The Physics of Changing Course: From the Materials Lab to the Medieval Institute

Deciding to move from the sciences to the humanities as a graduate student is not necessarily common or easy, especially for disciplines as substantively and methodologically distant as physics and medieval studies.

For graduate students Jill Bjerke and Luke Chambers, the attraction of medieval studies—the fascinating history of iconic kings and queens, the adventure of medieval romances and epics—was a force too strong to resist.

a photo of graduate student Jill Bjerke

Jill, who earned her M.S. in Physics from Wake Forest University, had been interested in the Middle Ages and historical fiction since she was a child. During her master’s program, she happened upon the brochure for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, a massive conference held every year in Kalamazoo (of all places!) and hosted by WMU’s Medieval Institute. Fascinated by the hundreds of sessions on topics ranging from ale-brewing and iron-smelting to semiotics, gender theory, and medievalism in gaming culture, Jill decided to give the conference a go. During her first visit to Congress, she attended a session on Angevin and Plantagenet warfare, and watched as the room erupted in a debate over medieval military tactics. The experience turned out to be a decisive one for Jill. Watching these scholars argue passionately with each other over 700 year-old warfare made her realize that, yes, people do this for a living, and that she could as well.

a photo of graduate student Luke Chambers

Luke also traces his fascination with the Middle Ages to his childhood, when his mother read to him from Beowulf and from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. After a winding academic path through interdisciplinary studies, math, and medieval literature, Luke found himself completing undergraduate degrees in Physics and Math at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Feeling a pull to return to the medieval (along with some disenchantment with future career choices in his field) Luke took a semester of Latin at the University of Minnesota, then applied to and was accepted to Western’s Medieval Studies M.A. For him, the structures of languages provide a familiar link to his background in mathematics. Luke observes that, in both math and linguistics, “you have to recognize sets and groupings… though, in the long run, languages aren’t strict, technical things.”

Jill too concedes that there’s quite a disciplinary distance between her original research in Physics (nanotechnology and materials science) and her current work in Medieval Studies. However, she hopes that classes in paleography (the study of ancient writing) will help her to bridge the two disciplines. A mix of history and science, paleography presents the opportunity to study manuscripts and “the materials background of writing,” according to Jill. She says she’s often been curious about putting manuscripts under the microscope in the same way that she studied the composition of steel in her master’s program, yet doing so would involve cutting the medieval vellum, destroying the manuscript and losing a rare and tangible piece of history.

Making the transition from a scientific field to the humanities, Jill feels that the greatest challenges have been an increased reading load and acquainting herself with a new discipline’s writing style. Learning to write for the humanities, Jill says, “you have to pay attention to word choice, sentence structure, style… writing for the sciences is much more succinct, clear, and simple.” Luke agrees, describing different methods of persuasion in each field: style and rhetoric vs. reporting data and interpretation. Jill says that her focus now is on the writing process and establishing a voice as a historian, a much different task than writing in the sciences. As for her new reading load, she feels like she’s gone back to the beginning of school—a “new school,” as she puts it—and since the character of her work has changed so drastically, she’s not burned out yet.

Likewise, though Luke acknowledges that graduate study is a considerable commitment of time and resources, he chose to pursue his interests in medieval languages and literatures at Western because “you can’t learn as much as you’d like to learn about old languages as an undergrad,” and, as he observes, “if you want to understand the past, you have to be able to read the languages of those cultures.” As he explains, the history of language and literature tells us a great deal about our own culture: “Old English is the source of our own language, and Old Norse had a strong influence on English culture and language as well, due to their common mythology and the history of the Danish invasions of England.” Luke’s own research interests reveal the intersections of language, text, and culture. His Master’s thesis will explore the classical source material for the 13th-century Icelandic Trójumanna saga (Saga of the Troy-men), a text which adapts and recombines material from the Latin matter of Troy as well as Ovid’s Heroides. In addition to his research in Germanic languages and literatures, Luke, a third-year Master’s student, is also one of the Medieval Institute’s graduate instructors for MDVL 1450: “Heroes and Villains” of the Middle Ages.

Now in the second year of her M.A. in Medieval Studies, Jill balances a full workload of courses, as well as working as a graduate instructor for MDVL 1450. Last year, her classes ranged from classical and medieval Latin to medieval “Art and Devotion” to a course on the “Rulers and Regions” of France, England, and the Low Countries. The last of these classes provided another decisive moment for Jill, when she realized that every text on the syllabus for “Rulers and Regions” was one that she would have picked up on her own. Her lifelong love of history and enthusiasm for this course material gave her the knowledge that, despite the fact that she doesn’t have an academic background in history, she’s not a “fish out of water” here and that her decision to change fields was a good one. Her current research interests center on Richard the Lionheart and his political career, including his involvement in the Crusades. Jill speaks passionately about Richard, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his global wanderings: “Richard I is everywhere. He’s King of England, yet has extensive holdings in France. On Crusade he goes to Sicily, Cyprus and the Holy Land and gets captured by the Duke of Austria on the way home. He’s a gateway into many regions of medieval Europe. And, of course, he turns up in the Robin Hood legends as well!” Jill’s excitement about this legendary king and her field makes it clear that, whatever she may have sacrificed in her disciplinary shift, it’s been worth it to her.



Video: Jill Bjerke on Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Institute currently enrolls 22 graduate students, each with widely varied research interests. In addition to Jill’s and Luke’s research in late medieval English history and Germanic  languages, our medievalists are interested in topics including monasticism and anchoritism; medieval Bohemia and Central Europe; women, peasants, and Islam in the Byzantine Empire; medieval and Renaissance drama; and medieval economies, among other areas. In addition to physics and mathematics, our current students have undergraduate backgrounds in philosophy, history, varied languages and literatures, music education, film, international relations, political science, psychology, and classics. With graduate students coming from far afield to pursue their research passions at the Medieval Institute, and graduate instructors sharing their lifelong “medieval fascinations” with students, it seems that Medieval Studies is in good hands at WMU.

Postscript:

WMU’s Medieval Institute (LINK: www.wmich.edu/medieval) is known worldwide as the home of the International Congress on Medieval Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/index.html) , which brings thousands of medievalists to Kalamazoo every May, and offers a Master’s program in Medieval Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/academics/ma-program.html]. The program is also well known for its Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/research/rawl/index.html) , and houses Medieval Institute Publications (LINK: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/mip/index.html) . The Institute has over thirty affiliated faculty members from the departments of English, History, Theatre, Comparative Religion, Japanese, Spanish, Classics, German, Art, Music, and University Libraries.

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