Photo courtesy of Google Images.
By Lucy Rudman
Dr. Matthew Irvin, an associate professor of English, specializes in Medieval English and Latin literature. His mother got her master’s degree in Medieval Languages. His father was an Americanist, a professor of English, and had a “deep fascination” for the Medieval period.
“I was also raised Catholic,” Irvin said. “It was a very intellectual Catholic household.”
Raised in such a household, the distance between the modern era and the Medieval period was condensed in his childhood.
“But when I went to college, I was actually open to a lot of different things,” he explained. “Art, contemporary literature, anthropology… and I was all set to follow my way to romanticism.”
Irvin attended the University of Chicago. In a twist of fate, his favorite Romantics professor went on sabbatical, and Irvin decided to take a class in medieval literature for his English undergrad degree.
“I ended up with Professor Christina Von Nolcken,” he said, “and she was just brilliant and funny, and she obviously loved the literature in this deep and abiding way. I just couldn’t resist. The literature itself posed problems I was excited to answer, problems that were political, religious, and linguistic.”
His connection to that class and its texts goes beyond mere interest or appreciation. He and Von Nolcken remain in contact to this day. In fact, on his most recent sabbatical, he stayed in her home and had access to her rich library.
“The book I used in that class, where I became a medievalist, I still have it!” he said as he got up from his desk and pulled out an old copy of his class text, one of many books that lined his wall-length shelf, and he held open the pages to point out the notes from his college days.
Irvin and his wife, Dr. Stephanie Batkie, also an associate professor of English at the University, have a “tiny medievalist” on the way, so he’ll only be teaching one class next semester, Medieval English Literature.
His favorite class to teach?
“Representative masterpieces,” he answered, “but, really, I just like to teach. And, it’s more about the texts that I teach than the class. ‘Pearl’ and Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ are my favorites.”
While medieval texts tend to be more obscure than modern novels, Irvin says, “Well, I guess that’s the great thing about teaching, that you essentially always have this opportunity to open people up to the things that you love. This is definitely the best job I’ve ever had. I get a tremendous sense of pleasure out of it.”
This job, along with its remote location, is “a surprisingly good fit,” Irvin said. As a student of the University of Chicago, then Duke University, Sewanee’s isolation was daunting at first.
“I was like, ‘there’s not even a stoplight!’” he explained as he described traveling here for his interview. “But when I came up the Mountain, it reminded me a lot of where I grew up in Northern Massachusetts. And when I got here, what I found was a incredibly warm department, terrific students, and this little community of really smart people who enjoyed being with each other.”
Drawn in by the Sewanee charm, his good feelings toward this place only grew.
“When I got really sick my first year here, the then-chair of the department and another professor pretended to be my parents so they could make sure I was okay in the hospital,” he said. “I mean, what do you do with that? That’s such an extremity of kindness. This is a place where I felt loved really quickly.”
Irvin’s experience here as a member of the faculty for 10 years speaks to the uniqueness of Sewanee. As for the students here, he has this piece of advice.
“You have four years here,” he said, then leaned forward and whispered, “plus or minus.”
He continued, “This is a tremendous opportunity to open yourself up to new things. Think new thoughts and do things freely. You’ll never have this freedom again. And to have this whole life that I get to have, following my intellectual interests, it’s rarity and a lot of luck. Squeeze every drop out of [these four years]. It’s precious time.”