Dr. Lauren Whitnah, a senior lecturer in the History Department and the Marco Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, teaches Medieval Civilization courses. Her journey in higher education first began while she was completing her undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college, when the opportunity to study abroad during her junior year changed her life. “Not only was it the first time that I had ever traveled seriously,” Dr. Whitnah recalls, “but it was also the first time I encountered the Oxbridge tutorial system. I was astounded.”
In weekly hourly tutorials, Dr. Whitnah would read an essay she had written aloud and would discuss it one-on-one with a leading scholar in the field. “I found that kind of direct, personal engagement totally compelling.” Naturally, this experience led Dr. Whitnah to pursue her first master’s degree at the University of Oxford. When her time there was done, she returned to the US for a PhD, which she was awarded from the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame. “Although I’m a medievalist by training,” she explains, “I won a fellowship to teach first-year composition when I was finishing my dissertation, so I did a lot of work with the University of Notre Dame’s Writing Program that informs how I think about and teach writing today.” What, then, led Dr. Whitnah to UT Knoxville? “The terrific resources in Medieval Studies through the Marco Institute and its affiliated faculty (as well as in Hodges Library) are what really drew me here. I was delighted to join Marco as a lecturer for the big medieval studies survey classes.”
It is clear to see how greatly Dr. Whitnah’s mentors in graduate school at Oxford and at Notre Dame influenced the way she teaches her medieval civilization courses. “From my mentors at Oxford, I learned that one-on-one interaction with faculty is the best possible modality for learning. From my PhD advisor at Notre Dame, I learned that the most important scholarly thing I could do was simply to teach students to read well. From my writing program mentor, I learned how to think about writers as people whose ethical choices matter,” she explains.
In Dr. Whitnah’s classes, she always operates with three fundamental principles in mind: to understand first, strive for growth, and take responsibility. She does this by “giving students as direct an encounter as possible with the real lives of people who inhabited a place and time very different than their own.” This is done through the continuous exposure of a wide variety of reading assignments from the Middle Ages that challenge their preconceptions.
“I do this so students encounter new ideas about everything from politics, to religion, to sex.” Dr. Whitnah understands, however, that students find comprehending some sources particularly difficult — for example, a description of a massacre during the First Crusade. When this happens, she is quick to affirm that “a description of a massacre is challenging to read, but I then remind them that their task as historians is to engage in critical empathy: understanding that people who were both intelligent and well-meaning often came to different conclusions than we, as the readers, would.” She finds that when she is transparent that this process is difficult, students, in turn, find her honesty (and the lack of an easy answer) reassuring. “This is why I continue to model rigorous but charitable attention to the text, and we wrestle together with difficult questions of interpretation. I feel that this allows students to gain new awareness of their own complicated motives and increased respect for the challenge of fully comprehending other points of view.”
Dr. Whitnah also uses her classroom to stress that all her students can always improve as readers, thinkers, and writers. “Everything in my classes is designed to facilitate growth rather than provide a set of fixed prompts for writing assignments,” she explains. She does this by encouraging her students to pursue their own interests; they write about the topics of their choice, so a biochemistry major might choose to write about city regulations that attempted to restrict the spread of plague, while a music major might choose to examine medieval chant. Dr. Whitnah believes giving students the autonomy to choose their own sources provides diverse students with a number of possible paths into historical material, even in an introductory class.
Of course, Dr. Whitnah also utilizes many of the teaching methods she fell in love with during her time at Oxford. She relies heavily on one-on-one tutorial sessions so she can affirm each student’s individual strengths and provide concrete, specific strategies for tackling their specific challenges. “In designing a course,” she explains, “I utilize multiple low-stakes assignments, so students have opportunities to practice their writing skills repeatedly. Students consistently report that they feel empowered by their increasing competence, particularly in writing.”
It’s also important to Dr. Whitnah to structure her courses to encourage students to take responsibility for their own education. Through strategic goal-setting exercises, students reflect on their own purposes for their education and strategize about how to achieve these goals. With a number of optional assignments, students can make strong choices about where to devote their energy. She notes how
“this autonomy empowers students as well.”
How does this push for autonomy impact her students’ experience? “When I ask students to reflect on the most important thing they learned in a course,” she starts, “they repeatedly tell me that they have become better readers and better writers. They believe they have increased confidence in their skills to engage thoughtfully with different ideas and to present a persuasive written argument grounded in evidence.” By providing students with an opportunity to encounter the medieval past in all of its diversity and specific strategies for improving their skills, Dr. Whitnah helps students advance in the life-long pursuit of understanding the past, themselves, and each other.
Dr. Whitnah also has had several experiences with students that have further affirmed her methods for teaching and significantly impacted her career. She shares a story with us below:
“One of my favorite things to do is bring students to Special Collections in Hodges Library. We’re very fortunate to have an extensive collection of facsimiles of medieval manuscripts (as well as a few actual medieval manuscripts) at Hodges Library, so every semester I bring students in small groups to look at these books. Not only does this provide me with the kind of small group and individual encounter that really helps personalize learning in a big class, but it provides students with structured time for their own exploration. Having a tactile, sensory experience of a physical object is invaluable. In our increasingly digital age, it’s easy to encounter the past only through screens or cheaply made paperback books, but the opportunity to touch (and even smell!) a book that is 500 years old is an essential reminder of the importance of the preservation of physical objects and of the simultaneous accessibility and fragility of the past.”
This story provides so much wonderful context for how much Dr. Whitnah truly loves what she does and enjoys getting to share that appreciation with her students.
When asked about the future of teaching and learning in higher education, Dr. Whitnah starts by saying “I’m no prophet.” However, she does suspect that educators will be grappling with the effects of disruption from the pandemic for a long time. “Through participating in and leading TLI workshops and through my role as the co-chair of the Teaching and Learning Council for Faculty Senate, I’ve been working a lot on student well-being and how we can promote that in and out of the classroom. This puts faculty in a tricky spot; we’re trained to be experts in our field and to teach from our expertise, not to be mental health care professionals. Yet at the same time, students’ overall well-being (mental and emotional) is a necessary prerequisite for any learning. So, I think figuring out how to thread this needle will be an ongoing challenge for faculty in the future.”
Dr. Whitnah also thinks that, on a broader scale, support for the Humanities at UT and beyond is going to be essential, “for our common life, for our democracy, and for human flourishing. Humanities disciplines like Medieval Studies and History help us learn to read, to think, and to write as we continue to understand ourselves and other people. Fundamentally, Humanities disciplines help us remember what it means to be human; I can’t think of anything more essential than that.”