1707866108867After teaching in the College of Letters (COL) for nearly a decade, Jesse Wayne Torgerson is now the Director of the COL and Associate Professor of Letters. At UC Berkeley, he earned his M.A. and his Ph.D., exploring Byzantium, medieval Europe, and late antiquity. He completed his thesis dissertation abroad at Cambridge University. Torgerson sat down with The Argus to reflect on this academic journey and his pedagogical approaches, also discussing his framework for historical thought, his current projects, and the COL learning environment.

The Argus: What first sparked your interest in history?

Jesse Wayne Torgerson: I was interested as an undergraduate in understanding things that were really complicated and confusing. Originally, I thought that would be through journalism. But as I began exploring the curriculum at my college, I came to realize that the parts of human experience I found the most confusing and interesting were in the human past. And that was what ended up drawing me to history—not so much because of a particular period I liked so much as I wanted a field where I could explore things that were curious, but also relatable and beautiful.

If I reconstruct a narrative of myself, I think I might’ve been predetermined to find history as a subject because I grew up as an American outside of America. So I was always living out a multiplicity of cultures, of which I was one, and almost always a minority. What I later realized in graduate school was that I came to love that the society I was engaging with was much more complex than I could ever understand. The impetus I picked up on as I got deeper into academic work was finding moments where—through exchange, cultural mixing, and creation of a multiethnic polity—that kind of human interaction was taking place. 

A: Could you talk about your academic journey a little? And what drove you to specialize in medieval studies?

JWT: I grew up in the British Empire, in Hong Kong. So I knew that I wanted to go to England, just to understand what that culture was like which I’d become familiar with—its colonial representation. My undergraduate college had a program at Oxford, which happened to be medieval and renaissance. I was there for a year, where I came to really enjoy the medieval ages. That then led me to pursue an undergraduate thesis in medieval studies, and by the time I was a senior, I realized I wanted to go to graduate school.

Upon graduating, I spent the next fifteen months doing intense study in Latin and Greek. Then I got into the UC Berkeley M.A. Ph.D. program in Byzantine studies. Something that I like to tell students is that I really had no business getting into the program. When I showed up as a graduate student to do Byzantine history, I had never taken a course on Byzantine history. What I was being accepted on was really my ability to think, my curiosity, as well as the intense language preparation I’d done. I like to emphasize that for undergraduates at Wesleyan, what’s really meaningful in preparing you to pursue academic study is pursuing curiosity and becoming comfortable with confronting intellectual challenges. And once you get used to working through those—you might just have to do a little preparation beforehand, like I did—you really can maneuver into any field.

A: Could you talk about your recent publication “Chronographia of George the Synkellos and Theophanes”? Did the project impact your historical thinking, framework, or methodology?

JWT: My initial emotional response is that I hate it and that I’m so glad that I’m done with it. Let me clarify, I hated the fact that the American requirements for tenure demanded that I turn what was always a ridiculously overcomplicated idea of a project into a monograph. The mind-bending, gut-wrenching, hair-pulling struggle was trying to turn all the research I had done into something that could be considered a book with a single argument. I would’ve loved to spend 20 years working through different bits of what I was figuring out, publishing them in bits, and eventually putting it together as a book. So it’s not the research or the project that I dislike, it’s that I now have to think about all of that as a monograph.

What I love about the project is that I was able to play detective with very little evidence, but eventually crack a puzzle that had perplexed people in my field. The “Chronographia” is a very important text of East Mediterranean history from the 600s through the 700s, and it’s the only continuous narrative account of that region in that period from relatively contemporary sources. As I proved in the book, historians misunderstood the nature of the project in its own day and unintentionally misused it for the purposes of modern historical writing. When I can stop feeling distaste for it, I plan to retranslate the text.

A: Having to publish a book is an American requirement for tenure. Would you say that’s a prevalent problem in your field, in that it impacts the quality of academic arguments or the knowledge being produced just by way of changing its form?

JWT: Academia is inherently conservative. Everybody knows that you don’t need to write a monograph in history to be identified as an outstanding professor of history. But that has been the way of knowing that people can for so long. The profession as a whole is unmotivated to change, and won’t change until there’s some sort of crisis.

A: What non-historic genre of literature do you enjoy reading?

JWT: Mystery novels are the default answer.

A: You mentioned the word “detective” earlier. Do you think this is very much related to how you think historically? 

JWT: Absolutely. I realized the connection first in graduate school, and at first was embarrassed, but then thought “Actually, that’s fine.” When I’m reading mystery novels, what I’m enjoying is a historical investigation that you know is going to be solved. It sort of makes sense for the mystery novel to be the perfect cathartic escape for the frustrated and paranoid academic historian.

A: I remember you talking passionately about Greek in our Great Books Unbound class. Could you talk about your linguistic background a bit, and why you like Greek so much?

JWT: I really enjoyed learning languages, and I would say that I am fluent, or an expert, in Greek only. As a kid I learned to speak some Cantonese in Hong Kong with my babysitter because both my parents were working. As a young person, I grew up learning Mandarin at school because that was the spoken language. As a graduate student I did Greek and Latin, which I learned as reading and research languages as opposed to speaking languages.

I think Greek stuck around just because I had to learn it. For the way my brain works—being able to isolate it as a reading language—I was less overwhelmed by it, learning it as an adult. The thing that became really fun was the level of creativity. Trying to render anything in Ancient or Medieval Greek in modern English is just a never ending puzzle. 

A: Could you talk about your experience organizing and hosting the Palestine seminar this year? What prompted you to do this?

JWT: My being the initial coordinator for the Palestine seminar was an effort to have someone with the security of tenure be the person organizing a gathering bound to be perceived as controversial. So I can’t—and wouldn’t want to—take credit solely for the initiative that it takes to organize it. I wanted to be a part of it because through many, many friends I have indirect connections to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt. So I felt, in the context of the world, the need to organize a space for the Wesleyan community to do what the Wesleyan community exists for, which is learning to understand and discuss complex, painful, horrifying, but potentially beautiful and joyful human experiences. It seemed like a fitting outlet to say, “Let’s just get together and read as much as we can and talk about what we’re learning.”

A: How has your experience teaching a winter session class been? Do you think that kind of intensive learning environment is something that can be adapted to the COL or regular semester courses?

JWT: In my ideal version of a university, professors and students would always have the freedom to alter the logistics and structures of the educational environment to seize an impetus. This also connects back to your question about the Palestine seminar because to me, learning that is driven by a deep curiosity is activism. It is activity that expects to change the world, and to me, every classroom, environment, and meeting only ever happens because a group of people have gathered together to achieve something that will mean they are different people when they leave that room. So the more you can allow that to happen, the more you’re able to get out of that shared empathy of being changed by other human spirits.

An environment like the Palestine seminar captures a unique aspect of that charisma, because everyone is coming in charged by world events and looking for how to make a difference. In the COL, majors are expecting an educational change over the course of three years that will be unlike any other three-year experience. In the winter session you have the perfect conjunction of that energy. Like an intensive language class, everyone is there to really only have one thing as their focus for a set amount of time. That allows a meeting of mind and spirit and emotion that is not possible when the educational anticipation is distended over a semester or a couple of years. 

A: What are you working on right now? 

JWT: Too many things. I am working on two projects with my traveler’s lab students. We are working on version three of a place-based online encyclopedia of medieval Constantinople that will allow people to explore the city in a visual, map-based—rather than indexical Wikipedia topic-based—manner. 

The second project is using text mining to solve an ongoing perplexity in medieval studies, which is how you can compare medieval chronicles with each other. They all seem so similar because they all use relatively short entries which go year by year to convey historical information, narrative, and argument, but no one has been able to crack how you can compare this version of events as opposed to that version of events, even when they’re narrating the same years. My interest, because I’m ultimately an old school historian, is using these ways of reading to reformulate historical research questions you wouldn’t otherwise think of. 

I’m also starting a book in which I hope to explain how every college student needs to understand themselves as a monastic, whose job is to become a citizen. The project is to use the history of medieval monasticism to explain to college students what it means to be under an honor code in a university, and under a constitution in a nation-state. Consequently how in the future constitutional democracies depend on all of us becoming more aware of that connection.

A: What are some hobbies of yours outside your work that you wish you had more time for?

JWT: I love being outside. I wish that I had more time for gardening, hiking, for boating and fishing. I have a canoe, so I like to go out on the rivers here when I can. I love the summers because then I can be in the garden for a couple of hours in the day. I think of gardening as kind of expansive. We have chickens, which I think of as part of the same cycle because you’re using their waste and eggs for compost for different plants. Getting in on that cycle of living on earth—I find it really soothing.

A: You’ve taught in the COL for a long time. What is something that surprised you about teaching in the COL? 

JWT: The students have drawn an emotional self that I had learned to exclude from the classroom, for the sake of professionalism, back into my teaching. It made me realize that in the sort of academic setting that Wesleyan is in general, but the COL is in particular, you cannot engage in learning without being fully present and vulnerable. I’ve had to actually learn with my students, which I do in every class now, in a way that I did not in my first lecture courses as a graduate student. That’s what is so funny, that I had thought that it was not okay to care about my students, when it is okay, in the “Are they doing alright as humans?” and “Am I being there for them?” sense. The COL also makes that possible because it’s a learning community that exists outside the classroom. 

The COL juniors do junior comps in the fall, and it’s always a transformative experience for the group, not just because they study abroad, but because they study together. And when they study together, they are all being necessarily vulnerable with each other regarding their intellectual capabilities, because no one is good at all the texts, and so you really have to rely on peers. Allowing peers to see your intellectual weaknesses and relying on their strengths and vice versa really changes the way you understand what it means to pursue knowledge.

Janhavi Munde can be reached at jmunde@wesleyan.edu.

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