Monday, June 01, 2009

Interview with Olivia Remie Constable, Director of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute

Olivia Remie Constable, Professor of History, has been appointed to a five-year term as the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Professor Constable has been serving as the acting Director of the Medieval Institute since July 2008, while continuing her work on the economic, social, and urban history of the medieval Mediterranean world, especially contacts among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in this region.

We interviewed Professor Constable to ask her about her goals for improving the Medieval Institute:

1. You have been the acting director for close to a year now. Is it relief to drop the 'acting' from the title and now be secure in the knowledge that you have this role for the next 5 years?

In many ways, the shift from acting director to full director does not actually mark a big shift. In fact, it was helpful to have a full year to learn the job and to decide whether I liked it, before being given the opportunity to take it on for a longer term. On the other hand, much of the work of being director involves long term plans, such as inviting speakers and organizing future conferences. So it is nice, as full director, to be able to foresee guiding our current plans to fruition over the next few years. Also, since the director of the Medieval Institute is also the director of our graduate program in Medieval Studies, it is rewarding to know that I have several years to oversee the progress and successes of our students.

2. What will be your priorities in developing and growing the Medieval Institute over the next five years?

We currently have an initiative to build our program in Byzantine studies, with the hire of new faculty members in History and Theology, and the creation of a graduate program in that area. We also have new strength in medieval musicology, with Notre Dame's recent hire of Margot Fassler and Peter Jeffrey, and we plan to create a new graduate track in medieval music.

3. A challenge of any academic program is maintaining and increasing its financial resources. Do you have any concerns that the current economic downturn in the United States could affect the Medieval Institute?

Obviously, any academic program needs to maintain and hopes to increase its funding. However, we have been lucky that during the current economic downturn, Notre Dame has been somewhat less badly hit than some universities because of a very prudent policies for the endowment and careful investing. We will certainly feel the tighter economy, but I do not foresee any serious long-term impact on our medieval programs. Because Medieval Studies is so prominent at Notre Dame, and fits so well with the mission of the university, I do not think that our programs are in danger of major budget cuts. Also, as well as funding from the university, the Medieval Institute has its own endowment, through the generosity of Robert M. Conway, one of the trustees of the university, and this provides significant assistance to our programing.

4. What do you think are the strengths of your institute and Notre Dame University in doing research and teaching about the Middle Ages?

Our primary strengths are in our faculty (we have over sixty medievalists drawn from a dozen different departments), our excellent library resources, and our solid financial support from the university. Our greatest strength focuses on medieval Latin Europe, but we are growing stronger in coverage of the Islamic World and the Greek East.

5. Finally, you are also working on your own project "Muslims in Medieval Europe". Could you tell us a little bit about what this entails?

This project looks at issues in the daily life of Muslims (both free people and slaves) living under Christian rule in Spain, Italy, and France in the period 1100-1400. I am especially interested in the different ways in which Christians perceived and even facilitated Muslim identity, and the ways in which attitudes shifted over the period of three centuries.