Shannon Carey | Assistant Editor of Humanities
Dr. Marjorie Woods is a Professor of Medieval Literature at the College of Liberal Arts. She is the Blumberg Centennial Professor of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and has received numerous teaching awards, including the Humanities Research Award, the Harry Ransom Award for Teaching Excellence, the University President’s Associates’ Teaching Excellence Award, and the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award. Her research focus is the comments written in the margins of medieval manuscripts.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get into academics?
When I was a freshman in college, my then boyfriend’s English teacher would come to dinner at the freshman boys dorm and she and I got to be friends. She was the one, because I had read a lot of historical novels and I knew a lot of dates and things like that, she said, “you should become a medievalist.” So it was actually becoming a medievalist specifically rather than an academic in general.
Did you do any research when you were an undergraduate?
For my undergraduate degree, I was in the honors program, so I had to write a thesis, but I knew at that point that I would go on to become a medievalist and wanted to write on another period, so I actually wrote my thesis on Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood which was one of the most interesting books I have ever read. At that point, which was a long time ago, people sort of seemed to be afraid to touch it, so I actually had a hard time finding someone to direct my thesis.
What specifically drew you into medieval literature?
I think part of it was the influence of this woman who was moving from Renaissance back to medieval, but what she pointed out was that I really liked to do research in manuscripts. I’ve also been lucky to have very good mentors, both her for undergraduate and I had two women thesis advisers in graduate school in medieval studies, not consciously picked on my part but it made it seem not so strange to be a woman in academia.
What can be learned from medieval literature that could be applied to modern day society?
In general, I don’t think so much about society. I think about the classroom. I draw on medieval teachers’ methods for the classroom, and what I think are particularly useful about them. They tend to games, like “write something using all of the figures of speech, or write an abbreviation of all of the works we learned in class.” They seem to work particularly well with students of different backgrounds and levels in the same class, and that’s something that people have trouble with now, so I think that’s something we can learn from them. They also articulated much better the spiritual side of life and the positive aspects of community; one of things I like to do in my classes is have a sense of community among my students so they help each other instead of necessarily being in competition.
I know you do a lot of work with comments written in the margins of medieval manuscripts. What can be learned from those?
I think one of the best way students can learn is by writing comments in the margins of books. And I do think that’s a problem with electronic books. I know that you can highlight in Kindle, and I use iAnnotate for stuff on my iPad, but I think it’s good to put your reactions in the margins so that you can go back and find what you remember. Sometimes, you remember the reaction you have but you can’t remember why you had it, and so it’s hard to find it in the book. I know this is problematic because a lot of people are told not to mark books. I work on what are referred to as ‘ugly manuscripts’ from the Middle Ages, but I like to know what readers have thought before. If they’re really obnoxious or I disagree with them or they are too intrusive, its problematic for me, but there are some very moving testimonials even in books now.
There’s a wonderful book by John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and there are some very moving testimonials in the library’s copy by gay students saying that they didn’t know there was a history and just how powerful it is. I’m very interested in readers. I’m a reader and a writer about readers, rather than a creative writer. I think that academic writing can be creative, so I always like to know what other readers think.
Why do you think research in the humanities is important, since the emphasis is usually on the sciences?
I feel like humanities research is for the rest of life. It gives you access to the part of life that you can control, what books you want to read, what you want to do. I think particularly in times of trouble or difficulty, having access to the history of the humanities — knowing that there are books out there that can either take you away from what’s happening in your world or give you insight into it — that’s the most important thing. It is least dependent on other people and something you can do for yourself. One of the great things about American culture is that we have access to so many books and the relative lack of censorship that we have. I feel like what I’m giving people is something that will help them create their own interior lives no matter what they go into.
Did you run into any problems when you did your research and how did you overcome them?
Mostly, it just took way too much time and the projects were way too big. I’m interested in really big projects. And I have to say, if we had the internet while I was in graduate school, it would have shaved about a third of the time off that, and also off of my later research. I think the major difficulty was saying that I was going to be responsible for writing something and realizing how difficult it was, knowing that I was just going to have to keep going even though it took a long time.
It takes me a long time to write. It took me a long time to write my dissertation, my first book, my second book, and my third book will be my shortest, which will be about ten years all together. When you’re taking a long time, people don’t know if you’re actually working, and sometimes you don’t know if you’re actually going to finish. You just have to believe in yourself and keep going. It can be a very lonely road, so it’s important to have colleagues, I was very lucky having colleagues at conferences, because usually there aren’t people working in exactly your field where you teach, so going to conferences and participating and writing to people, as long as it doesn’t distract you from this really large project, I think that’s important.
How would you recommend that undergraduate humanities students get involved in research?
In my field, the research part tends to be very technical and involved with manuscripts, which students don’t necessarily have access to in terms of independent research. One of the things I found most helpful when I was a graduate student: I worked as a secretary for a project editing Latin texts. I had to file the correspondence, learn through the people working there, how to pay attention to things, and write in academic discourse. Sometimes when I’ve had students helping me doing research, they have found it embarrassingly productive to organize my life, to look at the pile of two hundred microfilms on that shelf and alphabetize them. There’s a way in which very basic kinds of help can be very productive, and also just in conversations with students.
It’s important to find a professor that you like; ask them what they’re doing and if there is something you can do to help. I think doing your own research is very lonely, and in working with someone through their research you can learn a lot from them, especially at first, and then you have a model to follow. It’s very hard to just jump right in to research something so different. It’s more fun and reassuring and really helpful for the person if you can work along with them.
Dr. Woods is the Blumberg Centennial Professor of English and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor. She is the author of Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe, winner of the 2010 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award.
Featured photo from DublinDecoded.com