Life as a Medievalist in the Zoom Era: an Interview with Dr. Juliette Vuille

Image: © Juliette Vuille.

Author: Lex Rodriguez

Lex: How are you doing today?

Dr. Juliette Vuille: I’m fine, thank you. I’m moving house, so I’m just packing up my apartment, it’s pretty exciting. It’s Monday morning, I’ve just finished correcting mock midterm exams and now I’m seeing you so you are the highlight of my day! Last weekend my friends decided to have a barbecue to enjoy the nice weather but when we arrived it started raining so – oh well!

How did this very odd rentrée go for you?

I think it was a little bit depressing simply because when we moved everything online last semester, there seemed to be an end in sight. We’re now all in semi-confinement again, without much of an idea of when this is going to end. Last time, teaching on Zoom, transferring exactly the same type of teaching we had in person online, was not fun: it was a lot of work. It was ok because I thought, “Well, it’s going to end soon and next semester will be better.”

Since this is my last year at the University and I really like to teach, it was a little bit depressing to see that there’s no end in sight. But by now I think I’m getting into the groove of things! I think the first three weeks were hard, because we didn’t know for the longest time what would happen and how much we’d be able to teach, or how. I had this idea that if teaching was going to be online, I wanted to change what I was going to do, and especially how I was going to do it, because it’s not the same thing to teach online or “en présentiel.” So I thought there’s no point in trying to do a seminar on the same subject, and maybe it would be nice to take advantage of the possibilities of online teaching: my goal was to create a class for which the final project would be to update some Wikipedia entries about medieval English Women, which are so often overlooked, as well as female scholars who have focused on gender in the medieval period. Things like that would have been cool. But then the Décanat told us “you need to keep exactly the same thing because it might move en présentiel and then might be back online.”

I teach a class on Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century mystic who is very drama-drama-drama! She has fourteen children, she tries to become a brewer and a miller, and then she has visions of God: she gets married to God in Rome and she goes on pilgrimages everywhere… She also cries all the time, which makes her a super annoying dinner guest. I was thinking it might be a good idea to use the component of being online for this class, even though we needed to keep the same subjects. So I created a Twitter handle for the class (@MargeryRocks), and all the students actually tweet out memes every week – and they’re really good! This woman lends herself particularly well to memes and it’s been pretty funny, but also a great didactic tool. Creating those memes is actually a good way for students to clarify for themselves key concepts, and really get the gist out of the reading. It’s been going pretty well.

What classes are you teaching this semester?

I am teaching that class on Margery Kempe, a woman who was accused of heresy and who represents very much the limits of acceptable behaviour in the Medieval Period, especially for women in the public space. That’s a third year class. I’m using her as a limit case for students to grasp the historical context of the time, such as notions of heresy, affective piety, and the practice of pilgrimage. Since she always skirts the unacceptable, she is a great tool to understand what, in fact, is! Besides this one, I have a second year class on the House of Fame by Chaucer, which focuses more on literary authority and intertextuality. I’m having students read bits of Virgil, Ovid, Dante or the Roman de la Rose, for example at the same time as they read the House, so they can gauge how Chaucer is using all of those sources and is referring to them time and again. In the “Discovery” class, you get to study Chaucer but you never get to see how intertextual he really is, how he’s bouncing off ideas that exist somewhere else. If you only have Chaucer to read, you don’t really understand what amazing things he’s doing to the dream vision genre. That’s been really cool. I don’t really know about the students, but I know I’ve really been enjoying myself! Those are the only two classes I’m teaching, only four hours this semester!

We only have one to two MA classes per semester in medieval now. We used to only have one, taught each semester by Professor Renevey, but I really wanted to teach some MA classes, so when Rory Critten and myself arrived three years ago, we lobbied to be able to teach one each every year. I love teaching MA seminars, and I allows us to have students who want to do their mémoires with us as well!

You had to take care of the timetables, so how did everything go in relation to the covid regulations?

Every person in the administrative department has their little hat on, so for example I take care, with other people, of the social media page on Facebook. My biggest job by far though, is the timetable, which I work on with Ana Gomes Correia, the doctoral assistant in American Literature, who is really good. Usually we start compiling the timetable every year, it’s about 120 different classes, and the goal is not to have any clashes between classes of the same level, especially MAs (because we don’t have many such seminars) but also second and third years. Once we removed as many clashes as we can, there’s one form per class that has to be filled, with a different code depending on what you can validate it in. So for example if you have a third year class that you can do as an option, in medieval, or in gender studies then it will have different codes for each of these validations. We then have to check all of those codes.

This year, things weren’t so different, because we had no choice over what was going to happen, and therefore prepared everything as usual. It was the Décanat dealing with the Rectorat – so between the University that wanted to keep a third of the teaching en présentiel with a token system, and the Décanat, which disagreed. It was also a back-and-forth with the Canton, because they had to validate it as well so we were all waiting to know what was going to happen. When we were told, there was a bit of work to deal with new “covid size” classroom occupancy, as each room was evaluated and its occupancy was reduced by about a third. Occupancy is always a problem even in normal times, as you probably have experienced by having to sit on the window-sill for some of your popular seminars! So we had to move a lot of classes around and then we realised it was all for nothing because most of those classes were not happening in person! Now a lot of people are teaching from 8:30 to 10 because we had to change that and everybody had already made their timetable. It was a little tricky, but not as much as you may think. The Décanat did the main part of the work and were key in the decision-making process. I think that their decision to keep as many of the first-year workshops en présentiel was a good one. The transition from high school to university can be tough, and last year I saw that a lot of first year students lost track of classes when it all moved online. It was a good idea, therefore, to keep as many first-year workshops as possible in person, I just wish I were teaching first-year classes this semester! At the same time, I think that in the next couple of weeks, everything is moving back online anyway. (Editor’s note: this interview was conducted on the 26th of October)

Do you have any classes en présence?

Lex: I have one class that is taught “en commodal” which means that the students who have the right colour token can physically go to uni, and the rest of the students follow online, which is a bit weird honestly.

Juliette: I’m part of the Conseil de Faculté and a lot of the students are saying “if you’re moving things back on campus (which is what has been happening in the past few weeks) only to move then back online again, it needs to be “commodal,” but this type of teaching is not ideal for teachers. And “commodal” is funny to me because “commode” is an old-fashioned word for toilet in English so it makes me laugh! I taught this MA seminar in the context of the SPEC MA in medieval studies (overseen by the CEMEP) (editor’s note: Juliette was in charge of organising this spécialisation programme last year), and we organised conferences and public lectures at the Palais the Rumine for this. The last time I taught in person was on the 13th of March, for one of the mini-conferences for this SPEC MA! It feels such a long time ago! Last semester, my MA seminar which was linked to this SPEC moved online, and the students only had my voice and a PowerPoint, which must have been really boring for them. This SPEC MA, however, is not only lectures, but is also intended to develop “professionalizing skills”, often involving practical work in archives or museums. So for example one of my students was scheduled to help Ramona Fritschi, the archivist of the BCU, in cataloguing the Special Collections’ medieval manuscripts – because there actually isn’t a catalogue of them yet. Since however everything closed, we had to find something else for the students who needed to do practical work. I managed to find images of an as-yet unedited Middle English text, which the student transcribed, and which we are now planning on publishing as an edition!

If we take an optimistic point of view, what are some positive aspects of this situation?

Well, all my students know my cat now! (We laugh) I think one positive aspect for me as a researcher is that in normal times we go to a lot of conferences overseas, especially during the Summer. Since most were cancelled this year, there was much more time for research and just to read. So that was nice, I managed to finish my first book! Holy Harlots in Medieval English Religious Literature: Authority, Exemplarity and Femininity. I also had time to do more work on my other project which is about messenger figures in Chaucer’s works, and how they act as metapoetic devices for the author to represent himself in his poems, as a poet transmitting stories just as messenger convey news. In other ways, the situation had a negative impact, because it gets really tiresome to communicate with other researchers via Zoom and Skype. But actually this type of communication also allowed me to get closer to my colleagues based in the US because I’m always home and we Skype every day. On the other hand, I communicate less with my colleagues in Lausanne. So there’s good and bad!

For teaching, I don’t know… Some teachers said that some students contribute more via Zoom than they used to in person. But the problem is that some students don’t have access to a good internet connection or a good microphone so they’re effectively silenced by technology, a real shame, and something that discriminates between well off students and others. That’s why I do my best to record my classes, but then there are legal problems with that as well, because one has to make sure that it’s alright to record the Zoom meeting with every student. Also, there’s the problem of students who have several classes at the same time. Sometimes they might choose to never go to the one class that is recorded, and as you may know, watching something that is recorded takes twice as much time than actually following it live. For example, you pause the recording because you didn’t understand something, and you can’t ask questions, and so on, so it’s not that great. This is a very unusual situation, and trying to pretend as though it’s the same as before, and that people can learn the same way they could in person, or that you can do the same amount of work is illusory. So I’ve been trying to adapt it. I tried to plan the same amount of work for my classes as usual, but I realised, “this is not going to happen” so I altered some readings because in class we don’t have time to discuss all the material. Everything takes more time: for instance, you start the class and you have to wait for everyone to connect, or you create a breakout room and people take time to leave, and come back.

Are you on campus sometimes or do you only work from home?

I try to go to campus once a week, but last week it’s been recommended that we don’t come. I have this very nice apartment, very medieval because it’s right next to the cathedral of Lausanne, but it’s been a bit claustrophobic: it doesn’t have a balcony or anything. Right now I’m talking to you from my kitchen table, which doubles as my office desk! This led me to decide to move to the mountains, near Sion in Valais where I’m going to rent a chalet with a garden, for the same price as this apartment! Right now, there’s no point being in town, really. I’m moving for a year. In the future I think I’m going to go on campus twice a week to have meetings and go to the library. Right now I usually just go to the library and come back home. I have the chance, unlike most people, to be able to work from home completely: I can do almost everything online, apart from going to the library. It’s just a little bit depressing to stay in my apartment, so I like going on campus but I don’t know for how long I’m going to be able to do that. The recommendation is “don’t go if you don’t have to” and sadly I don’t always have to.

Now for more personal quarantine-related questions. Do you have a favourite mask?

I have quite a few of the fabric ones, I wash them all the time. I do like to accessorize so if I’m wearing red, I wear a red mask.

We all talk about COVID-19 a lot and we all have different names to call it. Some people came up with creative names like “the Rona.” Do you have a favourite way to refer to it?

I guess I just use “the pandemic” but I feel everybody is always talking about it, so I mostly just try and avoid the subject.

What did you binge-watch during quarantine?

I think that, surprisingly, I watched less TV than usual! But to answer the question, well, there are stupid things I like to wath. There’s what I call “massage of the brain” TV series, like Brooklyn 99. What is cool about that show is that they develop a very specific language, and with my friends we speak like the characters and meet up on Zoom to watch the show together. We have private jokes about it, and even matching t-shirts (pineapple sluts, anyone?). Apart from that, I’ve been watching movies, French movies, Japanese movies, … I haven’t watched so many TV shows.

Now a few questions to get the readers to know you better! Do you have a favourite beverage at the moment?

Let me think about it… Well I have some friends who have a brewery called La Mine and their beers all have names with “mine” in it, like “La Parchemine,” which I of course love because I’m a medievalist geek (laughs). Otherwise, I’ve been drinking artisanal beer from local breweries in Suisse Romande. Ever since I’ve lived in England where there are so many artisanal beers from microbreweries, I’ve been interested in them and in ale. I also like gin and tonic and whiskey. Otherwise, I’m a big tea and coffee drinker. I always have my cup of tea when I’m teaching. Kevin Curran and I always have a cup when we teach, and we often teach in adjoining rooms, so we often run into each other while going to our respective classrooms each with our own cup! I have my special cup that I like to use for teaching. It’s all black but when you pour hot water into it, it reveals a manuscript page.

What’s the last book you’ve finished reading?

I’m always reading four or five books at the same time. Right now I’m reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, she’s an amazing author. It’s about an Indian scientist who immigrates to the US. I’m also reading the end of the Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. She mostly writes historical novels. She won the Booker prize for the first two books in this trilogy. It’s about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the VIIIth. What impressed me about her is that, in my research I have studied an early XVIth century mystic, Elizabeth Barton, who is commonly referred to as the first martyr of Henry the VIIIth’s reformation. Barton only constitutes a quite insignificant character in Mantel’s book, but she had read all of the sources I had found on her for my research! That is very impressive for a fiction writer. However her last book is a bit too long, if I am honest, that’s why I read Lahiri at the same time.

Quickfire round!
Cats or dogs?

I’m usually a dog person but I got roped into adopting a cat and I love her!

Christmas or Halloween?


Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter?

Very good question! I would say Lord of the Rings because I read it as a child and I loved it. But Harry Potter is how I learned English. I had never done English at school (preferring the infinitely more useful Ancient Greek as an option), so when I was 17 and wanted to take English at Uni, I went to England and there read Harry Potter in English, as it was not too difficult for a beginner to read, so I associate it with one of the best discoveries of my life: the English language.

Chocolate: dark, milk or white?

Dark and milk chocolate, the ones that are real chocolate (laughs). White is too sugary.

So that was all for today! Thank you very much Juliette!

I really miss human contact so whenever I can get a bit of it through Zoom, I really appreciate it. Chatting with Juliette was really nice and enjoyable!

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