Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In Praise of Paul Szarmach

Big news in the world of medieval scholarship -- Paul Szarmach is leaving Western Michigan (where he is the Director of the Medieval Institute, as well as head of the International Medieval Congress) to be Executive Director of the Medieval Academy. I've known about it for a little while, but I kept my mouth shut until the announcement was made public. Today Elisabeth Carnell broke the news to the blogosphere.

I can't say anything about what kind of boss he is (since I've never worked for him), but Szarmach was the outside reader on my dissertation committee, and I took a course from him at the Newberry library. To give you a sense of how nice a guy he is, as head of the International Medieval Congress he came down from on high to work on the diss committee for some unknown little punk from Wayne State. He wasn't just "on the committee," either; he went over each and every chapter thoroughly, with comments down to the most minute issues of wording. He was patient with my frequent stupidity. Not every academic would perform such an act of faith for an unknown, politically unconnnected grad student from another school.

As a professor, he is one of the best. During the class I took from him at the Newberry library, he demonstrated an astounding memory of textual details. For example, in response to a question someone asked him (not a prepared part of the lecture), he replied, "Well, in the right margin of the verso side of leaf 23 in such-and-such a manuscript, right next to line 12, there is a hole in the manuscript which ..." I can't remember that level of detail on manuscripts I've worked on extensively. In addition to his mind, he has a lecture style that a colleague once referred to as "a stream of drolleries." Some people take copious notes during lectures; during his I chuckled copiously (if one can chuckle in a copious fashion).

Finally, as head of the Congress, Szarmach (affectionately known as "Paulus" to the medieval world) has worked hard on internationalizing medieval studies, a subject near-and-dear to my heart. He has worked hard to bring peripheral groups into the fold, offering support in such areas as Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) and east Asia (particularly Korea and China). In fact, the Global Perspectives book I am editing is very much a product of Szarmach's legacy in internationalizing medieval studies.

Paul Szarmach -- scholar and gentleman.


  1. You know ... I look back at that fateful moment when I, as a history/English double major, looked at all things that called to me and did not choose Anglo-Saxon lit. (yes, there was indeed that moment, I promise you) and I feel regret. Only PESz could make a person wish they could have a do-over for their entire academic career just for the chance to study under him, even once..

    (Ah, the 'stream of drolleries' a meeting he can dish out like you can't imagine. I now have a much greater ability to spot an obscure military or sports metaphor at 50 paces.)

  2. Holly Holbrook7:07 PM

    Lovely praise of Paul Szarmach! I'm happy to say that I did work for PESz, along with Anna DeStefano, Ginny Blanton, Helene Scheck, and Dana-Linn Whiteside. I spent five years at Binghamton's CEMERS with two years undergrad, two years grad school, and one year post-graduate.
    I respected him so much that I gave up an extension on a stipend in Leipzig, Germany to come back and finish a project with him! Before I worked for him--I requested CEMERS specifically when I applied for an undergraduate workstudy--I took Chaucer with Paul.
    At the time, I was a Chemistry/Math major in my junior year taking an English elective. I graduated two years later with an English degree and in two more years, my MA. His passion for his work was so inspiring that I had to be a part of it!
    I am now a high school teacher who aspires to inspire as well. Best fishes! (not a typo)