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Ignatius Seminar Participates in Medieval Studies Conference
February 16, 2011
At the end of their first semester on campus, English Professor Kelley Wickham-Crowley converted eleven Georgetown freshmen into local academic stars.

Students in her Ignatius Seminar, “Touching the Middle Ages: Contact with Physical and Intellectual Cultures,” presented papers at the fifth annual Undergraduate Conference in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, held at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. The new Hoyas analyzed Icelandic sagas, the York Mystery Plays, and some of the oldest surviving works of French literature. The Ignatius Seminars place small groups of first-year students in rigorous classes with mentoring faculty members. According to Wickham-Crowley, her students’ research proved “how medieval we still are.”
Wickham-Crowley, who directs the College’s Medieval Studies Program and serves as an Associate Professor in the English department, has taught the first-year seminar about the Middle Ages twice since its inception in 2008, and expects to teach it a third and final time during the Fall 2011 semester. Offered in the first semester of the freshman year, her course aims to introduce students to higher academia within the context of information they learned in high school. “The first thing a lot of students say is, ‘I had a little bit of Beowulf and started with Chaucer but skipped all the other thousand years, and I’m sure there has to be more to it,’” Wickham-Crowley noted.
The seminar grew from Wickham-Crowley’s desire to break down popular misconceptions about medieval life. Despite its bad reputation, the Middle Ages—roughly spanning the time frame of A.D. 476 to approximately A.D. 1450—was one of the world’s most important epochs in terms of cultural development, and is “the bridge that conducts learning” from prior ages to the modern period.
“The stereotype is that it was dark and that it didn’t have any learning. But there wouldn’t be universities without the Middle Ages,” Wickham-Crowley explained. While medieval images that romanticize lordship and knighthood can also be problematic, she said, these at least engage a young audience. “My students come in thinking, ‘I play these computer games with kings or emperors or warriors or castles.’ They immediately make connections.” Wickham-Crowley also encouraged a global mindset in her seminar. “There can be medieval Indian literature, there’s medieval Korean literature, there’s medieval African literature,” she said.
The open-mindedness of first-year students is the perfect match for medieval studies, Wickham-Crowley explained, as it is an interdisciplinary field that marries archaeology and linguistics. Her biggest challenge and goal for the seminar was making the distant past relevant to modern students. By connecting readings to new media and real-world sites, Wickham-Crowley sought to make the class both textual and tactile. “I have digital versions of the Beowulf manuscript, and an illustrated manuscript of some Anglo-Saxon poems based on the Bible,” Wickham-Crowley said. “Or I say, ‘Read this book about somebody walking through a church, and then go to the National Cathedral.’ I make the students try and think of what the text suggests as a physical culture.”
In addition, her guidance was vital to the students’ involvement in the research conference at Moravian College. “The conference was Mecca for medieval geeks like myself,” said Eric Nemarich (C’14), who presented a paper about art and life in 12th century France. “I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it – the people, the surroundings, the general spirit of intellectual curiosity and good cheer. Professor Wickham-Crowley’s support made the trip. She prepared us beforehand, giving us the chance to present and constructively criticizing our papers. We had the opportunity to present our ideas to an audience that sincerely cared about what we were saying.”
Classmate Stephen Gliatto (C’14) felt similarly. “My experience was slightly different than some of the other students’ because I was part of the performing group as opposed to someone who actually presented a paper,” Gliatto said. “Nonetheless, the conference was unforgettable. Professor Wickham-Crowley was very supportive of our decision to do a performance instead of a paper, and when people said they couldn’t believe we were still freshmen, it was an unexpected compliment and an extremely high honor.”
--Brittany Coombs
Top two photos by Kuna Hamad. Photo of students performing by John Kish IV. 
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