Medieval Studies and the Undergraduate Curriculum

CARA Panel Discussion

What Medieval Studies Can Offer the Undergraduate
Helen Damico, University of New Mexico (Albuquerque)
Trinity University, September 25-27, 1997

The benefits for undergraduates trained in medieval studies programs were first stated in the mid 1960s by the founders and supporters of CARA, continued to be iterated in the succeeding two decades, formed the foundation of principles for the first NEH Summer Institute for the Study of Medieval Civilization at Mount Holyoke in 1981, and are still educationally sound today, some thirty years after the great movement toward establishing medieval studies programs.

In the mid 1960s, a curriculum based on medieval studies provided undergraduates with basic intellectual skills that they could use throughout their lives. Undergraduates received a broad overview of a humanistic discipline, gaining competency in both literary and plastic arts and in philosophy and science; they were freed from a chronologically structured course of study and were encouraged to make new associations among disciplines. The 1980s saw medieval studies programs as "core curricula," and medieval subjects as "substitute(s)" for the lost classical education of the nineteenth century, more creatively transcending that earlier curricular model. The 1990s has seen all of the above, with the added view of medieval culture as forming the basis of the Modern Age, with, for example, the codification of common law; the development of business law and ethics; the establishment of the first secular school of medicine; the establishment of the first school of law and the legal class; the furtherance of philosophy, art and science; and the establishment of the university.

The present membership of CARA would assent to the above statements, that through a well-defined and comprehensive medieval curricular program, students will develop "literacy" in the larger sense; that is, they will become literate in both cultural and intellectual history, and this will provide them with a foundation for specialization in myriad areas, from gender studies to cross-cultural communications. Students will be-come aware of the complexities of communication as they strive to gain competency both in the acquisition of traditional languages and the languages of the non-traditional cultural and professional arenas. Without a sense of history, an understanding of the cultures which shaped western civilization, or the discipline to synthesize both, students may find themselves ill-equipped to turn their attention to specific but complex problems which are of import to the contemporary world.

Undergraduates who have taken the undergraduate interdisciplinary survey course at the University of New Mexico offer somewhat different views to the value of medieval studies programs. When asked to respond to a question "Why did you take this course?" most often students state that they were looking for something "exotic," something to peak their interests and get them thinking along new lines. They want to study material that is non-conventional, material that other students are not privy to. For them, there is something magical in the study of the linguistic changes in Old English or in the relationship of Old English and Modern English forms. Other students speak to wanting to know "where things came from," meaning, I suppose, the impulse to trace backwards the genesis of issues and genres in contemporary culture and literature. And still others are seeking something or someone to emulate. For them, Bede's and Alfred's (to take but two examples) self-awareness, their accountability to their nation and God, and their understanding of their place in time and in interrelationship with eternity serve as objective models to contemplate in their search to shape their own individuality. Undergraduates value the study of medieval materials for more personal and practical reasons. A curriculum in medieval studies is not only intrinsically beneficial for preparing students for the complexities of modern life, but intrinsically interesting and sought out by undergraduates.

Given student interest and the curricular soundness of the program, we would expect flourishing undergraduate programs in medieval studies. Instead some programs continue to suffer flaccid support--if not outright hostility--from administrators and departments.

One possible corrective to this attitude is the mobilization of undergraduates to participate in the major initiatives of a program, interacting with the larger departmental faculty, seeking curricular changes, and learning administrative and instructional methods under the supervision of the instructors. At the University of New Mexico, we encourage our undergraduates and graduates to participate in outreach to secondary schools. We offer two "problem" (topics) courses in which advanced undergraduates and graduate students construct high school teaching modules. The syllabi are adaptable for two- to five-day lecture sequences. Two of this year's modules are already in operation.

Second, the Medieval Studies Student Organization (MSSA) sets specific tasks for each of the members, from keeping the bulletin board current, to preparing bibliographies, to tutoring other students.

Third, this year we are attempting to move medieval subjects into the foundational courses offered in English, the Honors Course in Freshman Writing, where we teach basic types of writing based on medieval materials, and the general genre course, where we treat thematic and generic forms chronologically, from their origins in Old English to their modern manifestations--both courses taught by a graduate student under the supervision of a faculty member. Undergraduates are privy to these initiatives for graduate students and develop a mentoring relationship with them.

It has been our experience in New Mexico that the more deeply undergraduates are involved with the program's administrative and curricular activities, the more effective their intellectual development, and the more vital and spirited the program.

The Program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the College of William & Mary
George D. Greenia, College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA)

The Program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the College of William & Mary is about six years old, and its participating faculty include some thirty-four instructors in fourteen disciplines in nine departments. Besides its curriculum for undergraduates, "Med-Ren" at William & Mary builds a community of scholars who appreciate and support each other, and who help each other explore their interdisciplinary convergences. The Director serves as facilitator for the group, organizing faculty reading groups once or twice per year, distributing phone lists of all those working in Med-Ren fields, managing a faculty electronic bulletin board and website, and helping fund special book purchases for the main library. He supervises the production of a brochure of current course offerings and coordinates public lectures and special events.

The Director of Med-Ren also advises all Majors and Minors, relatively few in number although total student enrollments in Med-Ren courses consistently hover around 700 each term out of an undergraduate population of 5,500. Student recruitment takes many forms. During the summer, a letter of invitation to participate in Med-Ren is sent to all incoming freshmen who scored 3-5 on the AP European History Exam or who ful-filled their college language requirement with Latin. Before pre-registration for Spring and Fall courses the same freshmen receive another letter accompanied by a checklist for earning a Major or Minor and a brochure of course offerings for the next term. Similar materials also go out twice/year to all sophomores, juniors and seniors who have taken four or more courses that could count toward a Major or Minor.

A three-credit course on The Medieval Book is taught every Spring, covering medieval book culture (via Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose), paleography, codicology, and the principles of manuscript illumination. This course is a prerequisite for the annual four-week Summer Apprenticeship in Archival Skills for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library.

One of our most successful innovations has been one-credit topics courses offered each term. We start with a major book which is also an en-gaging read, often on a theme that would not be examined in any course regularly offered on campus. We try to identify works by major authors who are also engaging presenters. Past offerings have included "The Theft of Relics" (Patrick Geary), "The Abandonment of Children in the Middle Ages" (John Boswell), "Women on the Frontiers of Medieval Spain (and America)" (Heath Dillard), "Inquisition" (Edward Peters), and "Women & Mysticism: Teresa of Avila" (Alison Weber). Up to four seminar classes of fifteen students meet for eight weeks and are facilitated by faculty from varying disciplines who each contribute a unique perspective on the material and collaborate on assembling the syllabus and ancillary readings. What we teach each other as medievalists is often the most rewarding part of the course. During "Theft of Relics" for example, our patristics person steered his section toward comparisons with Byzantine icons and relics, our medieval historian guided her students through a consideration of pilgrimage and social history, our art historian explored the evolution of the reliquary as an art historical object, and our Iberianist (a former Franciscan) discussed relics in the light of medieval spirituality and liturgy. The capstone of the course is a visit by the targeted author who gives a public lecture one day and the next enjoys a private (and catered) discussion session with all the undergraduates enrolled--banning all faculty or grad students who might hamper their peek behind the curtains of lively scholar's workshop.

The most ambitious initiative of Med-Ren at William & Mary has been the creation of a Summer Apprenticeship in Archival Skills for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, a four-week intensive held at St. John's University's Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (Collegeville, MN). Limited to specially prepared undergrads from William & Mary and St. John's and select graduate-level applicants from around the country, the Ap-prenticeship participants undertake a seminar on codicology and hands-on work with both original manuscripts and their study on microfilm. There are guest speakers from local faculty and visiting scholars, and students contribute to the actual cataloguing work of the Hill Library. For one example of their work, see the electronic catalogue of St. John's University's Steiner Manuscripts at Finally, there are independent student research projects which often turn into senior honors theses, master's theses or even Ph.D. dissertations. One especially impressive off-shoot of an advanced student's predoctoral work can be seen in The Interactive Ç/Zifar website created by Vincent Barletta, a graduate student in Spanish at UCLA, at

Finally, we learned about four years ago that there was no national undergraduate honors society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, so we established Alpha Delta Gamma, founded on Dec. 5th, 1993 as a capstone event to the Tercentenary celebrations of the College of William & Mary and in emulation of Phi Beta Kappa, founded at the College over 200 years earlier. We conduct an annual candlelight induction ceremony in the Wren Chapel with faculty in cap and gown with a performance by the medieval music consort, the bestowal of a pewter pilgrim's scallop shell pin, and the privilege of signing the Society's Great Book of Names.

Medieval Studies and the Undergraduate Curriculum: Some Practical Justification
Richard Newhauser, Trinity University (San Antonio)

It is clear to all of us that one of the major trends in the American university system over the past 15-20 years has been to redefine higher education as professional education, and lately this tendency has affected undergraduate institutions to a greater degree than ever before. The trend can be observed in the rapid growth of enrollment in business administration, journalism, and computer science--departments, as well as pre-med and pre-law programs, for example, to the detriment of enrollment in the Humanities at liberal arts colleges and in undergraduate programs throughout the nation. Pragmatism and practicality have conspired to expand enrollment in these pre-professional programs, to make the sciences the handmaidens of medical schools, and to begin to reduce the Humanities to service programs even at liberal arts colleges.

If this were the only model, if there were no counter trends, then trying to argue with the administrations overseeing our Medieval Studies programs about the immediate relevance of our enterprise in a curriculum driven by the percep-tions of what the job market needs would be like tilting at windmills. Surely many of us have already felt the breath of Don Quixote on the back of our necks. Yet there apparently is, in particular for liberal arts colleges, an important counter trend, and it is particularly appropriate to make use of this information to demonstrate to our deans, provosts, and university presidents how pragmatic the study of the Middle Ages can be.

A recent article in the journal Liberal Education reports with some degree of optimism that while parents and graduating high school seniors might expect college to prepare them for a job, a survey of CEOs and personnel directors in the private sector of American business shows that in a changing job market, the people directly involved in hiring new employees value the skills gained in a liberal arts education more than those achieved by what we might call the Fachidioten generated in a narrowly construed pre-professional program (Richard H. Hersh, "The Liberal Arts College. The Most Practical and Professional Education for the Twenty-First Century," Liberal Education [Summer, 1997]: 26-33).

These skills are broadly defined as verbal facility and communication, problem solving abilities, and "multicultural" awareness--skills which amount to culturally necessary abilities: knowing how to learn and how to learn in many different environments. In the study commissioned by Hobart and William Smith Colleges and conducted by Daniel Yankelovich, the CEOs and personnel directors who were surveyed said that they valued liberal arts colleges particularly for focusing on the development of these skills.

In such institutions, with their emphasis on undergraduate education above all, the multicultural element has long meant an engagement with alterity of many kinds, and in particular with earlier historical eras such as that which is the focus of our enterprise. If we can take some comfort in the information about this counter trend in the expectations of what an American education can achieve, we have an opening to justify our Programs and Institutes of Medieval Studies on the basis of a new type of practicality in the study of the Middle Ages in the undergraduate curriculum, in that such a study allows a pre-eminent and unique engagement of the imagination with an alterity which on closer examination is really an earlier view of ourselves.

Medieval Studies programs can provide fulfillment for undergraduates on a number of levels if presented carefully to administrators who are eagerly thinking in pragmatic and practical terms almost exclusively. We can justify our interest in Medieval Studies as part of the necessary education for undergraduates in two ways:

--classically, as part of the central element in developing liberal arts skills
--practically, by supporting some of the skills admired by those hiring the students who pass through our programs.

In any case, it is imperative for us to use all the information at our disposal to dispel any further perception that Medieval Studies has no place in a practical curriculum of undergraduate education.

Michael Wolfe, Penn State University (Altoona)

Securing a strong place in the undergraduate curriculum for medieval studies may appear at first glance to be an uphill struggle. With the liberal arts disciplines very much on the defensive these days, advocates of medieval studies rightfully fear that their pleas may fall on deaf ears. Their task can be made easier, however, if it is fitted into an overall strategy of promoting medieval studies both in the academy and the community at large.

The first step in this effort is to conduct a self-assessment, identifying those faculty members, courses, and resources (such as the library) already in place to support an undergraduate program in medieval studies. Geographical proximity to other medieval studies programs may provide an opportunity to pool resources and forge crucial inter-collegiate ties in your vicinity. An effort should be made, too, to query the academic back-grounds of your college administrators; medievalists turn up in the darndest places! My academic dean here at PSU-Altoona, for example, has a Ph.D. in Old English. Library personnel come to mind in this regard, too. Such self-assessments should be ongoing and will help in your efforts to argue for additional, shared, or replacement appointments and bolstering your library's holdings, video collections, etc.

Based on your program's particular strengths, the next question to ask is just what place should medieval studies have in the undergraduate curriculum. Is it strong enough to support a major or a minor? Should it instead concentrate on developing general education courses? Can individualized units be developed to be shoehorned into existing courses, thereby giving them a medieval studies component? Clearly, one of the advantages offered by medieval studies is its inherently interdisciplinary character. As curricula move steadily in this direction, particularly to provide support for pre-professional programs, medieval studies holds great potential. All kinds of tie-ins are possible which can build support for your program across your university. Examples of field electives could include courses or units in medieval business practices and ethics, medieval engineering and technology, and medicine and health in the Middle Ages. As these examples show, medieval studies can readily reach beyond the traditional liberal arts. Team-teaching, in particular, can pair medievalists with other kinds of specialists who together can demonstrate to students the relevance of medieval studies to their particular major. The call to globalize undergraduate studies provides additional opportunities for medieval studies programs, which are intrinsically cross-cultural in their emphasis, to insert themselves into revamped curricula.

Lastly, your efforts to secure medieval studies in the undergraduate curriculum should be linked to efforts to promote medieval studies in the community at large. Garnering support outside your university goes a long way toward building support for your program within it. Public outreach activities in area schools, staging fairs and demonstrations, holding banquets and special events, all enhance your visibility in the community. Medieval studies has a built-in advantage in that people of all age groups readily express an interest in things medieval. Admittedly, it may occasionally be uninformed, but that's where your particular programs come in. Outreach also opens up possible grant opportuni-ties from public and private foundations interested in promoting education. Such community goodwill will in the end greatly enhance your efforts to secure and expand the place of medieval studies in the undergraduate curriculum.