10 Questions with Re Evitt

Regula “Re” Evitt often finds herself living simultaneously in the 14th century and the present. As a Medieval scholar, Evitt specializes in exploring Chaucer, Dante, Marie de France, and their contemporaries’ intersections with gender, class, and ethnicity.

In her 20 years as a professor at CC, she has served as the Associate Dean of the College, the liaison for the Watson Fellowship, and the Chair of the all-college Assessment Committee.

Photo by Jonathan Tignor

The Catalyst: Your father taught neuroanatomy and your mother was a child psychologist. what made you want to study literature, and in particular medieval works?

Re Evitt: My family has been scientists for generations, and my brother is an engineer, and my sister studied psychology. So I think that studying literature is anomalous and not the track I was on at all in high school. I loved literature most. Growing up, I found myself reading things like the histories of the Roman Empire. We had a weird family life because my dad loved literature, even though he was in neuroanatomy, and used to recite Catullus at the dinner table […] there was a focus on the sciences as well as the humanities. […] So I think that growing up, in spite of the fact that there were a lot of scientists and engineers types in the family, there was always conversation about ideas, about books, and ‘read, read, read’ — we did a lot of reading as kids. So I loved literature as sort of an escape from scientific thinking, and then I also loved it as a way of extending scientific thinking into strange stories about, for example, astrophysical cataclysms because of an astronomy class I took.

[…] I guess I denied that I was medievalist subconsciously for years. I thought I was an Americanist and I had some really good American lit. teachers in junior and senior year, and did a senior thesis on Henry James. And then I went to UVA for grad school […] I started taking courses at UVA and about two years in and they had admitted me as, I thought, an Americanist. They gave me an in Americanist adviser in grad school, and then I showed up at the door of the guy who did graduate advising for medieval literature. I said, “I think I’m a medievalist,” and he said, “Yeah we admitted you as a medievalist.” And I said, “Oh, really” and he said, “Go home and look at your undergraduate transcript.” And that was an eye-opening moment for me because I went back, and I saw that about 50 percent of courses in the English major were all of the area courses that I had to take, the other 50 percent were all medieval lit. courses. I hadn’t been aware of it, and then suddenly I became aware of it when I started reading more literature and doing more research in Medieval Studies. I must have fallen back into the 12th century through some of the modernist poets, like Eliot and Pound and Yates, and their interesting mythologies and creating systems of thinking.

TC: How many different languages do you speak, and how does being a polyglot affect the way you think?

RE: Well there’s fluency, and then there’s having been fluent and being rusty, and then there’s also just reading languages. So I would say speak two languages: English and Schwyzer Deutsch (Swiss-German). My grammar is messy in standard German because the Swiss do it a little bit differently. Swiss-German is an oral language largely. And then I think I’m rusty in French and if I had to live in Paris for half a year I’d be fluent again. I study a lot of literature in Anglo-Norman, so I read a couple different dead languages; Middle English, obviously, it’s not exactly dead sort of dead, nobody speaks in Middle English anymore. And Anglo-Saxon. And then for the work I study, the continental literature I study, I read medieval Latin, and I read Anglo Norman, and I read Middle High German. But those aren’t languages I’d say I speak. Yeah. I dream in Schwyzer Deutsch, that’s what I dream in exclusively almost.

TC: As one of the English Department’s Medievalists, how do you find connections between medieval culture and contemporary society?

RE: A long time ago when I interviewed for a job at San Francisco State — that was my first job — their Victorian said, “How are you going to teach this old stuff?” And I said to him, “You know, it’s just not that different than teaching 19th century. 19th century is as distant as the 12th or the 14th. And I think that I love literature and the politics and the theology of the time so much, it inspires me to think about things so much that I’m constantly seeing connections between where we are now and then, and the cultural developments that I’m interested in the 12th, 13th, 14th centuries have close proximity to some of the questions we ask ourselves now about diversity, about semiotics, about life. I feel like there’s lots of crossover. Every time I turn around I think, “Oh, yeah that reminds me of ‘x’ from the 14th century,” or I see the seeds of that here in a 12th century poem that I know or narratives — it’s like it’s always there for me, that there’s some sort of strange crossover in time between the two spaces.

I think there’s a lot that’s relevant. One of the first things that I laughed at as an undergraduate English major was an early 1960s Norton Anthology description of medieval people: “Medieval people were childlike and loved games.” I thought, “That’s ridiculous. That’s infantilizing 800 hundred years of history and literature.” And I think that’s where I started. It made me laugh, and of course that’s been updated, people don’t talk about it that way anymore.

But there is a way in which the Middle Ages creates this interesting sort of double world. In England especially, there’s this idea of the Celtic “other world.” Not after life, but an other world that’s parallel to their own, and the way in which those two cultures might talk to each other or form each other. And I feel like the Middle Ages and the contemporary world are in that relationship with each other.

TC: Could you talk a little about your favorite medieval tale and explain its significance to you?

RE: There’s a really interesting lais by Marie de France—lais are a kind of short fiction that’s usually in verse form, and they often take the idea of medieval quests and distill them to interactions between individuals and psychological journeys. There’s a story that Marie de France writes about Bisclavret, a guy who’s a werewolf. He’s married to a woman, and she notices that he disappears on a weekly basis for long weekends and then he returns. She’s pretty certain he’s having an affair, and she has the courage to confront him. He says, “No, no. That’s not what’s going on.” And she says, “You have to tell me!” and he says, “If I tell you, it will change us permanently.” She convinces him and he says, “OK, I turn into a werewolf whenever I take my clothes off,” […] She’s completely freaked out by this, for clear reasons, and she decides that she’s not comfortable enough with his double status—wolf and man—to tolerate living with him in marriage, so she finds out where he hides his clothes. She has somebody pick up those clothes the next time he goes into the woods and essentially locks him in that body. He’s discovered by the king, and the king adopts him as sort of the court mascot […] The wife ends up coming to court and doesn’t realize that he has become part of the king’s court. The werewolf recognizes her, but she’s remarried and he attacks her. He attacks her husband first but then he attacks her, and everybody’s surprised that their pet dog has turned into this vicious wolf. I won’t tell you how the story ends. It’s amazing though because it raises all these questions about the space of the monstrous in human beings […] The court, in an effort to figure out what’s going on, decides that they’re going to torture the woman to get a confession out of her about what’s happening and why she thinks the wolf has attacked her. And the specter that’s raised is, who is more bestial in this tale? Is it the woman for trapping her husband in this wolf self and not allowing him his full self? Is at the court for deciding, without any evidence, that this is her doing, that they’re going to torture her and get a confession out of her, without asking her first what is going on? Is it the husband himself for moving back and forth between these bodies and never being able to reveal this to the wife and hiding this other identity from somebody that he’s intimate with? There are a lot of possibilities, but it does raise this interesting question about the tensions between monstrosity and humans. Are we sometimes more monstrous as humans than as beasts?

I love reading Marie de France’s work because not too many people understand that here’s this woman writing in the twelfth century, and she writes crazy stuff the challenges a lot of cultural assumptions.

TC: As CC’s liaison for the Watson Fellowship, what is it about the program that attracts you?

RE: I love I love the possibilities for students. I love that this is a fellowship that students can apply for to do a project of their own design. It’s an amazing opportunity. Watson isn’t interested in the outcomes or reports or, you know, “You have to meet the goals that you set.” No, they say, “What you want to do for a year?, how would you use our money?” (And it’s around 30,000 dollars). The program itself is a fellowship where you can go to a country to pursue a passion, a longstanding passion, something that’s deep in you that you have to know more about and that you need to connect with the world globally in order to understand better. I love that idea about it. But it’s also a fellowship in which you can’t go back to a place you’ve been before. That kind of tension, it’s an oxymoron, a kind of a paradox, right? You have to know enough to do something to have an intelligent design or some kind of imaginative purpose that you want to follow through on. But you have to be in a space where you’re going to be comfortable and where you need to learn something new about another culture, about individuals, where you’re not just going to be comfortable. And I think that what’s most remarkable about it is it insists on the experiential, which is a great way to learn, you know, when you see yourself in a place and you’re learning from the people in the place who are doing the thing that you are fascinated by and you find out how you can grow what you already know a lot about.

TC: How long have you been a member of the CC community, and what has changed the most over time?

RE: I came as a visiting professor in ‘97, and a few years later I was hired as an adjunct, and then after that a couple of us were encouraged by the faculty to go ahead into tenure track positions. We had a faculty vote about whether adjunct professors—there were several at the time—whether those adjunct professors could be given a chance to apply for tenure and to go through the process of tenure. And I leapt at that because I love the community so much. I thought it was fascinating, I loved the Block Plan, very intriguing […]

Gosh, what’s changed most over time? I think about the things that are constant more than how much things change. I think the world is always changing and the culture is changing and we have different ideas about how to govern ourselves or like what kinds of communities we understand ourselves to be comprised of and how we want the communication, the dialogue, between these communities to happen from personal to public. But I think a constant for me at CC has been this idea of intrepid imagination that we feel in contact with students every day. So, I don’t know…what’s changed most? I think we’ve become, as a community, we’ve worked really hard to provide more and more opportunities to students, and we’ve tried to find ways to provide more equitable access to the opportunities that make it possible. We do a lot more study abroad and people teach courses in different places in the world all the time. And we’ve also, I think, amplified and developed the way we do things experientially in the classroom. So those are things that have changed that make CC more what it’s always wanted to be […] It means that you learn about things beyond yourself in more important ways.

TC: What was the experience like as both the Associate Dean of the College as well as a professor, and how did you balance the two roles?

RE: In the past, we had somebody who did a wonderful job as Associate Dean for 25 years. And he wasn’t in the classroom. That job was that job. When Sandy Wong asked me if I would step in after Victor Nelson-Cisneros retired, I said, “Yeah I would love to do that, but I can’t not teach.” And so I think it was really demanding to be in a classroom at the same time that I was deaning; in those blocks all sort of all hell broke loose. Sometimes in terms of just like scheduling and juggling and trying to keep up with things because it’s like doing two jobs. But I didn’t lose that space of contact with students in the classroom because that’s where I felt that I had gotten to know students best. And I didn’t want to just become an administrator who lost that particular kind of contact. When you’re talking about ideas and reading stuff together and being surprised on a daily basis by your students’ insight, that was all so positive and rich that I thought I wanted that informing whatever conversations I had with students in the Dean’s office.

It was hard, but incredibly wonderful to be able to do both. I could not have taught a full teaching schedule and done the deans job — that would be ridiculous. And it was challenging to do a block a semester. But I think the reason why I wanted to do that is I never went into the Dean’s office thinking I wouldn’t return to being a professor because being in a classroom with you all is where I find most of the energy and joy in my profession.

TC: You were born in Colorado and have Swiss heritage, so it seems natural that you would like skiing. What about the sport attracts you, and where is your favorite place to ski?

RE: I grew up skiing when it didn’t cost a lot of money and it was more accessible to more people. I’ve been skiing so long that I remember when the lift tickets in Aspen were $3.25. It’s ridiculous right? But that was a fair amount of money actually, but not much more than a movie in the 1960s. I started really young; my dad put us on skis when we were little kids. We didn’t go to ski resorts to ski. We had those bear trap bindings that look a lot like telemark skis, and our heels were loose on the back of the skis. His idea of skiing was you put the skis on and you start walking up the trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park going up to Longs Peak, and then you ski down the trails. Both he and my mom had learned to ski in Switzerland before their communities had access to lifts. They remember sealskins on the bottom of your skis. He taught us how to wax so that we could hike up a hill and ski. So skiing was hiking for me when I started, and we hiked every weekend; my dad and mom missed the mountains in Switzerland terribly. I think when they had an option to leave Cornell where they first landed in America and to come west, Dad had two job offers: one at Davis in California and one in Fort Collins, and he took the one in Fort Collins because it was two hours closer to the mountains really, that was the professional decision [. . .]

What I love most about skiing now is that feeling of being out in the open when you stop for a minute and the world is still. Wherever it is that you’re skiing, if you get up on a hill early enough or stay late enough in the day and people start to leave the hill and you just have that moment of quiet, it’s sort of like when I’m hiking a trail.

We went Breckenridge a lot with my son when he was young. So that’s it’s kind of my default favorite place.

TC: If you could have dinner with either Chaucer or Dante, who would you choose and what would you ask them about?

RE: I’m a little intimidated by Dante. This is a tough one. Dante has such a large reach, such a large intellectual reach. I think [my answer] changes depending on what’s going on in the world. Because Dante has this wonderful system of like this whole idea of hell that there’s some sort of metaphorical relationship between the choices you make and the consequences in the afterlife that he imagines. And just the idea that we are responsible for the choices we make, that I love of Dante and that’s what I would talk about.

But if I have to choose, I think right now I would choose Chaucer. The gender politics are so fascinating in the “Canterbury Tales”. He’s so interested in the question of who has voice and who has access to power and what happens to those who don’t. And he’s so intrigued by class structure and the limits of class structure, or the confines of class structure, and trying to work against those. I would love to have a conversation with him about class in America in a democratic culture so different from a feudal culture that is growing into a culture of kingship with the middle class, and is beginning to acknowledge the importance of a laboring class, especially after the plague and the dearth of the workforce and what that did to England at the time.

So I think just like the vast class changes that are taking place in the last quarter of 14th century, I’d like to sit down and have a conversation with him about that space of time and how he understood the change from, say, 1360 when he started that decade when he started moving up with the court, and when he’s close to death sort of begging for support from the new king who’s usurped the previous king. I would be fascinated to hear from him what he thinks about the transfer of power and what happens in communities when there’s vast political change. Right now that seems to me like, “Any words of wisdom along those lines”? Or “How you endure?” And the idea of suffering as enduring as well as maybe experiencing hard times. I would talk to him about what that was like because he certainly saw his way through regime change and found his way through class change, and he was spectacularly funny while doing it.

Jonathan Tignor

Jonathan Tignor

Jonathan Tignor '19 began as a writer then editor for the Life section, but he is now The Catalyst's Editor in Chief. He is a Creative Writing major with additional interests in Journalism, Theatre, Philosophy, and Education.
Jonathan Tignor

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