Dr. Michael Treschow is the Head of the Department of English and Cultural Studies, and a researcher and teacher in early English Literature, both Old and Middle English. He was born in Calgary to parents who had immigrated from Denmark after World War II, and grew up in a quiet neighbourhood close to the Elbow River, which in those days was a wonderful playground. After graduating with a BA from the University of Calgary, Treschow began graduate work at Regent College in Old Testament Studies, but after a couple of years, he left Regent to do a Masters and PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. He has lived in Kelowna since 1990.
Dr. Treschow shared some insights on his research and teaching practices here at UBC Okanagan.
Tell us about your research interests.
As a medievalist and Anglo-Saxonist, my scholarship is grounded in the early European tradition. My attention goes primarily to the Anglo-Saxon period (the time of Beowulf), secondarily to the later Middle English period (the time of Chaucer and the Pearl poet), and after that reverts to late antiquity. My large concern is with the transmission and transformation of classical and biblical literature into early English cultural forms. Lately, I have become particularly interested in early expressions of English mysticism in the Anglo-Saxon period. For some years, I have had an eye on the late medieval development of English mystical writing in the fourteenth century, when, for instance, an anonymous writer composed The Cloud of Unknowing (a wondrous invitation into apophaticism), and when Julian of Norwich wrote her beautiful and now celebrated Shewings. But I have begun to perceive expressions of the contemplative and mystical in some Old English writings from several centuries earlier. I am looking to understand how those texts function, how they affect the reader, but also how they developed, what their relationship might be to Carolingian writings in Francia, especially those of John Scottus Eriugena, another eloquent voice of apophaticism.
On another note, I have been working slowly for many years on a digital edition of the Old English Soliloquies (which I call the Soliloquiorum), a translation and adaptation of Augustine’s Soliloquia. Very recently, I have begun to collaborate with a couple of Digital Humanists at the University of Exeter, who are much more expert in XML encoding than I am. It looks like this project may finally have a chance to come to light. This edition intersects with my interest in Old English mysticism, since this text is one of those in which I have begun to discern the contemplative and mystical.
How did you know you wanted to be a professor?
Strangely enough, when I began university, I intended to study Math or Chemistry. On a whim though, I took a course in Ancient Greek which in turn led me to a course on Biblical Hebrew. These old dead languages captivated me. As a result, my undergraduate degree ended up focussing on classical and biblical studies. After I had finished my BA, I took a course on medieval biblical exegesis. It led me to my first encounter with St. Augustine, my first reading of his Confessions and de Doctrina Christiana. With him, I discovered a new way to read that came to me as something entirely refreshing. At the same time, I was taking a side interest in my own Danish heritage, especially the heroic age of the North. I read Beowulf and some Old Norse Sagas, and began looking more closely at Tolkien and his scholarship on things northern. Thus, I found my way into the Anglo-Saxon period, especially the time of Alfred the Great, when both Augustine’s salutary writings and the brutal invasions of the Vikings were in play. That period caught my attention entirely, with the wealth of understanding that it offers. I started into it and just kept going. The clearest path was into the professoriate.
What kind of learning experiences do you offer your students?
Formative ones, I hope. In the classroom, I rely on Aristotle’s insight that stories have a kinship with philosophy. A good story has both intellectual and emotional power. It brings about a sense of wonder, which, as Socrates said, is the beginning of philosophy. The academic investigation of the literary text is a way of taking care to notice its wonders and investigate them. It takes a bit of work, though, to develop the philological skills for that investigation: grammatical, linguistic, historical, and conceptual. One of my favourite books to teach is The Hobbit, though I haven’t taught it for a very long time. It is wonderful when we come to consider Gandalf’s concluding words: “My dear Bilbo! Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.” We as a class, a small scholarly community, have journeyed with Bilbo “there and back again.” Gandalf invites Bilbo, and us, into a profound moment, a reflection on the getting of virtue and wisdom.
What most excites you about your field of work?
Editing an early text from an old and damaged manuscript is painstaking, but it can be extremely satisfying work. The puzzles and problems that a manuscript presents bring challenges, sometimes insoluble ones. Working through them as best one can is what brings the text into the light, even with gaps, flaws, deficiencies. Preparing a digital edition adds further layers of complication, but with valuable analytic possibilities.
What I most appreciate in my work is the adventure of reading old, outdated books in old, outdated languages. That may seem escapist, and it may well be sometimes. But it can be a good thing to escape, as Tolkien says in “On Fairy Stories.” My reading is also often difficult and painstaking work, but when I pay attention, I sometimes find the task becomes more about the text reading me than me reading it. Much as that may feel discomforting, it can also be like a dip in the ocean, that refreshes and renews for the drudgery of other things.