As a scholar and instructor, I work to broaden the ways that people approach and consider our shared medieval history. Medieval Europe was a socially complex part of an connected and interdependent global Middle Ages. I believe that academics have a responsibility to bring this past to the fore, showing the geographic interconnectedness and racial heterogeneity of the period. The field of Medieval Studies needs to become more welcoming to participation and contributions form students and scholars of diverse backgrounds; currently, visions of the Middle Ages seems closed and closed-minded to many. White nationalist movements have vocally incorporated ahistorical medievalisms into their rhetoric, while popular film and video game cultures usually articulate a male, cisgendered, and European image of the period. Women, students of color, and learners from traditionally underrepresented minorities are often discouraged from engaging with the Middle Ages because they do not see its connections to their own identities and interests. Research and teaching that confronts our cultural misapprehensions about the Middle Ages makes the field more inclusive, demonstrating to a broader range of people that they have a stake, and a voice, in the field.
My courses on medieval geography and space highlight the contributions of Islamic textual traditions in preserving, commenting on, and expanding classical texts. I look to texts by travelers such as ibn Battuta, ibn Fadlan, and Leo Africanus to situate the European experience in a global context. And I highlight literature by female authors – both primary and secondary – in my coursework. My scholarship touches on non-European reactions to Western productions of space, and on the impact of female authors such as Christine de Pizan on the European understanding of its own global context. I have worked closely with a female coauthor on a forthcoming article, in no small part because I recognize the value in collaborating with diverse voices and perspectives in assessing historical and literary meanings.
As both a coach and a graduate instructor, I have worked with many first-generation students and nontraditional students, for whom success at college is not merely a question of mastering the materials. First-generation students have to navigate the systems of unwritten rules and expectations that undergird higher education, often without even knowing what questions they need to ask. I have found that being clear about course expectations, instructor flexibilities, and university resources helps to lay the groundwork for these students to engage productively in both my course and others. In the first-year classes that I teach I often set assignments that require students to connect with campus institutions at multiple levels, to help give them a sense of what social and academic resources are available to them. I have also found that being obviously open and available to students can pay dividends, showing them that their education should be a series of bilateral conversations with professors and peers. Towards this end, I frequently hold office hours in public spaces such as cafes, which helps to make me more approachable, and more visible.
I know from personal experience that nontraditional students often have additional needs to balance against their school work. I went back to school in 2011 as an older student with a full-time job and a family. For students in similar situations, a mixture of flexibility and firmness is essential: flexibility of deadlines, attendance policies, and meeting times to accommodate for sudden or unavoidable conflicts; firmness in providing a structure of expectation that helps students meet course learning objectives. It is also notably important for nontraditional students that classwork and assignments matter; classes cannot be simply a recitation of assigned materials, and assignments need clear and enunciated learning outcomes. I have found it easier to gain buy-in from nontraditional students if I actively demonstrate that I understand the value of their time, and the nature of their commitment to their education.
It is also vital to recognize the struggles that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face in college environments. As the Goldrick-Rab study out of Temple demonstrated this year, roughly a third of college students face problems of food and housing security. Efforts on my part to mitigate costs can make it easier for these – and all – students to participate meaningfully in my classes. Towards this end, I chose course materials with an eye towards cost; I set older editions of books where possible, provide as many readings as possible in electronic format on Blackboard or online, and make sure that copies of my course texts are always available on reserve in the library.
These approaches allow students the freedom to bring their life experiences to bear on their studies. Giving students the support to succeed, recognizing the intersectional identities that they bring to the classroom, and valuing their efforts to learn and grow all help to include more people, and more voices, into the learning process, which enriches the classroom experience for all participants.