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UMNews: Full stream ahead: One professor’s passion for language, history and culture


Ray Wakefield
Photo by Kelly MacWilliams
Ray Wakefield as Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the 1970s he would walk the University in costume, signing up curious students for his Dutch classes.

For many years, the University’s Dutch program hosted an annual visitor from the Netherlands, an up-and-coming young author who would spend the year teaching and writing in the Twin Cities. And every year Ray Wakefield, an associate professor of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch, would take the visitor to his cabin on the North Shore for the quintessentially Minnesota experience of standing in a frigid current late at night during the April smelt run, a mass migration of tiny fish in the streams that feed Lake Superior.

One year Wakefield ruptured his Achilles tendon in a volleyball game several weeks before the trip. He never considered canceling it, nor the end-of-the-school-year fish fry that traditionally followed. So there he was, wading into the icy spring water at midnight in a full leg cast, showing a Dutchman how to position his net to catch smelt.

“One of the graduate students was with us, and every time my crutch would fall out from under me and begin to float away, she would run and grab it and bring it back to me,” Wakefield recalls, laughing.

A newcomer to Minnesota in 1969, he founded the Dutch program in 1970. Under his stewardship, the program grew into one of the largest and best known in the nation. The Dutch writers he brought to campus put Minnesota on the map for Dutch readers.

“The experiences these writers had [in Minnesota] would show up in novels, books, essays. Dutch readers know more about Minnesota than we would think,” Wakefield says.

A teacher of language, history, and culture, he has been a force behind significant developments.

A decade into his career here, he headed a task force that overhauled foreign language instruction at the university. Collaborating with federal initiatives and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Wakefield helped implement at Minnesota national standards for better assessment of students’ proficiency in foreign languages. Proficiency tests, he explains, put everyone — university and high-school faculty, prospective employers — on the same page in evaluating a student.

He also helped shift the teaching of languages toward a way that seems obvious now. His colleague Klaas van der Sanden describes it as “thinking that one might actually learn how to use the language in real-life situations, instead of by going through grammar rules in meaningless exercises, like a thousand versions of ‘Father’s pipe is made of clay.’ ” Thirty years ago, though, it represented a break with established methods.

For Wakefield, nothing quite compares to the thrill of teaching students about Medieval culture. His courses, he says, aim at replacing romanticized ideas about knights in shining armor and damsels in distress with a complex picture of a radically different way of life.

For instance, Medieval culture is steeped in communal rather than personal identity, a fact that alters ideas about something as fundamental as justice. Sexually assaulting a married woman of noble birth, for example, was a criminal act not because it violated the dignity of the victim, but because it incited large-scale acts of violence.

“The rights of the women involved aren’t mentioned at all,” Wakefield says of Medieval transcripts of judicial proceedings. “The disturbance of the communal peace of the kingdom is the key. Not the individuals — that’s insignificant. It’s the fact that the king’s knights are killed, that a melee has erupted, that the peace is disturbed.”

To get students to understand this and other values of the Middle Ages, Wakefield shows films that capture the period’s idiosyncrasies, like the French film Perceval le Gallois, in which characters communicate with stylized gestures and appear taller than trees, as they do in Medieval manuscript illuminations. Monty Python and the Holy Grail also makes the cut. Buried in its silliness are rich allusions to Medieval culture that reflect the scholarly background of the film’s creators. “Almost everything in the film that seems too outrageous to be true ties into the studies of the authors at Cambridge and Oxford,” Wakefield says.

Once his students have analyzed these portrayals of the Middle Ages, Wakefield turns the tables on them and has them write and produce a scene that could be added to one of the films. They then show the scenes to the class and write an analysis explaining how their historical knowledge informed their decisions on location, props, lines, gestures, and locations; every detail must fit into their analysis of the Middle Ages. This exercise, Wakefield says, leads to historical research and more sophisticated analysis than merely analyzing an existing text.

Decorated by the Dutch
In a career punctuated by awards, Ray Wakefield has received none cooler than becoming an officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau, the equivalent of Dutch knighthood, awarded by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1991. Most recently, he received the College of Liberal Arts Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award for 2007-08.

The results, he says, are both inspiring and voluminous. “I have to put limits on the analysis, because some of these students would write a small book,” Wakefield says.

But getting carried away by the material is part of the learning process, and he himself has no fear of going out on a limb to capture their attention.

A few years back, he was teaching a class on Medieval poetry as part of his German Civilization and Culture course. He wanted the students to hear the distinctive beauty of sounds from a mystic poem of the period: the reduction of its every line to one scintillating, rhyming syllable, the majestic sense of repetition that captured his imagination when he was a first-semester graduate student. And so, on a whim, he closed his eyes, took a breath, and began to recite aloud.

When he finished, he opened his eyes to a sea of faces with mouths agape. So caught up was he in the beauty of the poem that he didn’t notice how shocked the students were, unaccustomed to seeing their professors burst into sonorous recitation.

He thinks that moment had something to do with a comment he received on his student evaluations at the end of the semester.

“The student said, ‘It was really intense. I thought sometimes his head would explode,'” Wakefield laughs. “And I thought, ‘Maybe I should cut down a little bit.’ “

Luckily for his students and colleagues, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

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