University News

Program’s small size a strength, say medieval students

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010

Students in large concentrations often relish the opportunity to trade big lecture halls for the intimacy of the seminar room. For students in small concentrations, tight-knit seminars and personal attention are the rule, not the exception.

Currently only 10 students are concentrating in Medieval Studies at Brown, pursuing either the medieval cultures or late antique cultures track. According to Amy Remensnyder, an associate professor of history and the program’s director, this is an example of “growing interest among students” in the program.

This spring the seven seniors graduating with a Medieval Studies concentration will represent the largest group the program has produced thus far, according to Remensnyder.

Students and faculty affiliated with the program see the small size as one of the department’s strengths. Medieval Cultures concentrator Maya Bretzius ’12 noted that the personal attention she receives from the faculty is one of the best parts of being in the program.

“The faculty really knows the students really well,” Remensnyder noted. Professors “engage with them in a way that should be one of the hallmarks of a Brown education.”

She added that the small class sizes encourage students to “get to know fellow concentrators very well,” adding to students’ learning experiences.

“Size is probably less important than the quality of the faculty and the students,” said Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature Joseph Pucci, former director of the program.

Medieval Studies is also different from many concentrations in that it is completely composed of faculty from other departments. This means that the 14 faculty members — representing the Departments of Art History, Classics, History and Neuroscience, among others — are voluntary participants in the program and show a passion for Medieval Studies, Bretzius said.

This passion, concentrator Anna Waymack ’11 said, is exemplified by MDVL 0360: “Medieval Perspectives,” an interdisciplinary course taught in collaboration by eight to 10 professors in the program. The course is an overload, meaning that the professors are teaching an extra course without compensation. Pucci described this as a “testament to the collegiality of medievalists at Brown.”

The course is offered each spring, and according to Remensnyder, students this year can anticipate a “completely new, revamped version of Medieval Perspectives.” Titled “Blood, Bones and Bodies: Medieval Perspectives,” the spring version of the course was designed around a particular theme — exploring the “very different sensibilities” between the Middle Ages and the modern day in terms of “attitudes toward the body” and “the sense of the boundary between death and life.”

Medieval Perspectives is a “wonderful way to get into the department,” Waymack said. Describing her own decision to concentrate in medieval cultures as “purely accident,” Waymack said she believes that “more people would do it if they knew about it.”

Students appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of the course and the passionate and active faculty. The result, Pucci noted, is “enjoyable experiences on both sides of the desk.”

According to Remensnyder, there are several reasons the program attracts relatively few concentrators. Because the number of students is small, the program is less well-known and therefore less popular. In addition, Remensnyder said, many who do know about the program may consider it “cool but irrelevant.”

Remensnyder said she also believes that in this weak economic climate, many students are looking for a concentration that is more “practical.” But, she added, many potential employers have told her they prefer students with a traditional liberal arts background who can think critically and write well, with the understanding that the economics required for a job in the business world can be easily taught to employees.

“Medieval Studies stands out on a resume,” she said.