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Searching for a Medievalist: Some (Generally Positive) News About the State of Chaucer Studies Sylvia Tomasch Hunter College, City University of New York W hen he sent his invitation to contribute to this colloquium , Frank Grady, the editor of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, said he was trying ‘‘to cast a wide net and include people working in schools that are rich and poor, large and small, public and private, North American and British.’’1 Writing as the chair of a poor, large, public, North American English department—at Hunter College of the City University of New York—I will, nonetheless, not be here bewailing what is often seen as a crisis in higher education (with a concomitant crisis in medieval studies). While not denying for a moment that there is much to bewail—including, as Professor Grady writes, ‘‘the apparently inexorable spread of business-oriented, bottom-line corporate models designed to rationalize the operation of colleges and universities’’—the narrow view from this chair’s chair is somewhat, and perhaps surprising, different. In fact, for a medievalist teaching in and chairing a large, diverse department with a thriving undergraduate major and a healthy M.A. program, rumors of the demise of medieval studies (not to mention Chaucer studies, or the ideals of the university) seem greatly exaggerated . Increasingly corporatized and financially constrained as we are, and as heavily burdened as our mostly first-generation college students are, our faculty is nonetheless faced with a continual demand for literature , creative writing, and linguistics courses, which we are often hard I wish to thank Steven Kruger and the Medieval Club of New York for inviting me to present my initial findings as part of a panel on ‘‘The Future of Medieval Studies’’. I also thank my colleague, Nico Israel, for his helpful comments on a draft of this essay. 1 Frank Grady, letter of September 25, 2003. PAGE 249 249 ................. 11491$ $CH9 11-01-10 14:02:02 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER put to satisfy. It may well be that my own department and school are anomalous, yet here, at least, medieval studies, including Chaucer studies , is not faring badly at all.2 With more than 1,300 English majors, we cannot keep up with the demand for all our upper-level courses, including multiple sections of Chaucer and medieval literature every semester, even with the help that is on the way in the form of a new medievalist. Of course, I am writing as someone delighted and relieved to have successfully completed a search for a medievalist—a second medievalist, that is—after having spent more than a dozen years as the one-andonly . For most of the hundred or so years of its existence, our English department traditionally had three medievalists, but by 1992 the state of medieval studies at Hunter was so reduced that my predecessor as chair was forced to draw upon what I call ‘‘the medieval mystique’’ (which says that medieval studies is so arcane that only specialists can understand it, let alone teach it) in order to save the last position. Thankfully for me, he was able to keep the line and make the hire. In contrast, in 2003 I did not have to draw upon the mystique to make that argument or, for that matter, make much of an argument at all. The executive committee of my department recognized the need, and my dean (an anthropologist) was already well aware of the excitement and the quality of the work being undertaken in medieval studies. To the question of what occurred in the eleven intervening years to bring about a situation in which hiring a medievalist now made good sense to everyone, I can only offer some speculations. While some of these conditions are likely specific to CUNY, I would expect that similar factors prevail at other academic institutions, both public and private, large and small. At CUNY, first, the removal of virtually all remediation to the community colleges opened space at the senior colleges for the development of more specialized and more academically advanced programs. Second, in the last seven years, considerable CUNY-wide hiring has taken place, in part...


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