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Marco Graduate Student Spotlight: Leah Giamalva

Our mission statement here at The Cohort relates our desire to give graduate students a voice in the academic community. This month begins a series of interviews with Marco graduate students. We believe it is immensely productive to be aware of what types of projects our colleagues are working on, both for the purposes of collaborative research and to better establish a sense of community. We also believe it is helpful for ‘younger’ scholars to learn from the success of their peers and to be aware of the advantages, both personal and professional, offered by the Marco Institute and the circle of scholars in Medieval and Renaissance studies here at UTK.

Our first Marco Graduate Student Spotlight is Leah Giamalva, a Ph.D. student and specialist in medieval history who works with Dr. Thomas E. Burman. She has published articles on portraits of Muhammad and medieval Latin traditions of Qur’an reading and Christian-Muslim relations, and she has contributed to a museum exhibition on the Roman Empire in Germany. She is the winner of numerous fellowships and awards, many of which have enabled her to study abroad in Rome and Germany, and currently holds the Jimmy and Dee Haslam Dissertation Fellowship.

Leah is a familiar face to many of us and always has a warm smile and encouraging words for her colleagues.I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with her about her dissertation,“Islam and Sacred History in Latin Manuscript Culture, 1291-1460,” the challenges and triumphs she has encountered in her journey as a PhD student, and her experiences with the Marco Institute.

Where did you grow up? Are you a native to Tennessee?

Leah: I’m originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  I’ve lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arizona.

Do you find it challenging to juggle family life and a career as an academic?

Leah: I’ve been married for almost five years now. I’m lucky in that I have a lot of support from my wonderful husband, and he is willing to be flexible with his career so that I might have more opportunities.

When did you first become interested in becoming an historian?

Leah: When I was a kid I read a lot of historical novels. I liked Robin Hood and stories of the Middle Ages from a very young age. I’m fascinated by people and how diverse societies can be across cultures and time periods. As an undergraduate, I declared a History major right away without really knowing what it was. As a freshman at The University of Southern Mississippi, I had two classes with Dr. Phyllis Jestice, who was an excellent mentor. These experiences were a tremendous influence on me.

Can you tell us a little about your research right now?

Leah: My work is focused on how Western Christians attempted to process the expansion of Islam as a historical phenomenon. In the thirteenth century there was a lot of optimism about Christianity spreading to the whole world. Many people thought the Holy Land would soon be reconquered by Western Christians, and hadn’t considered the possibility that Islam could overtake Christianity. By 1291, the very last crusader stronghold fell, and this was a huge moment because history went off the course that it was expected to go. This required explanation: How could God let this happen? My work is concerned with how Christians struggled to comprehend the success of Islam and how they sought to fit that success into a Christian historical framework.

I’m focusing on a period in which not a lot of work has been done in terms of Christian-Muslim relations, mainly because there are not many original texts from the time written by western Christians specifically about Islam. But even though we don’t see Christians writing new religious polemics against Islam during most of the period, we do find an explosion of Latin manuscripts that address Islam in the 14th and 15th centuries and, at the same time, Muslim figures become more prominent in western Christian visual art.  This is a curious phenomenon that demands explanation.  So, the main part of my dissertation is concerned with manuscripts and to some extent images.

Have you known the subject for your dissertation for a long time? At what stage of your career as a graduate student did you decide on your dissertation topic?

Leah: My topic grew out of my coursework and my interactions with the Marco professors. I knew that I wanted to do something with Christian-Muslim relations. Then Dr. Jay Rubenstein got me thinking about meta-narrative and apocalypticism when I took his course on the Bible in the Middle Ages, and I was inspired by Dr. Tom Burman’s close readings of manuscripts to shed light on how Latin Christians read the Qur’an. He and Dr. Maura Lafferty showed me how manuscript studies can enhance our understanding of medieval intellectual history when I took the Paleography and History of the Book course that they co-teach.

In that course, I worked with a fourteenth-century manuscript that has both medieval Latin translations of the Qur’an, assembled with a wide range of other material. Scholars have called it a miscellany because of the diversity of its contents: While most of the manuscript deals with Islam in various ways, it also contains materials that have no obvious relevance to Islam, including a satirical poem, a political treatise, and a text that argues that the Hebrew scriptures prove the Incarnation. Even in the contents on Islam, some parts are scholarly and others are satirical. But, for the maker of the manuscript, there was a logical connection between the corruption of Christendom and the success of Islam. Hence, the manuscript begins with a poem that complains that nobody is really performing their required social roles, especially not religious professionals, and warns that they better shape up before the last judgment. Working with this manuscript, I realized that, even though scholars have understandably described it as rather incoherent, its overarching theme is the decline of Christendom and the rise of Islam. That manuscript really got me thinking.

When I took Dr. Amy Neff’s course on Italian Renaissance Art, I also found it interesting that we begin to see a great number of images of powerful Muslim figures in fourteenth-century art, specifically in Franciscan and Dominican contexts—the same institutions that played a major role in disseminating manuscripts that discuss Islam and its role in history.

Marco hosts a number of graduate students in both history and literature, and I know you have attended a Renaissance Newberry Consortium. What do you find most rewarding about working in an interdisciplinary environment?

Leah: Marco is great because it helps you become aware of lots of different methodological points of view. In this field you just cant get away with not being interdisciplinary. I value the community here tremendously; it has been so good for me to talk to people who come from a very different perspective. They introduce you to new kinds of sources and new kinds of questions.

I’ve also found it good to just follow your curiosity and not limit yourself to one historical period.  For example, it makes sense for me to continue my project chronologically from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance. I’m interested in all kinds of cultural periods. I’ve also been part of the late antiquity reading group, and in a couple weeks I’m attending a lecture in Trier on Nicholas of Cusa and the Italian Renaissance. Although I think of myself as a medievalist – and that’s where the overwhelming majority of my training has been – the article that Dr. Burman and I cowrote is about a 16th century manuscript. So the coming together of people from a number of different time periods is both fascinating to me and useful to my work.

Your studies have taken you a number of interesting places, including the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto and the Vatican Library. Can you tell us a little bit about your travels for research? How did Marco help you to travel? 

One of the perks of being a historian is getting to travel and I’m so grateful that Marco and other organizations have given me the opportunity to do that. UT is part of a program to send people to the American Academy in Rome. In Italy I was working mainly in the Vatican library, but I also went to the Florence national library, and I’ve been to the British library at Cambridge University. I found that these libraries are a lot more accessible than you would think. The librarians are so helpful and you simply request the manuscripts you want to work with.

With the recent boom in digital humanities, so much archival material is available in facsimile form. Are their any disadvantages or problems with this innovation? What are some of the benefits of continuing the tradition of working with the physical texts themselves?

I’ve always felt a connection to physical objects – I used to think I wanted to be a museum curator. Handling the actual physical object is so much different than looking at it on a screen.  I think empathy here can be really important. There is just something so profound about holding a manuscript in your hand that was created 700 years ago. You get a much better sense of the personalities of the people who made them so much more. For example, you can see where they got tired of what they were writing and filled in ‘et cetera.’ Although a good manuscript description will tell you a book’s dimensions, you don’t really get a practical sense of scale (Is this a book that someone could carry in his or her pocket or purse, or is it a huge volume that couldn’t be moved easily?) from descriptions or digital reproductions.  You also can’t see the staple holes that show you that it was chained to a desk in a library or get a sense of the quality of the parchment or paper.  So, if you absolutely want to get a sense of what it was like for those readers, you have to experience the book. There is also a lot to be said for inhabiting the space that you are writing about and seeing how all the different images are situated in relation to each other.

What stage of the dissertation process did you find most challenging?

My biggest challenge was from moving from the analytical stage to the organization of my ideas. When I was doing archival research, I was taking all the wild notes (which are fun to do) and I had pages and pages of notes and observations that I had to put into some kind of coherent, linear form. It was a bit of a struggle starting with bits and pieces and putting them together.

A lot of graduate students these days are worried about the state of the current job market. Are you hopeful, optimistic? What advice would you have for other graduate students to make themselves more marketable?

Diversification is a good thing – a breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge. And Marco is great for the kind of breadth that you need to have to be successful on the job market these days. You need interdisciplinarity, knowledge of a long period chronologically, and the ability to look across large geographical areas. You see the latter in a lot of recent job postings that are looking for people who specialize in both Europe and Africa, or Europe and the Middle East. A lot of people want you to be fluent in a great number of areas, and Marco’s programs really help prepare its students for this type of job market.

I know you have been a grad student here for a number of years. How have you seen Marco evolve over that period of time and what hopes do you have for it in the future?

I was in the first wave of summer Latin – back when Sarah Downey was teaching it. I am so glad that Marco still has the funding to make that program a permanent thing. That Summer intensive is such a great opportunity to work on your Latin. I’m happy to see how that has taken off. I was also in the first class of the team-taught course on paleography and history of the book with Dr. Burman and Dr. Lafferty and I’m happy to see that continue. The diversity of reading groups is fabulous as well. I remember when we only had the late antiquity reading group and now there are so many of them. Those groups are a great way of encouraging dialogue between grad students and more advanced scholars. I know this dialogue particularly helped me to feel more confident discussing my interests with more advanced scholars. Being part of Marco has definitely helped me to become more outgoing in talking about my work.

One of the greatest advantages of Marco, in my opinion, is that it makes a point to equip its students with the tools that they are going to need to do interesting work. For example, in the course Dr. Burman is teaching this semester, students spend 45 minutes of working on Latin texts and 45 minutes of traditional seminar discussion,  so they are combining empirical and analytical work, as historians must in order to do worthwhile research. In the Paleography and History of the Book course, we learn palaeography while we read the work of other scholars and see how they put the discipline to use. I know some graduate programs focus on either the empirical or theoretical aspects.  Marco does a really good job of of providing its students with a methodological background and skill set by showing how you can do really fascinating stuff  able to speak intelligently using a wide variety of approaches.