Introduction /Mary Dockray-Miller

postmedieval FORUM on (Inter)Disciplinary Medievalist Pedagogy: Introduction

Mary Dockray-Miller, Department of English, Lesley University, Cambridge, MA

The essays and remarks collected here grew out of a session at the September 2012 BABEL conference at Northeastern University in Boston, in which the contributors and the audience explored issues around the place, value, and practice of undergraduate pedagogy in medieval studies and in the contemporary university. While university mission statements routinely include references to excellence in teaching and learning, we may not be fulfilling those missions. Current public discourse around undergraduate education is almost uniformly negative. Issues receiving seemingly constant news coverage include the need for nationwide standards for and assessment of student learning; the corporatization of American education, both K12 and in colleges and universities; tuition increases that dramatically outstrip the pace of inflation, and the concomitant student debt; and the impact of online learning, both privatized and open-access, on educational delivery models.

Some authors are unabashedly confrontational, like Bauerlein (2008) in The Dumbest Generation. You don’t need to read Brandon’s book (2010) once you know the full title: The Five Year Party: how colleges have given up on educating your child and what you can do about it. Others provide a more nuanced view, like Arum and Roska’s (2010) presentation and analysis of the data in Academically Adrift, wherein they state that at least 45 percent of the students in their study made “No statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” in their first two years of college. Keeling and Hersch (2011) came to largely the same conclusions in We’re Losing Our Minds, wherein they presented a compelling case that student learning is actually not high on the priority list of most American undergraduate programs. A number of the contributors to this forum provide references to recent work, especially regarding the ‘crisis in the humanities’ conversation engendered in the media by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report on the state of the humanities and social sciences.

I was curious about how these issues relate specifically to medievalists and medieval studies, a domain of knowledge that can seem increasingly quaint or irrelevant given our culture’s current focus on professional training and post-baccalaureate employment. In the spring of 2012, I put together a survey in the hopes of providing a limited but still useful ‘state of the field’ about how we teach and do research and generally participate in this fraught world of higher education. The complete results of the survey are available in PDF format. With 208 respondents gathered largely from the members of various medieval studies listservs, the data suffers from self-selection of the participants; I hope, however, that it provides some useful nodes for analysis and inquiry.

The contributors gathered here represent a wide range of types of higher education; they are faculty from public and private, large and small, elite and less exclusive institutions. Robert Stanton begins the conversation with a timely and broad pedagogical context for issues of the value and place of the humanities in general and medieval studies in particular. Eliza Garrison very specifically argues for the necessity of image analysis as a foundational skill in the postmodern world, while Jennifer Brown reminds us of the need for precise disciplinary skills even as we rush to the interdisciplinary as a way to prove relevance or value in a market-driven educational landscape. Drawing on thinkers from a wide variety of disciplines and time periods, Karolyn Kinane reminds us that the individual student should be the center of any pedagogy, interdisciplinary or otherwise, while Sherri Olson celebrates the ‘strangeness’ of the Middle Ages as a way of providing students with strategies for understanding our present and our futures. Enjoy the discussion.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. 2013. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Arum, R., and and J. Roska. 2010. Academically Adrift; Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bauerlein, M. 2008. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). New York: Penguin.

Brandon, C. 2010. The Five Year Party: how colleges have given up on educating your child and what you can do about it. New York: BenBella Books.

Keeling, R., and R. Hersch 2011. We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


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