New professor’s Icelandic studies enrich her teaching

Posted on January 21, 2013

Christine Schott on the moors in Iceland’s Westfjords

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Christine Schott brings to her teaching a love for English literature and an enthusiasm for Icelandic lore.

One of several professors who joined the Erskine College faculty in the fall, Schott is a self-described ‘Air Force brat’ who received her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, then went on to graduate study at the University of Virginia (UVA), where she was awarded the Ph.D.

During her doctoral studies, she took a year beginning in 2009 to pursue her interest in Icelandic literature, earning a master’s degree in Medieval Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland.

 

Beowulf started it

“One of the subjects I study is Old English literature, and the Old English language is fairly closely related to Old Icelandic—frequently they’re taught by the same instructor at universities,” Schott said.

“My very first proper English course in college was ‘Beowulf and the Sagas,’ taught by a wonderful mentor of mine, Alan Gaylord,” she recalled. Beowulf, an epic poem composed by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon, is set in Scandinavia.

“After getting a taste of Viking literature and Scandinavian legend, I couldn’t ever manage to get it out of my head.”

Dynjandi, “one of the bleakest
and most stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” in the Westfjords of Iceland

When Schott found out about a scholarship program in Reykjavik, Iceland, she was eager to apply. “The Leifur Eiríksson program sponsors yearly scholarships which will fund an American student who wants to study for a year in Iceland, or an Icelandic student who wants to study in America,” Schott explained.

“I was honored to receive a scholarship earmarked for a UVA student; it’s named after Robert Kellogg, who was a UVA president and a scholar of English and Icelandic literature.”

 

Life among the volcanoes

Iceland’s Blue Lagoon

Schott spent her year in Iceland examining manuscripts, and was intrigued by the differences between medieval English manuscripts she had pored over at UVA and medieval Icelandic manuscripts.

Medieval Icelanders, Schott said, “were highly literate in comparison with other populations during the Middle Ages, and so they had a very lively manuscript culture.”

Thus Icelandic manuscripts “are clearly made to be used and used frequently; they’re small, smudged, unadorned, and sometimes covered with terrific complaints about the weather and annoying coworkers.”

English manuscripts, on the other hand, “tend to be treated in a very formal way until the Reformation, because so few people could read them; for instance, you don’t find a lot of doodles in the margins or snarky comments about the literature until after the medieval period ends.”

Schott admires Icelandic, “an incredibly beautiful language,” noting with delight that “it has an ancient rune in its everyday alphabet!”

She learned some Icelandic during her months as a Leifur Eiríksson scholar, “enough to do my research and order hot dogs from the street vendors,” and taught Old Icelandic at UVA before she graduated.

 

A few Icelandic flourishes

Inside a pen at the Rettir, the annual sheep roundup: “Icelanders let their sheep graze in the mountains all summer (no predators), and round them up in the fall….My friends and I called the experience ‘Knee-Deep in Sheep.’”

Since coming to Erskine in the fall, Schott has taught Introduction to Literature, World Literature, and History of the English Language. Her time in Iceland and the trail of interests that drew her there remain fresh in her mind.

“I think everything you do affects your teaching,” she said. “When I taught History of the English Language, I used Icelandic parallels to try to explain how language systems relate and change.”

She’s been known to add a dose of Icelandic to her literature classes as well. “When I taught World Lit, I had a day on Njall’s Saga even though our textbook didn’t include any Icelandic literature (a terrible oversight on their part!).”

Her overall presentation of literature is also affected by her studies.  “My interest in manuscripts and book culture changes how I teach medieval and early print literature,” she said.

Schott’s work with manuscripts provides a lens through which she sees her course material, and she enjoys allowing her students to peer through that lens.

“I like to show my students images of manuscripts, samples of medieval handwriting, pictures of the First Folio of Shakespeare, etc.,” she explained. “I think it’s important to realize that for the majority of these texts’ lives, readers didn’t encounter them in Norton Critical Editions or in textbooks.”

“It changes the way you look at literature—or, at least, it changes how I look at it, and I hope it has the same effect on my students.”

 

Looking forward

Thingvellir (the Parliament Plains) at dawn in November

Schott will teach Introduction to Literature in the spring, as well as a course on Chaucer and a Creative Fiction Writing workshop. The introductory course repeats one of her fall classes. Speaking of the latter two, she said, “I look forward to teaching one of my favorite authors and to using my undergrad training in creative writing!”

She also plans to explore some of her other literary interests with Erskine students.

“I am fascinated by retold stories,” she said. “Most people are familiar with ‘The True Story of the Three Little Pigs’ or even the most recent movie revamps of ‘Snow White.’”

People have always retold stories, Schott said. “In fact, during the Middle Ages and even for a good part of early modern literature, that was just the way stories worked: you didn’t make up a new story, you retold an old one.”

At UVA, she taught a course in which students read Chaucer, Shakespeare and other authors “alongside their less famous sources, or alongside contemporaries who told the same stories in a different way.”

Schott sees retold stories as “a tribute to the human imagination and desire to to see things from a different point of view.”

She is also interested in illustrations, and views illustrators as interpreters of literature. “We see the work differently as a result of the illustrations,” she believes.

“I’ve only worked on a few illustrated medieval manuscripts, but to take a modern example, just imagine what our image of Robin Hood would be without the iconographic illustrations by Howard Pyle!”

 

Considering Beowulf’s point of view

Arnastapi on the Snaefelsness Peninsula: “where they
started their journey to the center of the Earth” in Jules Verne’s novel

Reflecting on what she hopes to accomplish in the classroom as she introduces students to literature, Schott said, “I hope that my students allow literature to broaden their horizons.”

That broadening process might require stepping out of a 21st-century mindset and paying attention to authors who offer glimpses of earlier eras.

“We don’t know what it was like to live in medieval England, but Chaucer did, and he left us the Canterbury Tales as evidence of one man’s interpretation of that era,” she said.

“I don’t teach ‘easy’ literature; it doesn’t always appeal to our aesthetics or our values or our sense of what’s entertaining or politically correct,” Schott said.

But she is quick to add, “A lot of it is hilarious and exciting and a great deal of fun!”

As another example of how literature can broaden students’ horizons, Schott turns back to Beowulf, who captivated her in her undergraduate days.

“If we can look at Beowulf and see why Anglo-Saxon England might have considered him such a great hero when we would call him a victim of his own machismo, haven’t we gained something even greater than entertainment?” Schott asks.

“I hope literature teaches my students empathy, because I find that that’s what it continues to teach me.”

 

Photos contributed by Christine Schott 

 

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