Bryn Athyn College Alumni Magazine Fall/Winter 2017-18 - Page 36

running header Sean Lawing philosophizes with a student. uate work through his doctoral program and into the classrooms where he teaches today. In completing a master’s de- gree in Germanic languages and literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, Sean specialized in medieval lit- erature. His master’s thesis is titled From Superman to Subhuman: The War Cultures in Beowulf and Gret- tis saga. He says, “Though one is Old English and the other Old Icelandic and separated by sev- eral centuries, these two works are thought by some to be analogues (they share motifs and structural similarities derived from a com- mon source). In the thesis, I look at warfare and cultural attitudes towards it in each story to examine how it shapes the protagonists and their lives.” The study of violence is the focus of Sean’s doctoral thesis, which he wrote under the auspic- es of the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Iceland. The dis- sertation is a study of disfigure- ment and disfiguring practices in medieval Iceland as seen in Old Norse laws and Icelandic sagas. In 36 | F A L L / W I N T E R 2 0 1 7 - 1 8 Je'la Watson (BA '17), Kara Cowley (AA '13), Matt Shockley (BA '15), and Sydney La Bat dress up as medieval townsfolk and interact with visitors to the annual Medieval Festival at Glencairn Museum. the preface, Sean explains that the topic has received “only glancing treatment, even though its depic- tion in source texts suggests rele- vance for understanding medieval Icelandic society.” He surmises that this might be due, in part, to the darkness of the subject mat- ter. To avoid addressing the topic head-on, “there has been a ten- dency to rely on intuited meaning rather than on careful analysis.” However, Sean points out that disfigurement is “an ongoing phe- nomenon and hardly constrained to the past.” And so we see the relevance for its study, not only to teach us about a particular cul- ture in a certain time, but to learn about ourselves in the present mo- ment. As a history teacher, Sean ex- plains, “Usually when you teach the past, you want to see if there are connections, similarities with us, with our own customs and rules.” Here, we see this theme of com- mon threads that reach beyond time and demographic to find es- sential qualities of humanity. Sean says, “When studying things like the sagas, they are speaking to us across a millennium. We’re still consuming narratives. History has to speak to us now, has to be rel- evant. It’s these case study analyses that inform us.” In his teaching, Sean tries to get his students to dig beneath textbook interpretations of the history they learn. The basic ques- tion is, “How do we know that?” In forming a response, he tries to get as many primary sources as pos- sible into the students’ hands. Re- ligion is a constant theme in many of his courses, and Sean enjoys contextualizing some of the spiri- tual information that students are learning in religion classes by opening up discussions about top- ics like the trinity or the Nicene Creed. In looking for the right affili- ation for his doctoral work, he had identified the University of Iceland as the premier place to study Ice- landic sagas and describes it as “the Harvard of Old Norse.” Sean wrote to the chair of the Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies department there, and she replied right away. He was already arrang- ing a trip to Iceland with a group