The Making of a Medievalist (or rather an Anglo-Saxonist)


I am frequently asked—I think more often than most English professors—why it is that I ended up doing what I do. There’s something about being an Anglo-Saxonist just freakish enough to require explanation. Or maybe it’s my palpable lack of a beard, which, as I have noted before on this blog, is practically a requirement of membership in the field. In any case, I have been thinking a lot recently about origins. I can’t help it; I’m reading Paradise Lost. And even the word of the day colludes with me in my topic–it is faculty, and, what do you know, it turns out to have a medieval origin.

The first time that I was asked about my reasons for being an Anglo-Saxonist, I immediately felt a deep anxiety about, well, not having good enough reasons. That is, not having a profound and meaningful origin story involving something like finding a long-lost twin or saving a person from a life-threatening disease. The real story involves a series of random, little events. When I began my undergraduate degree, Old English was a compulsory subject for all entering freshmen students specializing in English. As you can imagine, the complaining was legion. Everyone had to take it, and most people seemed to hate it. I was in the tutorial group of my university’s eminent Anglo-Saxonist, a man who had the unnerving habit of playing with a letter opener in the shape of a Celtic sword while he quizzed you about case endings. “Yes, but what case is handa?” he would twinkle, testing the dull point of the letter opener with his thumb as though ready to disembowel you for making a mistake in your parsing. All looked with searing intensity at their books, intently avoiding eye contact. Of course this strategy can only get you so far in an Old English class, because just about everybody teaches it by going around a circle and having each student translate a sentence or two at a time. Hence we would spend most of the class frantically calculating where our turn would land; counting sentences; adjusting for length and difficulty; assessing the probability that our professor would randomly ask someone else to do more or less than was usual; hoping against hope that we didn’t get that sentence that just made no sense at all, or the one that we were pretty sure we had mistranslated as being something to do with a three-legged dog and a slice of Wensleydale cheese.

Sitting next to me, I still remember, was an over-achieving student with large and incredibly expressive nostrils, which would flare to varying degrees depending on whether he was experiencing excitement or annoyance. Even though this student, let’s just call him Nostrils, was probably the best prepared in the class, I sensed that my teacher preferred self-deprecating vacillation above smug nasal hubris any day. Perhaps it was just that the nostrils were too much of a temptation to the letter opener. But whatever the reason, I immediately warmed to my professor for his refusal to respond to such humorless swotty-ness.

That being said, it’s not as though I understood everything that we were taught that first year. I should mention at this point, in the way of absolving myself, that teaching things did not involve quite the same level of explanation and activity in that time and place as it does here and now. Cases were taught as though to students who had taken several years of Latin and perhaps Greek, whereas we had all gone to comprehensive high schools (public schools, as they would be known here) where you couldn’t possibly take such subjects. Sound changes were taught as though we were already familiar with the notion of historical linguistics. I found the terms “i-mutation” and “restoration of a” (both important sound changes) quite diverting, but I was unable to do more than imagine them as Sesame Street songs.

Oddly enough, though, when I got back my exam for the first year of Introduction to Old English, I had scored an 81% (which, believe me, is about a 99% when translated to American grading). I was mystified, but I felt that this must be a sign. Truth be told, despite my willful blind spot toward sound changes and the fact that I once spelled the protagonist’s name wrong all the way through an essay on The Battle of Maldon, I wasn’t bad at literary analysis of Old English poetry, and this seemed good enough reason to carry on doing it.

And that was that. It feels like a quotidian set of events to found a career, but it’s not a decision I’ve ever regretted either.

So, what about you? What is your scholarly origin story? Please tell me it involves a long-lost twin, a shipwreck, amnesia, or a parallel universe…

–Jackie Stodnick


  1. My origin story (it makes me feel a bit like a comic book character to type that) starts with my father, who studied Old English in graduate school. He had an interesting academic life, also including degrees in ESL and Divinity (not the candy). He died when I was 18, a few weeks before I started college. A year or two earlier, he had passed on a bit of wisdom to me from an Old English poem: “Þæs offereode; þisses swa mæg!” which is traditionally translated “that passed, so can this.” I have carried it around in my wallet ever since.
    When I made the decision to go to Grad school and pursue a degree in English in 2003, I saw that Old English would be offered in the Spring. This was around the time of the release of the third Lord of the Rings movie, and, being a pretty big Tolkien-geek, I was aware of the Old English/Tolkien connection. The rest of the story is a lot like Jackie’s (although my Old English teacher never implicitly threatened us with a letter opener): a lot of counting around to see which line I had to translate, a lot of anxiety about quizzes over verb paradigms, a lot of alien terms like “y-mutation” (which might be part of some comic book character’s origin story), and an eventual discovery that I liked what I was studying and that I was pretty good at it. Six years after taking this class, I’m hard at work on my dissertation on Old English. I can’t say this without sounding maudlin, but I owe it all to the memory of my father, and to the influence of a great teacher, Jackie Stodnick.

  2. I forbear to tell how I became an Emily Dickinson scholar, since it involved fleeing from certain prospective mentors instead of actively in the direction of anyone or any topic. But I will say that I subsequently got into both sport literature and children’s literature by observing what I felt a compulsion to read while I was procrastinating from Emily Dickinson scholarship. Everyone, including graduate students and junior faculty, should pay attention to those compulsions: if you can’t help be interested in something, odds are that quite a few others can’t help it either, and the community is out there waiting for you to join.

  3. I am not joking about this–I became an English major because I wanted to spend my junior year abroad in London, and you had to be either an English major or an Economics major to do so (and I have trouble balancing a checkbook, so the choice seemed pretty clear). And I went on to do Creative Writing in graduate school because (again, not joking) my undergraduate creative writing professor told me, after we had workshopped my first short story (the class seemed to like it, but he had sat silent during the workshop, rolling three pencils back and forth across the table in front of him), that I was either one of the best writing students he had ever had, or one of the worst, and he was “pretty certain it’s the latter.” I took that as a challenge to prove him wrong…

  4. Great origin stories. I refused to teach English. My mom has been a high school English teacher for a long time, and I DID NOT want to join a community of professionals who (as I saw it) wore seasonal sweaters and plastic earrings (think jack-o-lanters in October and hearts in February). Turns out, maybe it was just my mom (whom I love dearly, lest she ever read this). When I started my graduate degree, it was women’s lit and fem theory that drew me in. I was surprised in my Ph.D. to fall for the “what if” and “what could be” of science fiction and utopian fiction. Both are just so beautifully theory-oriented and socio-political and allow intersections into the sciences. Science fiction is also one of those fields in which students are consistently teaching me. They point out books, games, films I haven’t read and seen. All of that, plus this is a career in which we are paid to read (unlike Barnes and Noble… apparently you are not supposed to read what you are re-shelving). How many people get paid to read and discuss material that they want to read?

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