Lenfest 2015 Winners: Patricia Dailey

March 09, 2015

Patricia Dailey, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, specializes in medieval literature and critical theory, adapting her teaching style to individual classes.

“If I’m teaching a dead language [such as Old English, the language of the epic poem Beowulf], structure is necessary, but I want to motivate students to appropriate the material in meaningful ways, guided by their own interests.”

In her research and courses, Dailey focuses on a wide range of subjects including women’s mystical texts, Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose, contemporary philosophy and literary theory, affect studies and medieval theology.

She looks for connections between past and present, seeking to cultivate intellectual openness in her students that is historically informed yet can find links between contemporary thought and medieval texts.

Her 2013 book, Promised Bodies: Time, Language, and Corporeality in Medieval Women’s Mystical Texts, examines relationships between gender, time, the body and language in medieval mystical texts, especially those of the 13th century mystic Hadewijch, the first woman poet in the Dutch vernacular.

Her next book project, Responsive Subjects: Affect and Anglo-Saxon Literature, is, in essence, “on how literature teaches, how it elicits various kinds of response and translates those responses into new experiential landscapes for readers.”

Dailey has found the mix of students in her classes and the resulting interdisciplinary approach fascinating. In her seminar, ‘The Intelligence of Affect’, students from Teachers College studied affect in the high school classroom, medievalists worked on passion in medieval mystics, literature students concentrated on Nietzsche and Djuna Barnes, and a Journalism School student examined contemporary photography and affect. “Their different perspectives and methodologies sparked incredible conversations,” she said.

This spring she is teaching a class on Beowulf in which she and her students are translating the poem from Old English into contemporary English. She also directs the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality.

“My best teachers were passionate about what they did and rigorous in working through ideas,” she said. “They weren’t mentors in the traditional sense, but communicated wonderful ways of inhabiting their material.”

Dailey, who has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, arrived at Columbia in 2004 after a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern. “Fate drew me to both medieval literature and contemporary philosophy,” she says. “Both are thrillingly disorienting in the way they allow you to perceive and experience things. Medieval literature has a long historic distance, but there is also something strangely familiar about it, something in it that seems intuitive.”

—by Eve Glasberg