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22 Volume
1-2 Number
2009 Year
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At Cornell

Body and Soul

A Conversation with Masha Raskolnikov, English Raskolnikov
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How Does Medieval English Literature Fit in the 21st Century?

What makes a career promising for you here at Cornell?

I teach medieval English literature in combination with feminist studies and critical theory, fields that are not often combined, although I believe that they need one another to thrive. Cornell has a long, proud tradition in medieval studies, and I am very honored to teach here. In the previous generation, it was famous as a bastion of traditional philological criticism, the study of what medieval literature can tell us about linguistic history, and also of patristics, the history of the church fathers. In fact, my very office used to be the office of Robert Kaske, who was an enormous, internationally-known presence in medieval studies! It was something else to take over that office, to physically occupy his former space, although he’s been deceased for quite a few years now!

Cornell’s English department as a whole has a tradition of acceptance and inclusion. When the so-called “culture wars” started in the 1980s, at other places there was a fight about whether it was worth teaching the “old stuff,” like medieval literature—or the folks who taught the old stuff would oppose the inclusion of works by women, people of color, or Third World writers because they didn’t fit with a traditional English program. Here at Cornell, however, literary studies always remained strong and cohesive. My colleagues knew that the curriculum had to make room for new fields of scholarship but without sacrificing traditional forms, that it is crucial to let English literature grow as a field but to also find a way to teach the old stuff, the canon, in new ways—to transform it and to give new groups of people access to it.

Why is medieval literature important?

I have to object to this question! While medieval literature is most certainly important, it is also beautiful for its own sake. The experience of reading literature because it is beautiful is crucial to the education of any human being. It does not have to be useful, and it does not have to get you a job. Sometimes students are “forced” by schedules or requirements to take classes in early periods, and they discover—and this is one of those discoveries I am always midwifing—how simply beautiful the poetry and the drama are. That said, I would insist that the Middle Ages is such a historically distant period that learning to study its culture thoughtfully and to read its works critically prepares students to encounter, process, and comprehend challenging new information, honing those critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that are at the heart of a solid education.

What do you research?

One of the reasons I became a medievalist is because I am interested in origins—where we come from. One can have a biological question about origins or a physics question about it. My interest is where our “selves” come from—our current idea of what the self is—which may sound like a question for psychologists, but often ends up being a matter for poets. At the basis of this inquiry is the premise that, if we know where we come from, we have the freedom to change where we are going. We become less bound to the things that are given to us when we can go back and analyze them. My particular focus of study is one that runs through all of Western history and remains of primary interest to modern theorists, particularly feminist theorists: how my body relates to “me.” I study this by examining medieval debates between the body and the soul and other writings that rely on personifying parts of the self in order to explain what it’s made of.

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