I was also connected, through other students and professors, with local community members loosely affiliated with the university, many of whom had relevant postgraduate degrees and were delighted to be in touch with other medievalists. Within a year, what started as a reading group in the school library grew into an official “Graduate Interest Group” with generous funding from university’s Center for the Humanities, which also provides publicity and meeting space.

At a school with a smaller medieval studies program, one may be afforded the opportunity (or forced) to look outside the home department for support. The support I felt I lacked from my department was more than made up for in the support of other postgrads, professors, and the Center for the Humanities (whose raison d’être is to support interdisciplinary scholarship, making our alliance a win-win situation). As a medievalist in a small program, I’ve discovered that it is possible to get the support I need—financial, curricular and emotional—but I have had to be both creative and proactive in searching for it.

Sarah Kathryn Moore is a graduate student in English literature at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This essay was originally published in a slightly different version at The Venerable Read in August 2011