Professor Vernon Returns To His Alma Mater
Earlier this fall, English Professor Matthew Vernon was invited to give a scholarly talk at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We heard about the trip and asked him a couple of questions about this return to one of his most important intellectual homes.
“What stood out for you from this visit?,” we asked. “When you had a chance to speak with graduate students at Cornell, what questions did they ask you?”
Vernon’s thoughtful answer to our questioning appears below.
As you’ll read, this visit gave Vernon the opportunity to have an engaging conversation with graduate students about the future of English literary scholarship.
It also led him to recall “the importance of my undergraduate education in learning how to think” and, further, “the responsibility we have to be dreamers.”
(Vernon is, incidentally, one of the several first-generation faculty members in the English department. We published a profile of these professors a couple of years ago that you can read here: https://english.ucdavis.edu/news-events/news/english-faculty-first-generation)
During my visit to my alma mater, I met with Cornell’s medieval studies graduate students to discuss the anodyne-seeming topic “medieval studies and the world.” The issue on everyone’s minds was the massive shift that our field is undergoing as it faces a reckoning about how our subject is received and at times misappropriated, particularly among white supremacists. Moreover, the medievalists grappled with the soul-searching our field has been doing as it reflects on itself in terms of the agendas the field prioritizes and which voices it listens to. These questions are as profound as reflecting on what the objects of our study should be and as fundamental as thinking about what terms are appropriate to describe our field of inquiry.
Although I was at Cornell to give a talk, this meeting was certainly the most consequential event of my time there. The people gathered in the room would be some of the scholars setting the agenda for the next generation of medieval studies. Despite the seriousness and the consequential nature of this conversation it was enlivening to see graduate students wading into these issues and coming up with ways to advance the conversation being held by current leaders in the field. Many of the students were already deeply engaged in projects that were truly global and thinking about rewriting the typical script of Euro-centric projects medievalists often feel like they must follow to be accepted in academia, to get a certain type of job and reproduce work that marginalizes voices that ought to be heard.
The experience of speaking with these students reminded me of a quote from Cornell alumna Toni Morrison that is painted prominently on campus: “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” Returning to my alma mater reminded me of the importance of my undergraduate education in learning how to think, but also its place in teaching me to dream as the necessary precondition for embarking on any intellectual project, as a way to question the paradigms that we carry with us into everything we do. Morrison, I think, also was pointing to the responsibility we have to be dreamers; that we need to pause before charging headlong into whatever position we want to succeed in and remember the highest ideals of our ambitions, who we can benefit through the application of our tremendous energies.