Conversation with Jamie K. Taylor

October 15, 2018

Meagan: The first question: What inspires you?


Jamie: Oh gosh. I mean different things inspire me to do different things, I mean. You know, students do, I know that’s a cliché answer, but it’s really, talking to people who are younger than you, who are brighter than you, who are more excited than you, or have a different perspective, that for me is motivating; motivates me to learn more, motivates me to think more about what I already know or think I already know. I find that really motivating. Um, in the semesters where I'm teaching I tend to be much more motivated, like, sort of across my life some ways than the semesters I'm not teaching. Semesters I’m not teaching, I find it harder to get sort of motivated to work, motivated to do stuff, that kind of thing. Yeah so, I think students really.


Meagan: So, can you tell me a little bit more about your teaching, like how you came to it?


Jamie: Sure, sure, um, you know, I’ve always been a talker, sort of, when I was in classes I took seminars, mostly, also and I was the one who talked, you know, I was the one who, when there was an awkward silence, I would try to fill it, and that kind of thing. And I liked it. I liked being in a classroom, and I always have. I was the little kid who liked being in the classroom and that kind of thing, and I kind of just went with that. So, when I went to college, I was an English major, I did a ton of tutoring, I did a ton of sort of student teaching for elementary school and for high school kids, that kind of thing, and I actually always assumed I would do high school. That was an age that I liked. That was sort of readings that I liked, and then my senior year in college we had to write a senior thesis, the way you do here, and I wrote it on Melville, and it turned out, and I was actually very surprised by this, that I liked that too. I liked being alone in the library for hours at a time. I liked reading and taking notes. I liked researching and I sort of got in to that. I sort of tumbled into it. I got an MA, which I thought would lead to high school teaching, but I wrote a masters thesis which I really liked, and so then I ended up getting a PhD. So, I sort of just kind of followed the track of what I liked doing. Yeah.


Meagan: Can you tell me a little bit about the classes you teach here?


Jamie: Sure, sure, so, my, um, my specialty is medieval literature, and so I teach the classes that focus on pre-Shakespearean texts. The class that I teach repeatedly, and that ends up being sort of an intro class, is the Canterbury Tales, and that class gets a lot of students who feel like they should have read the Canterbury Tales by the time they leave college. So, I get physics majors, I get history majors, it runs the gamut. And then beyond that, at the sort of lower level, I teach classes that I think might be of general interest. So, there’s a really big theatre, sort of, there’s a really active theatre community here, so I teach a class called Intro to Medieval Drama figuring, why not, and that, in fact, does attract a lot of theatre people. I teach another lower level class called Travel and Transgression and it’s, it attracts a lot of freshmen because they’ve just come here from somewhere else, and so they want to think about that. My upper level classes, I tend to produce those around either my own specialized interests or students specialized interests or what I’m seeing as a need, so, for example, a couple of years ago I was writing a book on legal, on the law, and so I taught a class called Women and the Law in the Middle Ages so that I could learn more, so that I could kind of try out ideas and that kind of thing. So, in some ways, I'm really selfish about upper level classes. They’re like what I want to learn. Um, and then like last year I taught an upper level class called Medieval Race, and that was something that I thought, after Charlottesville, had to be taught. We had to think about the way racial formation, cultural formation occurs in early periods. And that class I learned a ton, in part because it attracted students that thought a lot about race and not so much about medieval studies, whereas I had thought a lot about medieval studies but not a lot critically or academically about race. So, I learned a ton in that class. Yeah, it was great. It was great, actually.


Meagan: So, what are some of the other projects you’re working on on campus or in general.


Jamie: Um, well, my research is currently working on, sort of building on medieval race. So, I’m trying to think about space, and the way spatial communities are produced. So, I’m actually writing a paper for, to give a lecture on in March about medieval caves. And I’m trying to think about when people went underground, to bury their dead to produce certain communities, and they would gather underground to sort of, for rituals and that kind of thing. So, I’m trying to say, “okay is there a whole other world underground that we haven’t really thought about,” to think about cultural formation, community formation, that kind of thing. So, I’ve gotten really into spaces like that. So, in terms of my research that’s what I’m doing. Um, and then I’m continuing to think about our contemporary politics and medieval studies. So, um uh, writing, I just gave a lecture on sort of white nationalism and medieval studies, and um I’m trying to think more about the ways in which certain forms of anti-Semitism that we see now have their roots in the middle ages. So, I do some public humanities too.


Meagan: So, you’ve talked a little bit about the projects you’re working on and the kind of things that you’re interested in, what do you like to read?


Jamie: Okay I'm going to be honest here, and I don’t want judgement. I like to read smut. Like I read romance novels. Like if I – first of all I have to read to go to sleep. I always have since I was a little kid, and if I’m going to sleep I want something light and sort of dumb, and so I read really really low-level romance novels. Um, but I like novel reading in general. You know, I don’t teach novels. There were no novels in the middle ages, so if I’m just liking to read I like fiction, and I like novels. I tend not to read much poetry. Oh, I love short stories. That’s a form I’ve always really really loved too. So, a decent novel, not one of my crap smut novels, that I just finished is The Sympathizer, which I really really liked, and I have The Underground Railroad on my shelf which I haven’t gotten to, stuff like that. And Roxane Gay’s coming here; I’ve read all of her stuff. I love her stuff. I really really like it.


Meagan: Yeah, she should be so interesting. I'm really jealous of the freshmen.*


Jamie: I know, I know, I’m going to try to, like, lose 30 years and pretend to be a freshman or something. I really want to sneak in.


Meagan: I wish I could.


Jamie: I know, it’s really exciting that she’s going to be on campus .


Meagan: I wish they were doing, like, another event.


Jamie: No, I know! I know, I know, I don’t think, I was like, maybe we can convince her, I don’t think so, but yeah, I’m going to try to crash that. We'll see.


Meagan: Do you teach any freshmen classes?


Jamie: I used to teach, so I do get freshmen, and I have freshmen in, I’m teaching class right now called Medieval Bodies and I have freshmen in that class. I used to teach, I haven’t taught it in a while, I used to teach ESems. And I love teaching freshmen. I love teaching freshmen. They’re all, it’s a real moment when you can actually make a difference. A lot of them have never met a professor before, a lot of them are away from home for the first time, some are like out of their minds excited, some are out of their mind terrified, and to have a professor who feels not intimidating and on their side can make a world of difference. I love teaching freshmen. So, I’m hoping to get back to ESem soon.


Meagan: A class like Methods** is really interesting because it’s, like, designed for English majors, but also, I feel like I could have really benefitted from that as like a writing seminar.


Jamie: Yeah, yeah, I mean there is no way we wouldn’t have a rush of transfer applications if I made freshmen read Derrida, you know. But it’s true that Methods, it’s designed for English majors, but it’s a thinking class, and it’s a class that like radiates out to talk about everything, everything under the sun. And I actually like to do ESems like that. I like to push them to read, not Derrida, but a hard things, and I really want to make it so that these freshmen who don’t have majors yet are getting an English professor, but they feel like they can go to anthropology, sociology, physics, whatever with some vocabularies and thoughts in their head.


Meagan: Alright, so is there anything else that you’d want readers to know about you?


Jamie: *laughs* Um just that my, just that, you know, people come to medieval studies for all sorts of reasons. And I think you often think of a medieval studies teacher, whenever I say I teach medieval studies people are like “woah woah woah,” right, um, ‘cause they either imagine the sort of Tolkien invested kind of fantasy knights and ladies person, right, or the sort of, like a cartoon drawing of a professor, like elbow patches and that kind of thing. Um, and I really really believe that medieval studies is relevant. And for me what’s great about medieval studies is that it lets me think about things here and now, but in such a defamiliarized way that I can actually think about them, rather than just getting mad about them, or something like that. And what I really want for students in my classes, for anybody who reads my research, is to sort of get that sense that it matters even if it’s about something centuries ago. And I do believe that.


*As part of their writing seminar, or ESem, first years get to see and speak with a chosen speaker (Roxane Gay in 2018). The event is only available to first years.

**Methods of Literary Study is a required class for English majors at Bryn Mawr College.

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