By: Tucker Million
After completing just one year of my undergraduate education I received my first exposure to the professional world of historians. While I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I saw at the International Congress on Medieval Studies back in 2014, I have made the trip every year since and am now able to look back on that experience fondly. That first conference, coincidently, included two panels in honor of Richard Kaeuper, Professor of History at the University of Rochester. I sat quietly near the back and observed as his former students presented papers on violence in the Middle Ages, a topic which interested me then as it does now. Yet each presenter started off by first acknowledging the impact of Prof. Kaeuper’s mentorship on their time at the U of R. This is the first time I can recall noticing people speaking highly of Professor Kaeuper’s prowess as a teacher although as I progressed through undergrad and, eventually, made it to Rochester myself, I noticed that it was a common theme.
Three years from that conference in Kalamazoo and a similar group of scholars, myself included this time, braved the sweltering heat and came together in June at Saint Louis University’s beautiful campus to once more honor Professor Kaeuper with a mini-conference on chivalry at the Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Many of the panelists, this time across three panels of papers, two roundtables, and a keynote address by Prof. Kaeuper, once again spoke at length about how important Professor Kaeuper’s mentorship, as much as his scholarship, has shaped their own careers. The speech given during the presentation of Professor Kaeuper’s festschrift, Prowess, Piety, and Public Order in Medieval Society (Edited by Craig Nakashian and Daniel Franke) was particularly illuminating in terms of how much respect his former students hold for him. In my conversations with some of the other conference attendees it became clear to me that most people are only familiar with Professor Kaeuper through his scholarship. This is certainly a loss.
I know that I always look forward to our meetings – often spur of the moment as he comes in to clean out his coffee cup in the graduate lounge and asks if we can speak for a few moments – because I know that my current project will greatly benefit from talking it through with him and that I will learn a great deal from his own ongoing projects. He is always understanding, encouraging, and, above all else, willing to help. I like to think that I go to his office for work but stay for his stories, which few can parallel in scope and sheer impressiveness.
Yet, I feel as though I have stolen the spotlight here. I have spent only a single year here at Rochester and so I cannot hope to properly convey how widely Professor Kaeuper’s influence stretches and how deeply he has impacted his students. For that, I have asked a few of his most recent graduate students, specifically those at the conference in St Louis, to reflect upon the time they spent in the very room from which I write this, just around the corner from Professor Kaeuper’s office. They have been most generous in what they have supplied:
[Picture Caption: Professor Kaeuper with the contributors to his Festschrift. They, along with others, gathered from June 19-20 to present papers in his honor as well as witness the official presentation of Prowess, Piety, and Public Order in Medieval Society. From back-left to front-right: Peter Sposato, Chris Guyol, Daniel Franke, Thomas Devaney, Sam Claussen, Paul Dingman, Richard Kaeuper, Craig Nakashian, and Leah Shopkow]
Craig Nakashian (PhD 2009)
When Tucker asked me to contribute some words on my experiences under the guidance of Dick Kaeuper, I readily and happily agreed. I’ve written more fully about Dick’s role as a mentor in the foreword to “Prowess, Piety, and Public Order in Medieval Society” (buy it now!), so I hope that you will indulge a bit of self-plagiarism here. With the festschrift successfully completed, and having had the wonderful opportunity to present it to Dick after his keynote address at the Chivalry and Its Anxieties conference at Saint Louis University this summer, I think it wonderfully apt to reflect on what Dick meant to me as an historian, as a doctoral student, and as a person.
Mentorship comes naturally to Dick. I saw him model it on a daily basis both inside and outside the classroom. In class, Dick had an effortless ability to engage students and make them feel like valuable and active participants in their learning. Whether it was a new freshman taking his introductory course as a requirement, or an advanced graduate student poring over a complicated text, Dick always showed patience, disarming humor, and an infectious enthusiasm for learning and the craft of History. I watched him seamlessly move from explaining the crucial importance of perceiving texts as prescriptive and descriptive to miming medieval peasants struggling to free themselves from the proverbial muck of their existence (as caricatured by popular culture).
Outside the classroom, Dick’s door was always open (literally or figuratively) for those wishing to drop in to chat. Dick, no matter how busy he was working on his latest project, not only always had time to discuss issues of importance to his students, but he never made you feel like you were intruding. I can recall clearly an example of this during my first semester as his student. I was sitting in on his History from Myth course (which has since become the basis for one of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach), and I had not come to appreciate the value of using literature as a source for History (oh, the irony!). More than halfway through the semester, I still had not developed a research paper topic. I went into Dick’s office and proceeded to bounce ideas off of him for over three hours, and at no point did he ever grow tired of my fumbling around for topic.
Dick was also able to facilitate a true sense of community among the students working on medieval topics at UR. In the six years I was there, I went from being the only doctoral student in medieval studies to being one of seven (plus a couple of masters students and advanced undergraduates). At no point did this group become poisonous or self-destructive. Instead we became a self-supportive group of scholars and friends, sharing our professional and personal successes with each other. All of those who finished the program contributed to the festschrift, but more than that, all of them (among other UR folks- Tom Devaney, Leah Shopkow, and Tucker) made the trip to Saint Louis to be there when we presented it to Dick. I can think of no better example of our medievalist community than that, and a large part of that was a reflection of Dick’s guidance and mentorship.
I am sure that I have grossly exceeded the “few words” Tucker had in mind, so I’ll end it on the final point that I have always tried to emulate the care and organic interest that Dick shows to his students and work, and while I am sure that do not do it justice, I hope that I at least reflect it a bit.
Chris Guyol (PhD, 2013)
Dick’s fascination with medieval history is contagious, as the last two decades of my life have proven. Nearly twenty years ago, as a wide-eyed, introverted freshman, I was convinced by his seminar on medieval kingship and governance to become, of all things, a history major. I remember being hooked instantly by Dick’s ability to forge the liveliest tales imaginable out of seemingly dry histories of legal developments. His sincere affection for those willing to ask tough questions forged an environment in which even the most reticent of students could articulate their thoughts and pursue their interests with confidence. A decade later, during the halcyon days of my graduate career, Dick managed much the same for his graduate students. Fueled by slices of pizza and a beverage or two, Dick would smile knowingly as his devoted students presented their work to one another in an atmosphere more convivial than captious. It was during this period that I taught my first classes and graded my first papers with the aid of Dick’s kind advice. His style of teaching continues to influence my own, and I can only hope to inspire my students with the same passionate love for history that Dick has always brought into the classroom.
Paul Dingman (PhD, 2012)
I had a few classes with Prof. Kaeuper back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester. The way he could summon up colorful images of the distant past yet still speak so analytically about it always amazed me. I graduated (B.A. in English) and went on to make my way in the world, but I always wondered about returning to study medieval history in more depth. When I called Dick Kaeuper years later out of the blue, he remembered me right away. We met for lunch to discuss my returning to UR to study with him full-time in the Ph.D. program. He offered me no illusions about having an easy time with doctoral work or even being accepted into the program, nor with finding a job afterwards in the challenging academic market. Dick was, however, still encouraging in his own way, provided I was certain I wanted to pursue this path. I did. He made it sound possible.
Over the course of the next six years of reading books, learning languages, and discussing scholarly arguments, what I think of most is his open door and welcoming voice saying “Come in, come in, let’s talk…” Throughout many semesters, we discussed how to ask good questions and how to arrive at worthy answers, how to interpret historical sources and how to talk to historians. He always found the time for these conversations, and the positive atmosphere created by that characteristic is hard to quantify.
One of memories that stands out for me is how Dick quietly jumped into action when bureaucratic red tape threatened the scheduling of my dissertation defense. The months leading up to filing my dissertation were stressful (as one might expect), and there was also a job interview for which I had to prepare. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of a significant delay in my defense date. Finding a time to gather all of the committee members had been a titanic effort (a single day in the whole summer was the only possibility); it was unclear whether a new date could be found in the entire remainder of the year. Dick listened quietly to what was happening at the administrative level and simply said “I’ll take care of it.” He did. A few days later I heard that the originally scheduled defense date would work after all. It was an incredible relief.
Dick Kaeuper would help actively when the situation called for it, yet he was more likely to provide counsel, advice, and encouragement as he had at that lunch with me in 2005. He was there to talk over so many topics and still is.
[Picture Caption: Professors Daniel Franke and Craig Nakashian present Professor Kaeuper with a copy of his festschrift, Prowess, Piety, and Public Order.]
Peter Sposato (PhD, 2015)
I was so very fortunate to have Richard Kaeuper as my doctoral adviser at Rochester. Dick was an outstanding mentor, combining excellence in scholarship and teaching with inexhaustible modesty, rectitude, and generosity of time and resources. He was always (and still is) prepared with sage advice and guidance. Indeed, I can think of no better exemplar for my own academic career.
Sam Claussen (PhD, 2016)
My first interaction with Professor Kaeuper was an email I sent to him before I was a student at the University of Rochester. I had struggled to find an appropriate mentor under whom I could pursue a Ph.D. in medieval history. Having read Prof. Kaeuper’s Chivalry and Violence in medieval Europe, I indicated my interest in the intersections of religion and violence in medieval Europe. Across the country, Professor Kaeuper was one of the only historians who even replied to me and it very quickly became clear that he recognized my passion and potential for success in academic medieval history. Over the course of several more emails, we discussed possible avenues for advanced research, with Professor Kaeuper recommending books and articles to read, and encouraging my own intellectual curiosity. Even before I was formally his student, he helped to cultivate my academic abilities and interests.
As a student at the University of Rochester, seminars with Professor Kaeuper were of course indispensable. Learning the study of the Middle Ages from a man who was not only an expert in the field but also an excellent teacher was a transformative experience. But more important than formal classwork were individual interactions. With his door always open, Professor Kaeuper sat down with me regularly to discuss research papers, issues in medieval history, historiography, pedagogical techniques, course design, the state of the field, and, with regular frequency, much larger issues. We discussed what life as a historian looked like, why it was useful, and how we could help make the world just a little bit better through the study of medieval Europe. All of these discussions helped me become a better academic and a better historian. I truly received excellent training from Professor Kaeuper because of his passion for history and education as well as his investment of time and energy in his students.
As a faculty member today, I regularly teach my students an approach to the Middle Ages that can easily be described as Kaeuperian – the use of imaginative literature as a historical source, the sorting out of prescriptions and descriptions in historical sources, and a willingness to ask large questions about state formation, cultural norms, and mentalities. I do this not out of blind loyalty to my mentor but because these techniques yield such fruitful results when studying medieval Europe. And, as importantly, I attempt to emulate Professor Kaeuper’s own steady and insightful mentorship when I advise students myself. Following Professor Kaeuper’s model, I try to keep in mind the value of education in fully developing individuals as I tailor my advice to each student. This is one of Professor Kaeuper’s many strengths as a mentor and it has no doubt shaped the careers and lives of hundreds of students at the University of Rochester over his tenure there.
[Picture Caption: The first panel fields questions. From left to right: Peter Sposato, Sam Claussen, Ilana Krug, and Daniel Franke.]
Tucker Million (PhD Student)
While I do not consider myself in a position to comment to the extent of the above-quoted individuals, I can attest to how deeply Professor Kaeuper’s efforts have impacted those beyond his immediate sphere of influence. During my time at Indiana University Kokomo, I was guided by Professor Sposato (a soon to be Rochester graduate when I arrived), and I received much of the same treatment so popular at the U of R. If, then, the model set by Professor Kaeuper has become the standard among his students, the field of medieval history, especially at the undergraduate level, is much better off. Indeed, while Professor Kaeuper is no longer taking students, I cannot help but feel optimistic knowing that many of his former students will not only carry on his scholarly legacy of “Kaeuperian Chivalry,” but that they will provide the same care and attention for their own students. And all of this, I believe, will leave an imprint as big, if not bigger, than Prowess, Piety, and Public Order.