Prof. Susan Crane Retires

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

After fifteen years of teaching at Columbia, Professor Susan Crane is retiring this Fall, leaving behind an exceptionally close group of colleagues in her field and a generation of new scholars in medieval studies inspired by her work and teaching. “Her intellectual legacy here at Columbia and in the field more broadly will continue to inform cutting-edge research for years to come, not only in the areas of romance and courtly culture, for which she is perhaps best known, but also in the areas of animal studies and ecological philosophy,” says colleague Eleanor Johnson.

Crane introduced thousands of students to the dynamism of medieval literature in her survey lectures, a job made easier by the dauntless attitude many students had toward reading literature from the period. “I’m grateful to our undergraduates for their adventurous curiosity,” Crane says. Taylor Cowdery, who took “English Literature to 1500” as a senior at Columbia, had little interest in the vernacular texts that made up the majority of the course’s bibliography. “Susan’s class managed to change all of that rather quickly,” Cowdery recalls, adding that Crane “was a dynamic and entertaining lecturer, and most importantly for me, she brought serious theoretical rigor to the way that she approached a literary tradition that many, including my twenty-one-year-old self, tend to assume is dusty and conservative.” This year’s valedictorian, Michael Abolafia, was also uniquely impressed by Crane’s teaching and calls her Medieval Performances seminar “one of the intellectual highlights” of his literary studies at Columbia. “Professor Crane’s cogent melding of theory and practice always struck me as pitch-perfect,” Abolafia explains, “and her willingness to freely cross disciplines—our syllabus included everything from poetry to drama to contemporary texts on performance theory, not to mention accounts of inquisitorial trials, woodcuts, illuminations, and surprisingly relevant films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail—is inspiring and exemplary.”

In recent years, Crane has taught survey lectures on Chaucer, British Literature to 1500, and European Literature in the Middle Ages as well as seminars on “Medieval Animals,” “Medieval Environments,” and “Medieval Romance.” Most of her seminars were aimed at graduate students, a group with whom she worked especially closely over the years as Director of Graduate Studies. “Our graduate students have impressed me not only with their brilliance, but even more with their support for one another,” Crane said, adding that “they model what a scholarly community can be.”

Shayne Legassie had already finished his graduate coursework and was at the early stages of his dissertation when Crane came to Columbia in 2002. Despite not having taught him, Crane not only agreed to supervise the dissertation but did so without asking questions. This first leap of faith formed a supportive and energetic relationship between Legassie and Crane, which lasted long after the dissertation was defended. “Now that I have Ph.D. students of my own, I marvel not infrequently at the patience, tact, and compassion with which Susan saw me through my first article rejection, my first unsuccessful job search, and several of the other minor calamities that attend a typical stint in graduate school,” says Legassie.

Another former Ph.D. advisee, Prof. Kathleen Smith, emphasized how Crane’s teaching impacted her life as a student and later as a professor at American University. “We often say that great teachers teach us how to think, but what this means and how it's achieved is often mystified,” Smith points out. For Smith, Crane’s mentorship was always rooted in the writing process; “I returned to the material again and again and learned to reshape it, to confront and explore the inconsistencies in it with curiosity instead of aversion, and to understand how the subtleties of style could affect my argument.” Ellen Rentz, now a professor at Claremont McKenna College, has a remarkably similar point to make; “What a life raft those little boxes in the margins could be! I suppose I’ve internalized her mentoring over the years: sometimes when I’m stuck on a paragraph, I find myself imagining what Susan would say about it. I hope I can be that voice for my own students, too.”

All of those responding to our call for comments mentioned her immediate willingness to put her students and mentees first, a quality perhaps best summarized by Cowdery: “it’s this outward-looking quality, her genuine curiosity and kindness in talking to others, that I think really defines Susan, both as a person and as a scholar.”

On having worked together in the department, Emeritus Professor Paul Strohm describes Crane as “a colleague who unites rather than divides” and says “experiencing her professional generosity and clear-eyed judgment, immensely enriched my own Columbia experience.” For Crane, this appreciation for her peers is mutual: “intellectual friendships with so many faculty in and beyond our department have left their traces in everything I publish.” Eleanor Johnson, a junior faculty member in the field also expressed this affinity between colleagues: “Personally, I'm eager to see what her next book will bring to our attention, because it is very difficult to picture Susan ever straying too far from the study of medieval literature and culture.”

Susan Crane earned her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and taught at Rutgers before coming to Columbia in 2002. Calling her tenure at Columbia, “the most rewarding of my career,” Crane obviously has mixed feelings about leaving: “I can’t say I regret accepting a lifetime sabbatical from TIAA-CREF, but I will sorely miss the daily enterprise of teaching and writing in such excellent company.”