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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Professor Marjorie Woods wins Humanities Research Award to study how Europeans taught and learned writing

Posted: December 10, 2010
Professor Woods at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Italy.

Professor Woods at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Italy.

Growing up in a large military family, Marjorie Curry Woods moved from state to state almost every year.

"Everything in my life constantly changed, but I always took comfort in knowing that I would feel at home in school," says Woods, professor in the Department of English and the Program in Comparative Literature. "How I was taught, how I learned and what I read were the only constants in my life."

Her early fascination with teaching and the structured classroom environment spurred her interest in studying rhetoric and writing assignments in late Medieval and Renaissance education. On a quest to examine how Europeans taught and learned writing, Woods traveled to libraries all over Europe to scour teachers' notes in more than 200 manuscripts of the "Poetria nova," a required text in many European schools and universities. Her work is detailed in her recently published book "Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe."

Although rewarding, international archival work is both time-consuming and extremely expensive, Woods says. During her decades of research, she struggled to pay travel expenses to visit archives for her book.

But thanks to the newly created Humanities Research Award, she now has the funding to pursue her next project, "Weeping for Dido: Male Writers and Female Emotions in the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Classroom."

Woods is one of 10 College of Liberal Arts faculty members to receive the $15,000 award, established last year by Dean Randy Diehl to address the shortage of external grants to offset humanities research expenses.

"One of the greatest features of the Humanities Research Award is that the funding is spread over a period of three years, which allows me to think ahead and actually have a plan for research," Woods says. "My work is done almost entirely alone, and having the College of Liberal Arts behind me means more than I can express. I am very grateful."

"The Humanities Research Award has liberated Professor Woods to deepen her scholarship in a fascinating new study of gender, rhetoric and pedagogy," says Elizabeth Cullingford, chair of the Department of English. "She does a remarkable job examining a topic that might seem arcane or antiquarian in other hands and bringing it up to date with a fantastic combination of erudition, wit and feminism."

The title of Woods' project "Weeping for Dido" is derived from a story in "St. Augustine's Confessions," an autobiography chronicling Augustine's spiritual development and conversion to Christianity. In the story, the Medieval philosopher expresses his anquish over the death of Dido, a female literary character who killed herself for love.

Intrigued by Augustine's deep emotional connection with a fictional female character, Woods set out to study how students, particularly boys, learned about their emotions by writing in the voices of  distraught female characters during the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

After sifting through dozens of centuries-old manuscripts and teachers' footnotes, Woods speculates that boys enjoyed writing speeches for female protagonists because they identified with their intense emotions.

"Fictional women are just an obvious place to find emotions, particularly feelings of abandonment and isolation," Woods says. "But I don't think the students' preferences for writing about the female characters had anything to do with real women. It was more of a way for them to discover their own emotions by transporting themselves into a role that transcended their age, gender and background."

Testing the effectiveness of these writing assignments, Woods assigns her students to choose a character in a classical text and write from his or her point of view. She found that male students often prefer to write an emotional speech by a female character.

Although the world has seen many changes since the Middle Ages, this traditional teaching method continues to be effective in English and creative writing classes, Woods says.

"The classroom as a learning space hasn't changed as much as people think," Woods says. "It's exciting to see that some of these traditional writing practices can still be used today. That's why I'm so interested in looking at how the classroom has stayed the same, rather than how much it has changed."

By Jessica Sinn

This article was republished with permission from the author. It originally appeared on the College of Liberal Arts Public Affairs Web site.

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