School of Liberal Arts Professor Moira Fitzgibbons teaches a variety of literary-based classes to Marist students. She covers subjects ranging from Gender to Chaucer to Children’s Literature. She is also the director of Marist’s Core program of studies and a driving force behind the Common Read.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
Well, I’ve been teaching for about 20 years now. I was teaching as a grad student and then I had a job out in Washington State for three years, which was very interesting to teach in another part of the country. I got my first tenure-track job 17 years ago and now I’ve been at Marist for 14 years. But I was actually really excited to come teach here because I actually knew about the school already, even growing up. My mom was a high school teacher and she would write college recommendation letters for students, and she had this idea of who a “Marist kid” was. It basically meant that the student would do well in a close community and was an outward focused student. When I was in grad school, this was the kind of school I wanted to work at.
What would you consider to be your academic "expertise" and how did you develop this?
My primary area of expertise is medieval studies. As a graduate student, I studied Old French, Old English, Latin, and paleography (medieval handwriting), as well as literature in many medieval genres of writing. I also have worked with medieval manuscripts at wonderful places such as the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the New York Public Library in Manhattan. There is nothing quite like seeing the doodles, cross-outs, and erasures made by a scribe 500 years ago. I have also learned a great deal from teaching literature to undergraduates. Until I taught, for example, I didn't know how much better Old English poetry works when it's read out loud. But now I read aloud--in the original and in translation--as often as possible, and I really think it makes the poetry come alive.
Why do you think it is important to study literature?
I think everyone should learn about the richness of our language and about ways to use words skillfully and creatively. I also think there's something striking about reading stories from a time period and culture that in many ways is so different from our own. Even with all the changes that have taken place, there are certain human preoccupations--love, humor, adventure--that emerge in the older works as well as in our culture. Having the ability to see areas of connection, even while also acknowledging differences, requires both mental agility and cultural competency. And these are two things that serve people well in their future lives as citizens and professionals. Medieval texts can be so weird and surprising! Reading these works, and talking them over with students, gives me new lenses for looking at the world.
As the Core director, how do you think students benefit from this curriculum?
The Core gives students the opportunity to develop their skills as writers, critical thinkers, researchers, and speakers. The First Year Seminar is designed to focus on all these skills and to give students an academic experience that moves beyond the high school classroom experience. The Core also gives students the chance to move beyond whatever they choose as their major. Marist students are encouraged to develop a mini-minor in a topic that adds a new dimension to their major.
What has been your favorite part of the common read experience?
I really value the chance to have students see the book's writer in person, delivering the Common Read talk on campus. For students who are open to this experience, it can be a great reminder that writers are just regular human beings... they have just become so passionate about something that they're willing to go to the trouble of publishing their work. It's really interesting, too, to see how a writer's personality can (or can't) be predicted from the book itself.
What is the most important thing you hope students will take away from one of your classes?
I hope students will realize what wonderful resources they are for one another. I have been fortunate enough to teach many terrific classes here. In the very best cases--for example, in the First Year Seminars I taught in Fall 2015 and in Fall 2016--students work with one another in open-minded ways and draw from each other's different life experiences as they work on course material. I am still good friends with many people from my undergraduate years, and they have helped me at many different stages in my life. If those relationships can be established within my courses, I will really feel as if my students have gained something valuable that will always be helpful to them.
What do you think makes you unique as a Professor?
This isn't exactly unique, but I am truly obsessed with words--their history, their use in different contexts, etc. Every time we use a word, we are using a kind of archeological artifact with its own traditions and history. Think of the difference between "chicken" and "poultry"--doesn't the latter word sound more formal and fancy than "chicken" does? Well, there are a whole bunch of historical reasons for that, including the fact that for a while, French was the language of literature and law in the medieval English court. I love working with students on these histories and on new words and usages in our language, particularly as they emerge on social media.
Any advice for incoming students?
Freshman year, just take a breath, be a freshman, and calm down. It’s such a rat race. I have two kids in high school right now. My advice from sophomore year onward is to major in anything that you’re passionate about, but no matter what you major in, be strategic. The future is not going to just land in your lap. And moreover, don’t be the “plain vanilla” version of whatever your major is. Come up with some unique combination of things that reflects who you are and integrate that into your experience. That makes a difference when you’re putting yourself out there in the real world.
What book recommendation would you make to Marist students and why?
That's a fun question! I'd pick up anything by Jacqueline Woodson. Her work encompasses both children's and YA work, but she's so thoughtful and reflective that her work really can appeal to anyone. I taught her book Maizon at Blue Hill in Children's Lit this past semester, and it generated some great class discussions about the importance, and the limitations, of education in changing a person's life.
Profile Tags:Profile Type: Faculty
Academic School: Liberal Arts
Campus: New York