Newly named Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Watkins
"Something that's happened in history departments that I think could productively happen in literary departments is: stop thinking about land masses and start thinking about waterways," declares Professor of English John Watkins. "The world changes drastically. And you get a very different kind of literary history."
That Watkins is already on board with that perspective is obvious not only in his scholarship but in his process and how he envisions it. Interviewed in Lind Hall this past summer, Watkins reveals: "There's a tendency among humanists to think about their work in terms of 'There's this book, followed by this book, followed by this book.' I think of my work in more of a social scientist model, which is in terms of streams."
Although Watkins admits wryly that he is "technically the Shakespeare-Renaissance guy," his interests in Medieval history and the classics have led him to "always" question periodization, resulting in projects such as the boundary-crossing book he co-edited with Curtis Perry, Shakespeare and the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 2009). What he describes as his "main stream"--diplomacy and interstate relations--can branch into a collaboration, say, with historian Carol Levin investigating how Shakespeare configures images of foreigners and of the "foreigner" within, culminating in the book Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds: National and Transnational Identities in the Elizabethan Age (Cornell University Press, 2009). Or it can run through his current primary project, investigating marriage diplomacy from Virgil to Marie Antoinette.
Such works, along with his charismatic and provocative teaching (he's won every undergraduate teaching award available), are reasons the University of Minnesota last spring named Watkins a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. The award goes to the University's greatest-achieving mid-career faculty, and is second only to Regents Professor as the highest prize for faculty here. He also received the University's McKnight Land-Grant Professorship and was a CLA Scholar of the College (2004-07).
A less visible achievement, perhaps, is Professor Watkins' success as a dissertation director. In a dismal academic job market, his advisees have a remarkable record of tenure-track placement. Advisee Elizabeth Weixel also won the Graduate School's Best Dissertation in the arts and humanities last spring. Watkins attributes the students' accomplishments to the growing strength of Medieval and Early Modern here. "It's a large community," he stresses. "We have a lot of faculty members, ranging from Regents professors to some of the youngest members of the department, working within Early Modern and Medieval. The other thing I think is really important is that there is so much support within the college: the Center for Early Modern History, the Center for Medieval Studies. Our students are able to take courses in the period in a wide variety of disciplines: in history, in French and Italian, in German studies, so they're getting a tremendous education.
"And in general there have been enough graduate students," he continues, "there has been a critical mass, so they have an intellectual life above and beyond the faculty. There is the Medieval and Early Modern Research Group, which is very much student owned and operated. Where they can have exchanges but not have direct faculty presence. They need to find their own language. As someone who has strong interests in Montessori education, this sounds right to me: that there are times when your job is to shut up and get out of the way."
Linda Shenk (PhD 2002) is an assistant professor at Iowa State University who this year published Learned Queen: The Image of Elizabeth I in Politics and Poetry, a book based on her dissertation with Watkins. "In some ways, I owe my entire career to John," she writes via email. "I had the kind of first semester that made me unsure as to whether or not I wanted to continue, but the work I started to pursue with his encouragement that semester led not only to my dissertation but also to my book. I marvel at his amazing mind and clever wit, but what I appreciate most, as his former student, is his ability to give students the intellectual support they need so that they challenge themselves."
To a certain extent, Watkins is providing the kind of direction he wishes he experienced in graduate school at Yale University. Raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Watkins earned his BA in English at Indiana University with major coursework in French, German, and history. Then he received a Marshall Scholarship, one of 30 given that year in the United States to study in Britain. He went to Oxford University for two years, where, he recalls, they sent him to the library, and he "read like crazy." He loved it. He still chairs the Rhodes-Marshall selection committee annually here.
His Oxford tutor, John Pitcher, assigned him the topic that would jumpstart his career. "It was a standard Oxford thing," he relates, falling into a mid-Atlantic drawl: "'I want you to go out and think about Spenser and Virgil. Think about the Aenied, and what it would be like to read the Aenied in 16th century Ireland.' The way it worked, you would read for a couple of weeks, and the day before you met with your tutor, you'd write the essay. I was up all night thinking, 'What the heck am I going to write tomorrow?' Deep in the night I started seeing a pattern about female abandonment, and I suddenly realized that what's driving this form is 'How on earth do you take an epic model that is focused in so many ways on female abandonment--you have to leave Dido to go to Rome--how on earth do you turn that model into a compliment to Elizabeth I?' And that became my first book."
After receiving his Oxford MA, Watkins sprinted through his Yale PhD coursework in a year and a half so he could focus on writing his dissertation, which was published by Yale University Press as The Specter of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic in 1995. While in New Haven, he met fellow graduate student Andrew Elfenbein, now his partner, a colleague in the Department of English, and the co-parent of a 12-year-old son who may know more than he wants to about the study of English literature. "Andy's doing an edition of Dracula," says Watkins, "and we're now all proofreading it 30 minutes a night together. This is of course family reading time, so we're also all reading it aloud." [Professor Elfenbein's Dracula was published by Longman Cultural Editions in October.]
Such collaborations come easily to Watkins, who not only co-authored and co-edited those recent books, but regularly co-teaches courses with colleagues in history and in French and Italian. "I think there's a reason I write on diplomacy," he grants. "I'm really interested in what happens when you bring things into dialogue. It's a way that you keep growing yourself."
Water is a restless creature, after all: its nature movement. In a video interview, Watkins speaks more fully about his book projects. He also talks about book-writing as an adventure in "self-ing," in creating self-hood. "You become a different person in the books that you write," he claims. "The person who wrote the Spenser book probably would not have liked the book on marriage, wouldn't have known what to make of it. . . . It's that inquiry of new possibilities of personhood."
A dedicated traveler, Watkins' favorite city is Venice, one of the world's wateriest. Professor Shenk likens the research process he models to strolling in that city: "You put your map in your backpack so that you can go down pathways that interest you," she explains, "and often you discover things that you never imagined. I thank John for teaching me that mentoring is giving my graduate students their individual Venices to explore."