THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED POST-PUBLISHING, BECAUSE PROFESSORS.
Dr. Jana Mathews, associate professor of English and Medieval Literature at Rollins College, has been teaching a course based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and its television adaptation for the past 5 years and it’s arguably one of the coolest things we’ve heard of all year.
Matthews has a perfect 5.0 rating on RateMyProfessor.com.
We had a chance to chat with Mathews over the phone this week to get the low down on her innovative teaching methods and hear a little bit behind the reasoning behind her choice to dissect the works of George R.R. Martin.
Q – Dr. Mathews, you specialize in early medieval and Early Modern British literature, which can be pretty stuffy subject matter at the best of time
A – My time studying lit as an undergrad was primarily with old British men, which is as fun as it sounds. It’s changing generationally as they age out of the system but it was a pretty boring and inaccessible subject when I was in school. It was a class I had to take to check a box but I kept thinking, “We can do better than this.” I wanted to change the way it was presented because I actually loved the material, just not the way it was discussed and dissected in class.
Q – Do you know any older languages?
All medievalists know Old English and Latin, and I also can slog through texts written in medieval law French when required.
Q – What’s the real value in studying historical fiction like this? Is it primarily as a platform to reference historical figures that the characters are similar to?
It’s tempting to want to connect straight lines between historical figures from the past and characters in the show, but Martin isn’t interested in recreating a specific set of individuals from a particular era. In addition to creating composite characters whose personalities and actions are inspired by a number of key historical figures, Martin also reanimates individuals and imagines what would have or could have happened if their fate went a different way. Brienne of Tarth—who as a female knight, bears striking similarities to Joan of Arc, serves as a compelling case in point. What the show invites us to consider is what Joan could have grown into if she had outlived her teenage years.
Q – On a recent WMFE interview you reference more “experiential activities” what’s that all about?
A -Studies show that we all learn best by doing, and the study of medieval literature and culture is no different. I divide members of my class into 5 or 6 different “houses” during the first week of the course. Over the course of the semester, these groups have to compete against each other in a variety of challenges that include performing a medieval magic trick (which they select from a 14th-century witchcraft and sorcery handbook); devising and building a medieval torture implement; and putting medieval song lyrics to music and performing them in our own special Westeros Idol show. While it all may seem to be pretty silly, everything has a purpose. One of the first challenges in the class, for example, asks students to create a House-inspired outfit out of clothing scraps and other weird stuff that I collect throughout the year. Students then have to model their outfits in a fashion show judged by students enrolled in other classes. At the same time as all of this is going on, we examine the way that clothing operates as an instrument of power and social control both in Game of Thrones as well as in medieval sumptuary law (ie. 14th-century dress codes) and poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Q – What is it about “quest” narratives that are so engaging for modern day audiences?
A – We’re all part of a broader epic in our every day lives. ‘Where do I come from?’ and ‘Where am I going?’ are some of the big questions we wrestle with every day. Martin asks those questions in narratively/historically displaced ways, with exaggerated human emotions, but based in animations that we can still identify with.
Q – Do you know of any other courses like this in other colleges?
Rollins is so amazing because so many professors do experiential lessons and they really let us experiment with our curriculum. And sure, other people are teaching Game of Thrones classes, but nobody really teaches it the way I do.
Q – I understand you worked on a script for Arabian Nights Dinner Theatre? Do you do consultation gigs like that often? What’s a dream project like that for you?
A – In 2013 I had the privilege of partnering with an undergraduate student and the owner of Arabian Nights to write a new script for the show whose plotline was grounded more intentionally in the history, literature, and lore of the 12th and 13th centuries. From start to finish, the process took about a year. That experience was transformative for my student (who went on to work for Disney after graduation) as well as for me, as it was both crazy fun, and, at the same time, illustrated that my influence as a medievalist can extend beyond the walls of the college classroom and into the public sphere. I would love to do more work like this in the future.
Q – What can you tell me about your work with sororities and fraternities? You serve as an executive chairman on a fraternity chapter, right?
A – It was a completely random thing! I realized I had to muster an audience for my first semester teaching medieval literature and I was desperate to build a connection with the students after my first class proved to be not really into the material. They couldn’t have been more disinterested. I noted a large number of my students that were taking part in the Greek system; about 50 percent of Rollins undergrads are members of a Greek-letter organization compared to the 10 percent national average. I started shadowing fraternities and sororities to show my interest in what students were doing to get them more interested in what I was teaching. Really, really powerful experience.
Fraternities and sororities are under fire on a national scale right now, and for good reason. I think that the answer to why people keep joining these organizations when there are a lot of reasons not to lies a lot with relationship models we have inherited from the Middle Ages. The fact that there were waiting lists to get into medieval nunneries and monasteries goes a long way in explaining the value and prestige of same-sex platonic friendships today.
Dr. Mathews will be retiring her Game of Thrones course at the end of this season but we know this won’t be the last we hear from her.
Other Mathews-branded courses include “Bad Breakups,” “Dungeons and Dragons,” “Hoarders,” and “Sex, War, and Plague.”