Oregon State University

Faculty Research Profile: Tara Williams, Associate Professor of English

Our fascination with magic spans centuries, notes Professor Tara Williams, and ties medieval texts to modern novels like A Game of Thrones or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  That fascination may be fundamental to the human experience: scientific research suggests that our brains are hard-wired to construct magical explanations in the absence of other evidence.  Williams’ current project investigates how fourteenth-century representations of magic turn such responses to moral ends.  “Magic often involves a good-versus-evil dynamic,” she explains.  “In the late Middle Ages, magical spectacles—like a giant green knight or an enchanted dragon-lady—were vividly memorable but hard to classify.  They raised questions about what true virtue looked like and how to treat others ethically.” 

Williams pursued this research in the spring while holding the Morton W. Bloomfield Fellowship at Harvard University, consulting its impressive library collections and contributing to its Medieval Colloquium.  She also presented her findings at several recent conferences, including the 2012 New Chaucer Society Congress in Portland, OR.  Williams was an organizer for as well as a participant in that event, collaborating with faculty from other local institutions; because of her involvement and the School of Writing, Literature, and Film’s co-sponsorship, OSU graduate students had the opportunity to volunteer and attend sessions alongside hundreds of scholars from around the world.

“Medieval literature can be challenging, but students soon recognize how engaging, and how relevant to contemporary concerns, it is,” says Williams.  The seats in her fall seminar on magic in medieval texts filled quickly and she hopes a new winter course, Studies in British Poetry: Medieval Adventures, will also enroll well.  Students in these classes benefit from her interest in the pedagogical implications of her scholarship; for instance, Williams has a forthcoming article that applies cognitive research to the practice of teaching medieval marvels.  “It turns out that wonder is a key learning emotion,” she shares. “It’s at the root of most intellectual pursuits.  That’s where I encourage students—or anyone else!—to begin: with open-minded wonder about the Middle Ages.”

Further reading:

Tara Williams, Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011)

--, “Magic, Spectacle, and Morality in the Fourteenth Century,” New Medieval Literatures 12 (2010): 179-208.

--, “Magical Thinking: Cognitive Approaches to Teaching Medieval Marvels,” forthcoming in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching

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