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Travel ‘makes the world bigger’ for English professor

Christine Schott on the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Northern Ireland

What do Reykjavik, Dublin, medieval literature, the Gap of Dunloe, and the Grand Canyon all have in common? They were all part of summer 2019 for Associate Professor of English Dr. Christine Schott.

Iceland, and especially the city of Reykjavik, is where Schott feels at home. “I love the language,” she says, “the history, and the land, which is wild, bleak, and beautiful….” Iceland is also where she spent a year completing a master’s degree in Medieval Icelandic Studies. This summer, she spent time there studying a 19th century collection of Icelandic proverbs, some of which date back to the Viking era. She wanted to learn about the proverbs’ derivation, including the specific regions where they originated.

In Dublin, Schott studied a digitized manuscript of a medieval poem written shortly before Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The manuscript is more than just a poem. It also contains marginal notes by multiple readers as the manuscript was passed from person to person, and each left ideas and interpretations behind.

This human aspect of manuscripts is part of what intrigues Schott, in addition to her academic interests. For her, examining collections of proverbs or medieval manuscripts reveals the individuals behind the pens, and the lives that they led hundreds of years ago.

“I love how working with manuscripts shows us aspects of ordinary medieval life that we wouldn’t see otherwise,” she says. “There are manuscripts repaired with pieces of other books, manuscripts made into sewing patterns when their text had lost interest for the owners, manuscripts where scribes drew cartoon dogs and dragons and people with silly hats.

“I love manuscripts with complaints written into the margins: ‘my fingers are cold,’ ‘I didn’t get enough to eat today,’ ‘it’s raining outside.’ Those are real examples from Icelandic manuscripts, and when you see them, suddenly these long-dead, nameless people become real to you. Manuscripts make the past come alive. … The world changes, but people don’t.”

This is one of the concepts that Schott tries to pass on to her students—that literature is not just a dead thing found in anthologies inside college classrooms, but is also evidence of the lives of others. She likes to show samples of manuscripts to her students whenever possible to connect students with those who wrote and studied the texts before them.

“Texts are much more alive and complex than we realize from seeing them in an anthology,” she says. “Centuries of work have gone into putting them in a form we can study today.”

Apart from her research pursuits, Schott took time off for sightseeing at the Grand Canyon and in Ireland. She particularly enjoyed a solitary, seven-mile hike through the Gap of Dunloe in southwest Ireland, surrounded by mountains and sky. “Being there takes your breath away with the beauty of creation and the privilege of being part of it,” she says.

For Schott, these travels are a way to grow as an individual. She says that “our experience of the world when we’re at home is by nature very narrow, and traveling takes the blinders off. It makes the world bigger, and it makes us bigger as a result.”

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