I was recently asked, by administration, to write a “research agenda.” The following, with some extraneous detail omitted, is what I came up with.
My research philosophy (indeed, my life) embraces the concept of the public intellectual. I have always described my work as being in the history of ideas, as having one foot in the past and one foot in the future; thus, my recent book on the Glossa Ordinaria examines a vital medieval text in the light of contemporary hypertext theory and cognition research. In fact, most of my work is an attempt to negotiate the present with the past.
In the 1940s, the French thinker André Gide said, “Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent; doutez de tout, mais ne doutez pas de vous-même” (“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it”). I have cherished this phrase (in fact, it has been posted on my office door). I do believe that our careers as academics, as intellectuals, involve a constant search for the truth. However, I do not believe that we can ever completely and finally discover that truth (or all truths) and that those who claim to have done so appear to have given up on the quest.
In “The American Scholar” Ralph Waldo Emerson argued for an intellectual who, while enriched by the past, is not bound by books. His most important activity is action. My scholarship moves from speaking and writing exclusively about my discipline to relating that work to the social, cultural and political worlds around it. This has been accomplished well in the last hundred years by Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Susan Sontag, and Steven Pinker. Currently, in the humanities, one thinks of Stephen Greenblatt as the model par excellence. Greenblatt, a Yale-trained Renaissance scholar, has not only garnered widespread praise for his scholarship within the discipline of Renaissance culture (he almost single-handedly founded the school of New Historicism), but he has written two Pulitzer-prize winning books for W.W. Norton, one on Shakespeare and the most recent, on Lucretius. He has held high positions on boards of many of the field’s professional organizations. More importantly, I believe, he is a sought-after commentator and speaker, from the Modern Language Association to National Public Radio to CNN. If there is a twenty-first century model of the public intellectual, we need look no further than Stephen Greenblatt, and it is Greenblatt on whom, in many ways, I have modeled my own professional career. My project is to bring the insights of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to both the scholarly world and the general public.
Certainly, Emerson encouraged the type of intellectual curiosity I have embraced my entire adult life. Ergo, my reading is wide and varied, beyond the disciplinary boundaries of literature, evoking and provoking. Emerson called that spirit “boundless.” That type of training was instilled in me in graduate school by Angus Fletcher, a brilliant mind, as comfortable discussing seventeenth-century English poetry as he is with classical philosophy.
In some way, my life’s goal as a scholar is to take the raw data of information, which we have so much of today, and filter and mold it into the stuff of knowledge and understanding. Emerson again: “The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again.” Is this not what we continue to do as scholars almost two centuries after Emerson? My research, in all aspects, is a filter for the world’s noise, an attempt to push information through the sieve of understanding. My research instincts are spurred on by a healthy sense of doubt, of the kind practiced by René Descartes in the Meditations, and of the kind practiced by Albert Einstein in his search for meaning in the universe. A problem is posed; a question arises; the search for an answer involves a scavenger hunt. Convinced the answer is to be uncovered, I cast the net of my research wide, continually drawing it back to discover the prizes captured.
Reading inspires me. Book learning is not a stand-in for action. Thus, my research brings me to conferences to deliver papers and to local community groups to speak or serve on boards. I have presented at the American Academy of Religion and have served as a judge for a local Shakespeare recitation competition in Albany, NY. I am an editor of The Shakespeare Standard, and I have served on the board of the Capital Library District Council and am working with the Troy YWCA in an effort to get men on their board. I was also recently invited to serve on the editorial board of the International Journal for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. The public intellectual involves himself both inside and outside of the academy, and I view this work as a way of expanding my scholarship to the greater community—academic and non-academic.
I have also begun to work in the extensive scholarship of teaching and learning. After Dr. Deb Lawrence and I developed a course in the Literature of Mathematics/the Mathematics of Literature, we presented on it at the Teaching Professor Conference 2012; we are currently working on an article on the course, and we will present again on collaborative teaching in the humanities and sciences at a conference in Plattsburgh this Spring. I will present alone this May at the Teaching Professor Conference 2013 on my course “Hamlet in Hyperspace: Writing, Technology, and the Future of Ideas.” Additionally, I am working with Dr. Nina Marinello to develop an interdisciplinary course in science and humanities on the literature and culture of immigration, in which students will examine the food, the literature, and the culture of those migrating to the United States between 1890 and 1950. Collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching are important components of my career; the “Hamlet in Hyperspace” course, for example, touches on literature, writing, philosophy, and technology.
My research plan for the next five years involves continued study of the ways in which the Middle Ages and Renaissance have influenced and, in a sense, invented our contemporary world. As noted earlier, I am planning a book-length project on Augustine examining the ways in which Augustine created the modern concept of self; the essay currently in-progress is the first piece of that project. In some ways, it continues the incredible work done by Brian Stock, a University of Toronto medieval comparative literature scholar, who is now retired, and James J. O’Donnell, the preeminent editor of Augustine (currently Provost at Georgetown), both of whom I correspond with. I also expect to continue contributing to the scholarship of teaching, either through articles on pedagogical approaches to teaching interdisciplinary courses or through continued editing of medieval and Renaissance texts for the classroom. Another future goal, to be begun in the next few years, is a compilation of essays that look at each of the five senses, first in the context of their classical and medieval discussion and then as our understanding of them has shifted in the twenty-first century. I have begun the first section—on hearing—and the work so-far has been posted to my blog. This work of public scholarship will form a bridge between the academy and the community in much the same way as a Greenblatt or a Sacks.
In my role of public intellectual, I see as integral the exchange of ideas, whether between academics or with students. My teaching has and will continue to inform my scholarship and vice versa. While some of the activities of the public intellectual are to be noted as service to the institution and the community, I believe that such service is informed by scholarship and activity in the academy. In the prologue to his book Hamlet in Purgatory, Stephen Greenblatt explains the personal connection he has with the material, noting his father’s “obsession” throughout his life with death. In my first course in Christian Theology (at Fordham University), Father Baldwin explained the Trinity to a room of twenty-nine Catholics and one Jew. The Jew was terribly confused by what he heard, but a spark was ignited. My academic life continues to re-ignite that spark each day, both in my study, in the classroom and in the community.