Blogs > Cliopatria > An academic journey

Jun 8, 2004 6:08 pm

An academic journey

I posted a version of this at my own site, but thought I would also add it here, following Ralph's kind invitation to do so.

I first decided I wanted to be a medievalist when I was fourteen. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC filmed every one of Shakespeare's plays (even the likes of Coriolanus and Timon of Athens) for television. I remember one Saturday afternoon watching Richard II, with Derek Jacobi in the title role. I was mesmerized, and I was determined to find out just how much of the Bard's story was rooted in truth. I became a medievalist at that moment, and in particular, I became fascinated with fourteenth-century English political history.

Off I went to college (Cal) a few years later. In my first two years, I didn't waver from my goal of becoming a medievalist, though I mucked things up a bit by minoring in German rather than Latin (I had a horrible experience with a Latin TA my first semester in Berkeley, and I really found I had a passion for Schnitzler in the original). By the end of my sophomore year, I was taking all sorts of upper-division courses in church history and medieval political history. I flirted with the idea of doing early Christian history, but the thought of all the languages (Syriac? Coptic? Aramaic?) scared me.

Then came the summer between my sophomore and my junior years of college. I casually mentioned to a female friend of mine (who had just declared herself to be a double major in Women's Studies and Anthropology) that I considered myself to be a feminist. She laughed and laughed, shook her head vigorously, and told me that whatever feminism I had was superficial at best. She challenged me to take a Women's Studies course; I accepted. Everything changed. That first course was transformational. I was hooked. I was turned on and excited in a way that I had never been before. I took more courses, some in the Chicano Studies and Ethnic Studies departments, but all focusing on women (back in the 1980s, no one talked about gender studies, not yet). I looked into doing a double major, but I was already completing the German minor and it would have meant spending a fifth year as an undergraduate, something I had no interest in doing.

I wrote my senior thesis on the close relationship between the English proto-Protestant, John Wyclif, and Richard II's famous uncle, John of Gaunt. That entire semester, I read everything I could about things like Lollardy and the role of the church in the peasants' revolt of 1381. I also was taking a class on Chicana feminist authors, taught by Norma Alarcon and Cherrie Moraga. I found myself far more excited by the latter course, even as I dismissed it as an"elective pastime" compared to the"serious" work of doing research on medieval England. (My feminism was obviously still superficial!)

I applied to graduate school at several places, and after being rejected by Berkeley (ouch) chose to go to UCLA. I applied in medieval history, even though I already knew it was not the area that excited me the most. I did still enjoy the field, mind you, but it didn't" charge" me the way that work in the area of gender and sexuality did. In my first couple of years at UCLA, I mentioned my own interest in gender studies work, and my fellow students and my advisers told me it was wiser to keep it as a side interest. Over and over again, I was told that women's studies was not a"serious academic field", and it was best to confine my interests to more traditional areas. Now, while preparing for one's qualifying exams for the doctorate, one has to complete three"secondary fields" in addition to one's area of primary interest. I thought about adding gender studies, and again, allowed myself to listen to others who discouraged me. (Many of them told me that any interest at all in gender could harm me in the very conservative field of medieval English history. If I had been interested in continental history, things might have been different). Anyhow, my three minor fields were in (yawn):

1. Medieval English philosophy (especially Ockham and Duns Scotus). 2. Early Irish monasticism, and something called the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. 3. Early modern economic development, especially proto-industrialization.

I kid you not. I spent two danged years studying all of this while prepping for my exams. I also used this time to pick my dissertation topic: the role of the bishops of Durham and the archbishops of York in defending the northeastern English border from Scottish attack during the fourteenth century. Borrowing from the opening lines of Vergil's Aeneid (and Shaw), I called it: Arms and the Bishop: the Anglo-Scottish Wars and the Northeastern Episcopate, 1296-1357. Really want to read it? You can order it in microfilm by starting here. Or you can come to my office, and I'll lend you a copy. It clocks in at just over 300 pages. I've never even read it all myself. Trust me, it is tedious.

Right after passing my exams and beginning to research and write my dissertation, I was hired full-time at Pasadena City College. I've been teaching here for over a decade now. I was hired to teach general survey courses in European history, and I figured I would never ever have a shot at doing any more work on women, gender, and sexuality. I was wrong. In the spring of 1995, a colleague who regularly taught Women's History went on maternity leave and asked me (knowing a bit about my interests) to take the class for one semester. I eagerly accepted, and I was hooked. When the semester was over, I went to my department chair and begged to be given a Women's History class of my own to teach. My chair, liking the idea of a man teaching such a course, happily agreed. I've taught it every semester since.

I finished my Ph.D. in 1999 (it took a LONG time to write with a full-time teaching load). The year before, I had been granted tenure. I now had the time and the freedom to develop new courses. Since 1999, I have been free to explore and"play". So far, in addition to teaching the Women's History course, I've created three others that are now part of my repertoire:

1. Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History 2. Men, Masculinities, and the American Tradition 3. Beauty, the Body, and the Euro-American Tradition

I've thought about doing other courses as well, such as on the history of pornography and on the history of marriage.

I still love teaching my survey courses. It's fun to give a good Crusades lecture every once in a while. But I feel so blessed to be able to do what I never thought I would be able to do, which is to engage with students on the topics that (since that first course in 1987) have always mattered most to me. I realize I lack formal academic training in gender studies at the graduate level (something of which my colleagues are quite regular about reminding me). But I've done my best to make up for it with independent reading and research, as well as regular contact with those who have the training I lack.

What I love about the community college is the near-complete freedom to develop radically new interests. At 37, I am not the same man emotionally or intellectually that I was at 17 or 27. My academic passions continue to change and grow just as I grow spiritually and psychologically. Most universities don't give their faculty the freedom that community colleges do to change their teaching areas to reflect the emergence of new interests.

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More Comments:

Mark O McDaniel - 7/16/2004

Hugo, I'm a HS English teacher (who graduated from Cal also but was not admitted to graduate school there - ouch!). I've been reading "Huck Finn" with my sophomores for over ten years and we've been mystified by the scene where Jim's face is painted blue to accompany the "sick Arab" sign. Recently, during a presentation on the Crusades, a slide was shown. An Arab with a blue face was contending with a crusader. Can you or anyone shed some light on whatever connection there may be here?

Grant W Jones - 6/9/2004

Personally, I would find the saga of William Wallace and Scottish independence far more interesting than some modern "studies" stuff.