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New minor offered in medieval studies

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 6, 2014

A minor in medieval studies has been added to the University of Connecticut College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' offerings, allowing students one more academic area to explore.
Established in 1967, the Medieval Studies Department at the UConn is the only department of its kind at a public university in New England to offer graduate level studies in the discipline. UConn is now one of the only universities in the region to offer medieval studies to undergraduates.
"There is a flourishing scholarly field devoted to this topic," said medieval studies and English professor Frederick Biggs. "It may seem less relevant than studying genetics, but it advances our knowledge of the universe."
The minor, which can be achieved by taking 18 credits across 11 departments, was added to give undergraduates the exposure necessary to go on to graduate studies as well as provide the opportunity to start research earlier, said Biggs. A major will be added in coming years, but it is currently under discussion.
Previously, students could take classes with medieval studies content, such as 12th-century Jewish literature or medieval history courses, but the minor was unavailable to students.
"They could have taken courses in departments that covered the middle ages. You could have taken a Chaucer course, a Middle English course or a history course," said Biggs.
While the field may appear antiquated or a study best left to historians, the plan of study is interdisciplinary and encourages students to take classes in every department, from classes in Art History to Spanish Literature.
"What this does is it encourages people to take courses outside one department. It is by definition interdisciplinary," Biggs said.
Graduate student Brandon Hawk said that the interdisciplinary nature of the minor is unique and provides an extra dimension to the liberal arts education.
"It encourages people to take classes in music, art history and other subjects. It provides a greater spectrum of a liberal arts education," Hawk said.
While the interdisciplinary nature would be appealing to students with varied interests, the head start it would give interested undergraduates looking to go to graduate school would be invaluable, Hawk said.
Exposure to professors, research and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to undergraduates would help students looking to get a head start in the field, said Hawk.
"It allows for opportunities to expand," Hawk said. "Undergraduates will be able to look at manuscripts and network with professors in the discipline."
The opportunity to build a stronger understanding of the medieval period before graduate school would also draw more students, Biggs said.
"If you start work as an undergraduate, you can do research earlier and quicker," Biggs said.
Biggs also stated that the focus on the subject as an undergraduate would help undergraduates know what supplementary courses they should take to foster a better understanding of the time. For example, if a student decides that they'd like to concentrate on medieval Arabic literature in graduate school, knowledge of Arabic will be essential to their success. However, by the time the student reaches their senior year, it would be too late to develop the necessary understanding, Biggs said.
The minor would allow students to explore their interests within the field and also strengthen their skill set by exposing them to the skills they will need to conduct research in graduate school, Biggs said.
Professor Fiona Somerset, the co-program head with Professor Susan Einbinder, said that the minor would be useful to students in any major.
"For aspiring novelists, it's a great way to get an edge," Somerset said. "Much of the basis of our pop culture is in the middle ages. If you read fantasy, that's medieval based."
Somerset also said that popular games such as World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons are created by people with strong backgrounds in medieval studies, making the application of the minor broad in its potential.
Madeline Caples, a freshman violin performance major, is considering adding the minor because she is interested in the period.
"I am eager to benefit from the university's new minor, as I think it is an excellent way to broaden my horizons and delve into topics which intrigue me," Caples said.
Caples said she is also anticipating that studying medieval studies will help her as she progresses through her career as a fine arts student, by making her education well-rounded, but also by lending a new light to her main focus, music.
"The medieval studies minor puts an emphasis on taking classes in at least four different fields, including history, art, language, literature and philosophy. This will give me a structured environment in which to go beyond the requirements of my major in music performance," Caples said.
As one of the oldest medieval studies departments in the region, the department is looking to expand its offerings, but also increase its presence as a leading medieval studies institution in the region.
Among the department's many accomplishments is the successful employment rate of its graduates. The program, which only consists of 15 to 20 students, turns out graduates who go on to tenure track teaching position, said department head and professor, Sherri Olson.
UConn is also turning out a lot of research in the medieval studies arena, said Olson, and has hired several new faculty members for the department within the past year.
Somerset and Einbinder were both hired last year as part of an initiative to strengthen the already robust department comprised of 22 faculty members, and will be the co-directors of the medieval studies minor starting in the fall of 2014.
Einbinder is a well-known scholar in her field of late medieval Jewish writing, according to Biggs, and was hired through the university's initiative to keep strengthening the faculty presence in pre-modern language and literature. Somerset, a specialist in medieval literature, was also hired through this initiative and said that the department wanted two directors for the program to accurately represent the diversity in the discipline.
"We have got a strong faculty presence for medieval studies," Olson said. "We have a lot of strength in pre-modern society."
The two are working on adding 2000- level courses that focus on medieval studies so that first and second-year students can have the opportunity to figure out whether or not they want to explore the subject further and pursue a minor. The classes would also serve to widen the offerings for electives for students in the first half of their undergraduate career, Somerset said. The courses are currently being approved by the General Education Oversight Committee, but should be available in the next two years.

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