Why I Do What I Do
Many thanks to The University of Chicago Hong Kong Campus for this opportunity to talk about my journey as a Christian and a medievalist in academia. Recorded on February 28, 2023; published March 27, 2023. Listen at The Course on YouTube and their many podcast channels (links in the YouTube description).
Jody: Hello, and welcome to The Course. I’m Jody, your host today, and I’m speaking with Professor Rachel Fulton Brown from the Department of Medieval History, Fundamentals, and the College. Professor Brown is the author of Mary and the Art of Prayer, and hosts the online platform Dragon Common Room, a site for poetry and the study of symbolism. She’s here to talk to us about her career path and how she became a University of Chicago professor.
RFB: My name is Rachel Fulton Brown. I’m an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. My research is in the history of Christianity, particularly in medieval Europe, and I work primarily in the problems of the interpretation of Scripture, prayer, devotion, and exegesis—which is a fancy word for interpretation. I teach courses in the history of European civilization, in medieval history, and more specialized courses in the things that I said I did my research in.
Jody: Great. So one of the audiences for these podcasts is undergraduate students who are trying to figure out what they might want to study. Can you tell us a little bit about your own education? Did you always know you wanted to become a historian?
RFB: I knew in college. I remember one of my friends asking me, “What do you want to be?” And I said, “A professor,” but I think for everybody, our scholarship comes out of the sort of rich entanglements that we have with various levels of story, and if you’re asking about academic work, you often give the very scholarly “I was trained in x field answer,” but one of the things I talk with my undergraduates at UChicago about a lot is how your own research questions come from things that puzzled you growing up.
I’d say one of the reasons I became a medieval historian is because, when I was in elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was convinced there was a castle on the top of the mountain, and I wanted to find that castle. I also went to high school in Amarillo, Texas, where I had a magnificent Latin teacher, and with those two passions together—the quest for the castle, and the facility in the language in which many of the documents are written—by the time I got to college, I took medieval Latin, but I also started taking course in the history of the Bible, the study of Paul, and the Gospels, and Jesus in history. I’d say you have to have that full braid of curiosities—the storytelling, the language skill, and—I will say—my own faith growing up. I grew up as a Presbyterian, and I was taking those scripture study classes because Presbyterians are very interested in ancient languages and textual interpretation. You put all those things together, plus the fact that I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when I was 11. I was kind of destined, I guess, to become a medieval historian.
Jody: I was going to ask if you were interested in fantasy or going to the Renaissance Faire or any of those kinds of extensions of some things that you talked about as a young person.
RFB: Definitely! So, I went to college at Rice University in Houston, and I told them when they admitted me that I was going to do math and physics, and be an astronaut, but I think it’s telling that when we went down for my interview for admissions, my mom took us to the Renaissance Faire after that, and there I was! If I was going to be an astronaut before, I wasn’t going to be after that. In my own teaching, I’ve taught a course at the University of Chicago for almost 20 years now on Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and I cross-list it with History and Religious Studies and Fundamentals because it’s close focus on a text with the problem of creativity and theology that Tolkien interweaves into his storytelling, and obviously the desire to be in the adventure, the desire to be in the story.
Jody: Sounds like a really exciting class! Do students come from all over the university to take that?
RFB: Yes! I’m teaching it this coming Spring, so people need to sign up now! As a professor at the University I teach both in our Core curriculum in History of European Civilization, and I try to offer courses that appeal to people outside of the History major. I mean, I’m kind of doing both: I’m trying to teach you what it’s like to be a historian, to tell these stories to figure out why historians tell the stories we do, and also to encourage other layers of creativity, and I do that very much with the Tolkien course that the students are invited to sub-create within Tolkien’s own world-building, as they like to say. So I get stories and cooking and clothing and music and stuffed animals, and for me that’s all of a piece with the way I study medieval Christianity, which is out of this artistic, engaged tradition of worship and prayer. So it all tends to blend! Once you spend enough time in my classes, you’ll learn that history is an exercise of imagination as well as evidence; creativity is a work of evidence as well as imagination, and they twin a lot.
Jody: Going back again, you said you were an undergraduate at Rice University. Did you start as a science major and then transition into the humanities, or had you already changed your mind by the time you got there?
RFB: No, I started as a science major, so the first two years I was doing physics and then mathematics, but I was also at the same time taking courses in medieval Latin and scriptural interpretation, and it’s like, how do we define what we’re good at? And some of it is, of course, you’re presented with work, and you think, “I can do this, I enjoy doing this.” I confess, to my embarrassment, that at the end of my first physics year, I didn’t really do very well in the lab practical in electricity, but I’ve since realized that even though I didn’t end up a mathematics major, the mathematical training that I had in high school and in college has been very important as well for my work as a historian because one of the things we need to do in history is be able to make good proofs.
You take a piece of evidence and follow the logic to how far can you really extrapolate from this story or reference to something that probably happened in the Middle Ages? And I recognize that in my own writing as a scholar, I do that kind of very step-by-step proof as well, so I’d say even though I became technically a History major, I still carried with me the layers of training I’d had in Mathematics, which is an appropriate thing for someone who studies the Middle Ages to do, again, because their education was in both language arts, what they called the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—and the mathematical arts, the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
I realize that in my own work, I’m trying to show how these two work together. The language arts and the mathematical arts combine to make poetry, which is where my poetry work is also coming from. Measured understanding, metered numbers, I’m bumbling it, but all of those things go together, so I’d say if you’re in college and you’re searching for what you should be doing, probably it’s all there in pieces, and you’re trying to put them together.
Jody: You wrote something in your notes about staying close to the sources, and it sounds like you’re sort of speaking to that a bit.
RFB: Yes. I’ve been talking about how I started with this training in scripture studies, but in my graduate work one of the things that my dissertation advisor, Caroline Walker Bynum, focused on teaching us was, you come as a historian with questions that you have from your own life—why would you otherwise, where would you get your curiosity about things?—but then once you get to the primary sources, they’re going to show you things you didn’t expect. So you read them very, very carefully; you look for the metaphors and images they use; you look for the world—I mean, Tolkien was trying to do this, too! You’re looking for the world-view that they’re carrying, and if you are too fixed on proving the thing that you went in to prove about some kind of question that we might ask in the present, you won’t understand that they’re showing you something different or showing you something that’s orthogonal to what you expected. Again, I try to get the students in my classes to think in these reflexive terms. You have to figure out what your own questions are, your own framing, why you care about it, and then go to the sources and see what they’re showing you. And you’re kind of looking in multiple mirrors, hopefully, but hopefully by the end of it, you’ve come to some sense of self-understanding as well as of the material you’re looking at.
Jody: Interesting. I think that’s really good. It’s interesting to hear and good advice for students. It’s so easy to carry with you the news of the day, and I guess as a scholar of a different time period you have to at some point sort of set that aside as you try to immerse yourself in the material that you’re looking at.
RFB: Well, there’s also the reality that our present structures of society, of language, of theology, are created over time. One course I’m teaching right now is “Medieval England,” and I start with the opening, why would you, if you’re in the United States, be studying medieval England? Well, of course we think of our government structures and things like the Constitution as affected by the long history of medieval government, but on the other hand, we find things in the sources that we don’t expect about the king and the law and such like that, and then you realize, oh, those things that we didn’t expect are in fact more still grounding for who we are in the United States than we expected. So, it’s like I said, you have to get used to this reflexivity.
Jody: You mentioned your dissertation advisor. Were there other big cheerleaders or mentors for you through your own development?
RFB: I’m giving a big shout out to my New Testament professor, Werner Kelber, and he is actually appropriate for the University of Chicago to recognize because he was a Divinity School PhD here, so I feel like, again, my story’s come full circle. He was teaching at Rice, but he’d been trained in the University of Chicago Divinity School in the 60s and 70s. He was a younger professor when I studied with him, so his work is very important for me. And then, when I was at Rice, I also had the pleasure of studying with Sharon Farmer, who was there as a Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow. She since spent her career in California, at Santa Barbara, but she was the one teaching most of the really in-depth medieval history courses I took, and she introduced me to Caroline. So, you are also learning as an undergraduate, one, you always are surprised to find your professors all know each other—well, yes, we do!—but also a lot of Academia is these networks of introduction and scholarship, and you start realizing, oh, my teacher studied with that person and that’s why I’m asking these questions because they were interested in this problem, and it’s a sort of web of connections.
Jody: Yes, that’s good advice, too. Always be using your human resources, and networking always, and finding out who’s the next person to talk to. So, you’re talking about support for your work. Was there ever any resistance that you’ve faced to your scholarship?
RFB: I should certainly hope so! This is the problem: if you’re going along with what everybody else is talking about, they’re going to like it because they agree with it and you’re showing them things they’ve already tested, whereas, if you’re doing like I do, which is go out there on the edge of the wilderness and look for castles, you’re going to find that people don’t always understand what it is you’re trying to show them. And I have had that experience.
Most recently: I’ve done several monographs in my field, but the one that I’ve gotten the most pushback on is called Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. I was actually given a post-tenure fellowship from the Mellon Foundation—the Mellon Foundation has been very important in my career—to train in a new discipline. I audited courses in Psychology in our Psychology Department here at Chicago for a year or so, and out of that I developed my experimental method to write Mary and the Art of Prayer, which was, how do you get yourself inside the practice of saying the Psalms in honor of the Virgin Mary?
I realized there were several different levels of that: there’s an imaginative level of, what is it like to be in those texts? You recognize my dissertation advisor’s instructions on “see what they’re saying to you.” But there’s also a rhetorical problem of, how do you write it so that readers now have that sense of being inside? Like Tolkien writes a novel; if I’m writing about prayer and reading the Psalms, how do I show you as a modern academic what a medieval Christian would think? And the pushback I got was, “This isn’t history.” And I say: “Well, okay, I’m doing this interdisciplinary thing that the Mellon Foundation gave me money for, to train as, and I’m showing you this interdisciplinary thing,” and people haven’t known how to take it. They worry I’m saying things, and I said, “No, I didn’t say that; I’m framing it so that you’re going inside this practice,” and they say, “You believe it,” and well, I do, but…and so forth.
So I think it depends on the field that you’re in. In Mathematics I doubt anybody has to say, “I don’t believe the math,” in order to do their meditations, whereas curiously, in modern secular academic conversation, you do have to say, “I don’t believe the Christian faith,” which, unfortunately for me, I do. So there’s an interesting problem of, how can I rhetorically show you what it’s like to believe without making you feel like you’re being forced to believe? That makes sense, right? And I do think that’s one of the biggest differences. I know from my training, when you go in to do a mathematical proof, you’re not going to say, “At the end of this, I’m going to pull it all away, and say, no, that was just a pretense.”
Jody: Right, that’s very interesting. I think people do tend to think of history as some objective exercise as opposed to what you’re describing in terms of having a personal stake, but people do historical research and analysis, presentation of topics that they may have lived through or been close to. Certainly we’re living through a time when theological connections especially in the academy are questioned. That sounds challenging!
RFB: You have put your finger on it precisely! That’s the biggest thing I’ve gotten pushback for, and what I’ve said publicly, in my public intellectual life and in my academic life is, well, we need to practice this! I’m trying to show you ways of engagement that make you to a certain extent self-conscious of your own presuppositions about metaphysics. If I do that creatively through art or through experiments of practice, it is going to show you something about yourself that you may or may not have been able or ready to see.
One of the other things that I’ve done publicly is, I have a blog called Fencing Bear at Prayer, which I started a few years after I’d done the psychology training, but I was specifically interested in the psychology of the things I was learning as a fencer, and the “at Prayer” was because in the medieval monastic tradition, the monks themselves understand their practice as battle. It’s like, you’re praying the Psalms as a spiritual exercise because the Psalms bring up all of these difficulties for you, particularly your recognition of your own sin, and as a fencer, boy, oh boy, did I get that lesson!
If you’ve been an athlete, you understand this. You have to train yourself to deal with all of the emotions that are clouding your ability to just focus on the actions, and the big one is pride. And envy. There’s other things, but pride is a big one. And, oh yes, pride. Because you get on strip and you’re like, “I practice, I know how to do this, I can beat her,” and then she beats you, and you’re like, “Ahhhh!” and you get all mad. There’s a lot in the blog that’s about that kind of spiritual training, and that is what I say, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve had, that I see in medieval monastic wrestling with themselves, that same kind of self-understanding.
Jody: It seems like there’s really some lessons for people in higher education there, so it would be interesting to see if you do any kind of academic work around fencing and academia. It sounds like there’s a lot of lessons that can be offered.
RFB: I’ve taught a course on “War in the Middle Ages” and one on “Knights and Samurai” and one on “Spiritual Exercises.” You’re getting the picture of me! It’s like everything always connects to everything else, and in monastic education in the Middle Ages, that is kind of the thing. They train themselves in body and soul and mind because all of these things interconnect.
Jody: Yes, that body-mind connection was definitely coming to the fore as you were talking about your fencing experience. So, we’ve been talking about challenges, but can you think back to some of the most gratifying things that you’ve done or that you do in your work?
RFB: Well, the brag that I have… the pride…
Jody: We’re embracing the pride!
RFB: Embrace the pride! Well, I look very fondly to both of my grandmothers. One, the one I’m named after, Rachel, started the daycare in her town. Rachel’s Little House is the nursery school. And my other grandmother, Caroline, was a high school teacher of Latin and English, and I remember when I got tenure at the University of Chicago, I felt so proud to be doing what my grandmothers had done. And now I’m weeping because… the thing is, I love being a teacher. I enjoy it so much being able to set challenges for my students and watch them rise to them.
I will definitely make myself cry if I talk to you about the amazing projects that my students have done in the variety of classes that I do. I’ll say, “Go research this and write a story”; and I’ve done a course on “Mary and Mariology,” and I said, “You can make a devotional object.” I had students researching how to find the right ink to do books of hours, prayer books, and make replica leaves of medieval prayer books that, when I first looked at them, I thought they had copied them, but no, they’d invented them. So that to me is my greatest pleasure, setting my students at the University of Chicago these challenges and being delighted and awestruck by what they’re able to accomplish.
Jody: It sounds like really deep, interdisciplinary work, you’re crossing… I keep thinking, “Wait, this is a history professor?!” With literature and art and art history, it sounds like incredible work. You also mentioned your life as a public intellectual. Do you want to talk a little bit about something you’ve done there. I know you’ve mentioned a few things, but maybe in a little more detail, something you’re proud of in terms of your public output?
RFB: I considered that if I set my students these challenges, I had to take them on myself! And in the last few years, I decided that I really ought to learn to write in iambic pentameter, which, if you are an English student, you know what that is, because Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton all wrote in it. It’s the meter of the great English works of literature. You will get the theme of my practice: that I consider to understand something properly, you have to try it; you have to practice it.
A few years ago, I put together an online group. We call ourselves the Dragon Common Room. There are amateurs from different walks of life and different parts of the world. I have people from Canada and Australia and Portugal who are all working in this artwork. We’ve been writing long-form narrative poems in iambic pentameter. We’re on our third one right now called Draco Alchemicus, which is “the Alchemical Dragon.” It’s a horror fantasy written in the style of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene set in an electronic… It’s complicated! We also last year published a children’s book called Aurora Bearialis, which is a sort of mythological quest with animals. The animals, the bears go from the North Pole to the South Pole in quest of the Light which they find in the Penguin Ice City.
I took that, and I designed a course on “Writing Christian Poetry” for campus. I’m going to be publishing some of the poems from that class once I figure out how to do the type setting. Well, yes, I keep creating technical skill problems for myself: design a web page, set up a live stream with videos… One of my poets and I are also doing a livestream called The Mosaic Ark, which is an exploration of the symbolism, history, mythology that we find out here in the Internet of cultures and mythologies. So, yes, I’m taking the questions that I have in my historical practice out into the Internet in poetry and visuals.
Jody: I think that’s great! There’s the stereotype of an academic, a historian, working in medieval Christian monastic tradition, that you would be cloistered in the Ivory Tower, so I think it’s so exciting to hear about the work that you’re doing beyond those walls. I hope that people listening might look up Dr. Brown and find links to all of her information. I know I poked around a little bit and found that you have an amazing website with tons and tons of links. Before we finish today, do you have any advice for people who might be entering your field, whether it’s history or specifically in medieval history?
RFB: I hope the theme of the twinning of imagination and skill is coming through, that if you want to be in medieval studies, you have to have the language training; particularly to do graduate work, you have to have Latin. It’s the whole of the medieval world! You can train in Old English and Middle English; you can train in Old French and Old German. One of the things that’s going on in medieval studies and has been… My very first course that I ever taught in Medieval as a graduate student was a course I designed on “Medieval Travelers.” You say, “Monks were not!’—they may have been in the cloister, but they were always imagining the world! And there is a great deal of interest now in medieval history in the way in which Europeans were in contact with areas outside of Europe. So, you must have the languages, and train in the ones in the regions that you think you would like to study more, but they keep expanding. So it’s quite lively and exciting!
But then, on the obverse side, pay attention to the nudges that you’re getting in things that you don’t quite understand. Right now, me personally, I’m very interested in media studies and the big effects that we’re going to have on our intellect and spiritual lives from things like A.I., the Internet itself and all of these interactions. And for medieval studies, that’s totally appropriate because we know what it’s like to go from a world that is manuscript to a world that’s print, and how big a change that was. Going from this world of print to the electronic world of radio and television. It was a big transition. It’s modernity, right? We are now in this big transition from that world—of video and audio—to whatever this digital world is that we’re now in. So, I’d say, get your skills in, but also pay attention to the things that don’t make sense yet.
Jody: Yes, I’m wrapping my mind around that and looping back to the beginning of the conversation when we were talking about “stay in the texts and don’t get too distracted by the current events,” so it sounds like a real challenge.
RFB: Yes! (laughs) On my homepage at the University of Chicago, I have syllabi for all of my classes, so if you’re curious about the particulars of any of these, you can go look there. I’m just finishing this week… a colloquium for the [undergraduate] historians called “Alt-history,” and I think their heads are spinning by now because I’ve been trying to show them how the study of history is always this “alt.” You’re always looking at the old stories and they way they’ve been…the way they look different now from the present. One of the themes we’ve had in that course is the “shadow Empire.” The American culture, you know we’re heirs to the British Empire. The British Empire was always constructing itself in figure-ground; it’s ground that it was defining itself against was the Spanish Empire, which for the United States is also very significant, obviously, because of Mexico and Latin America. [In the class] we’ve been looking at the twinnings of myth and history, of pagan and Christian, but to get them to think about, what worldview are you living in? And that for me is always the discipline of history: that we’re using the past to see the present, and the present to see the past.
Jody: Thank you, Professor Brown, for your time today. And Course takers, if you enjoyed listening to today’s interview, please check out the other ones; leave us a comment; subscribe, follow, and share this episode with your friends and family. You can find out more about the University of Chicago through uchicago.edu or the University’s campus in Hong Kong through uchicago.hk. Stay tuned for more! See you around!
|Draco Alchemicus, twinned|