May 29, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 17

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    Christina von Nolcken, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature, Committee on Medieval Studies, the College

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Christina von Nolcken (center) meets with College students outside the Classics Cafe for a Beowulf reading.
    Christina von Nolcken, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature, Committee on Medieval Studies and the College, teaches Old and Middle English, including Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and the legends of King Arthur. Alongside her inherent fascination with the material, von Nolcken credits the openness of her students and the model of her colleagues and graduate students for her teaching success.

    Although von Nolcken teaches texts that are familiar to many students, understanding the language of those texts takes hard work. With Beowulf, "the biggest difficulty is working through Old English," she said. "Some of the students are very linguistically sophisticated–they may be studying Hittite at the same time, for example. Others have never thought about the grammar of a language before. But they're very considerate of each other and help each other along.

    "They especially love The Canterbury Tales–they find Chaucer fun, funny and relatively accessible."

    She said the broad spectrum of Chaucer's tales encourages responses from the students: "He has the whole human world in there, and he's thinking of the larger world, the divine world and how all this relates. He's just such a good writer that his work permits really interesting reactions. Some have read him in high school, but now that they're older, they're going to read him very differently. Others have just drifted in and get all fired up."

    Chaucer, she explained, was instrumental in putting literary English on the map, making it a language students could learn in schools. "He's working at a time when there were several very great poets coming into their own in English for the first time in centuries.

    "So he belongs in a group of poets that was developing English as a poetic medium, but he goes much further than they do. He doesn't hedge his bets by working also in French and Latin, as his friend Gower did. He went into English straight off and had enough chutzpah to think he could do for English what Dante and Boccaccio did for Italian.

    "He was very conscious of the fact that future generations would read him, and this was a new concept in the Middle Ages. Earlier you did beautiful things for God, you didn't try to project yourself into the future. He's looking down the line in terms of human history."

    Educated at Oxford, where she earned her D.Phil. in 1976, von Nolcken has been teaching at Chicago since 1979. In addition to Old and Middle English, her expertise includes the study and editing of manuscript texts and devotional prose. She has done major work on the Wycliffites or Lollards, the controversial group that was the first to translate the whole Bible into English.

    Von Nolcken said she has gleaned the best from the best as seeds of inspiration for teaching. "I've learned a lot about teaching from my colleagues–from co-teaching with Michael Murrin, from watching David Bevington and Janel Mueller, and from talking to grad students who've taken seminars on how to teach–and on the whole I've encountered very cooperative undergraduates, so I've been lucky in my career as a teacher.

    "The Humanities sequence I teach is Greek Thought and Literature, and I learned a great deal from the Muellers–they're masterful but non-threatening teachers.

    "I watched how Joe Williams could draw things out of students, as if the knowledge didn't have to be put into their heads before it could come out again; he was quite remarkable at that.

    "There are really good people around, who are generous with their abilities and skills. Not just peers but grad students, too. They're really thinking and worrying about how to present the material – how not to bore people."