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Religious studies professor tunes to medieval "conversations"

As a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin in 1967, Hester Gelber faced a crisis in her classroom one October afternoon.

"Freshmen began rushing in, screaming and crying," she recalls. "It was my initiation into what was basically a police riot."

At a time when anti-war demonstrations were flaring at universities nationwide, police had been ordered onto the Madison campus to remove students who were occupying a nearby building. As officers began lobbing tear gas canisters into hallways and clubbing students, tensions that had been simmering for weeks suddenly erupted, and instructors who witnessed the melee had to make some quick decisions.

"It was very tricky for TAs because we had vowed to go on strike, but the faculty were telling us we would be fired if we didn't teach," Gelber says. "So what I decided to do was to meet with my classes but refuse to talk about anything, except what had happened that day."

As activism fanned across the Madison campus, Gelber had to continue juggling similar decisions of conscience. She participated in marches and signed petitions but did not join any of the radical student groups that, she says, "had their own agenda."

"It was a horribly painful time, and a large mass of students was suddenly and very politically traumatized and awakened."

Today, as an associate professor of religious studies and a specialist in the intellectual history of the late Middle Ages, Gelber grapples with complex, thorny issues where they intersect in medieval philosophy, logic and theology.

When she talks about the excitement of the '20s and '30s, Gelber is referring to the early 1300s, when the capital of the intellectual world suddenly shifted from Paris to Oxford. She has focused on a small group of Dominican friars there who debated bold ideas and posed radical questions: Could God be deceived? Could He lie or perjure Himself?

Calvin Normore, an internationally recognized professor of philosophy and logic who divides his time between the University of Toronto and the University of California-Los Angeles, compares Gelber's research to a latter-day treasure hunt. Imagine you've just discovered a cache of journals that have been hidden in a cellar for 700 years, he says. For starters, they're water-logged and worm-ridden. Then you find that all the entries are in shorthand ­ to save on costly parchment and because the authors were writing to one another in an abbreviated Latin that distinguished their intimate circle from that of the Franciscans down the lane.

"What Hester is trying to do is to understand the conversations that took place in those quite technical texts," Normore says. "The style of doing theology and philosophy at Oxford was logically and metaphysically very complex and rich, but there's no New Yorker, no other place to go, for the intellectual gossip of the times.

"Hester has already given us a good idea of the path of intellectual development in the 14th century, and now a lot of us are waiting for her new book [It Could Have Been Otherwise: Modal Theory and Theology Among the Dominicans at Oxford, 1310-1340], which will enable people like me, who aren't nearly as skilled as she is, to trace the trajectory of philosophical ideas."

Unfamiliar and distant

The shelves in Gelber's office on the second floor of Building 70 are crammed floor to ceiling with books, except for a few spaces reserved for shimmering reproductions of pages from the Book of Hours by a 15th-century Parisian manuscript illuminator. Open on her desk is a reproduction of a pre-Reformation incunabulum, one of the early works of the Dominican author Robert Holcott, printed in Lyons in 1518. The Latin on the well-thumbed pages is elegant and densely packed.

"Each manuscript has slightly different conventions for abbreviations, depending on the region and the scribes," she says, pointing to couple of almost recognizable letters. "You start out by just kind of pawing your way through, trying to get more and more familiar with it."

Every time she uncovers a new twist on an old debate about God and creation or virtues and vices, Gelber says her fascination with the medieval world ratchets up another notch.

"I'm attracted to underdogs," she says. "Many people go into medieval studies because they're reaching back to get the continuity and roots, but for me it's the 'otherness' that appeals. I'm drawn to the 14th century as a time and place that has been insufficiently studied. It's unfamiliar and distant, and my eccentric mind keeps thinking, 'There's gotta be more to it.'"

In her pursuit of intellectual history, Gelber has crossed a lot of disciplinary boundary lines. Trained as a historian, she spent her first four years at Stanford teaching in the philosophy department. Then she was offered a position in religious studies.

"It's weird but really fun," she says of her home base. "In a history department, my interest in philosophy would have to be explained. And in a philosophy department, my interest in history would have to be explained. But in religious studies, none of my interests strike anyone as odd."

John Perry, professor of philosophy, says he's been a fan of Gelber since the day she arrived in 1978.

"Hester simply has a very, very good mind," he says. "She also has the respect of people in a lot of different disciplines."

Not surprisingly, many of the courses Gelber has designed are cross-listed, with titles that defy easy classification ­ "Sex, Body and Gender in Medieval Religion," "Issues in Contemporary Ethics," "Origin of the Universities," and "Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy." She also has written and taught extensively about "exemplary figures" like St. Francis of Assisi and "model selves" like the Virgin Mary.

"What fascinates me is the dynamic of the underlying structures of people's systems of thought, and how they use them in creative ways," Gelber says about her interest in religious thinking of the Middle Ages. "For example, you don't want a wonderful, benign God to be stuck with boiling people in oil and stuffing them down the throats of demons. God has to threaten all that, but you've also got to have an escape valve, a loophole, and what I see is that Christ and Mary, in medieval thinking, increasingly came to stand for the scales of justice and mercy."

In addition to making the arcane more accessible, Gelber has brought her inquiring, analytical approach to almost 20 years of university service. She was a member of both the Western Culture and CIV program committees, and has been an adviser to the Humanities Center, Humanities Special Programs and Continuing Studies Program. Gelber has directed undergraduate and graduate studies in the department of religious studies, and she lived in Twain House as a resident fellow for four years in the early 1990s. In 1993 she served as a university grievance officer, and this year she chairs the Faculty Senate's influential Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement (C-AAA), which recently recommended that departments release student evaluations of faculty teaching.

Sensibility and humor

Gelber tracks the most esoteric and ethereal sounding topics with down-to-earth sensibility and good humor. On a recent Monday morning in "Philosophy of Religion," she launched a discussion of Descartes by picturing the contemplative philosopher curled up in his dressing gown beside a small fire, digging into his project of universal doubt.

"He was really asking, 'What gives us the right to say something is true?'" Gelber suggested. "He set aside all classical proofs for the existence of God, set aside all the impressions of the senses, and began by doubting everything."

As she traced how Descartes pressed uncertainty to its limits in Le Monde and Discours de la methode, Gelber explained why his metaphysical hypotheses landed him in hot water with church authorities and ultimately prompted him to accept a job as tutor to the queen of far-off Sweden. Step-by-step explanations of Descartes' arguments were balanced with effervescent allusions to the "oomphiness" of reality he sought and the "mental wobbles" that could be seen in his proofs of the nature of existence. Gelber then described Descartes' fate in terms that every sleep-deprived freshman could appreciate.

"He went from his warm bed to the land of ice and bears, and caught his death of cold," she said. "So the tag line for Descartes should always read, 'He should have stayed in bed.'"

George Brown, professor of English and chair of the Medieval Studies Program, regularly invites Gelber to talk to his students about medieval culture. He describes her classroom presentations as "knockouts."

"Hester is intellectually dazzling," Brown says. "Anyone who has watched her conduct a class or lecture is struck by her sharp intelligence, and both the seriousness and humor with which she presents her material."

Brown says students frequently assume they can take apart medieval conceptualism, like that found in Anselm's ontological proofs, with 20th-century sophistication.

"But Hester shows where Anselm's proofs are compelling, even for modern philosophers," he adds. "She gets them asking questions and gets them into a dialogue, helping them elicit responses on their own, rather than just dictating something to them."

Underground classic

Gelber was raised on questions in a household known for family debates. Her paternal grandfather, Erwin Goodenough, had been instrumental in founding the department of religious studies at Yale, her father was a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother held an advanced degree in social psychology. Then there were all those curios her father brought home from six-month field trips to South Pacific islands ­ pandanus mats, cowrie shell necklaces and canoe paddles ­ that promised adventures to come in academia.

After designing her own history major at Cornell, Gelber went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where she and her former husband spent four years in the late 1960s.

"The day I arrived at Wisconsin, Hester was defending her dissertation," says Katherine Tachau, a specialist in medieval studies and professor of history at the University of Iowa. "From that day on, she was the model of whom everybody else spoke. She was so well prepared for seminar that other students felt they had to live up to her example."

Gelber's dissertation on "Logic and the Trinity: A Clash of Values in Scholastic Thought, 1300-1335" was an unprecedented success.

"It was enormous and magnificent ­ one of the best I've ever seen," says William Courtenay, a professor of history who served as Gelber's adviser. "A lot of scholars in Europe ordered it on microfilm and immediately started citing it in their own writings."

The University of Toronto's Normore calls the manuscript "a worldwide underground classic," and he says it turns up in the most unexpected places. He recalls visiting a colleague in Pisa, Italy, recently, and there on a shelf, among a small collection of books, was Gelber's dissertation.

"It's the work which everyone has to think about if they're going to think about medieval metaphysics or logic," Normore adds.

Proud, vocal parent

The work of medieval scholars, who were trained in science, philosophy, logic and theology, has been compared to that of 20th-century astronomers who look for the origins of the universe and who also can be described as doing philosophy. As Gelber has studied the culture of 14th-century Dominican friaries and teaching centers, where members not only learned good manners and courtly behavior but also were trained to argue skillfully, she has tuned into the intellectual conversations that survive in published texts. She has read between enough lines to know what wasn't said because it was taken for granted, and she's constantly on the lookout for holes in logic and reasoning.

"Hester wants to look at claims that are made and examine how we know whether they're right or wrong," says the University of Iowa's Tachau. "She's also lots of fun to work with because she can tell when a scribe hasn't understood an argument and keeps repeating the parts that don't hold up. There are few scholars as smart and witty and unassuming as she is."

In a field dominated by older male professors, Tachau says Gelber also is an exemplary role model for younger women. Among the estimated 3,000 medieval historians in the United States, a scant 400 ­ almost all men ­ are specialists in philosophy and theology.

"It has taken enormous self-discipline and motivation for Hester to be where she is today," says Tachau, who met Gelber in 1975 at a medieval studies conference, where she offered to carry Gelber's two-month-old son out of the room while his mom presented a paper. "There were years in which her career had to be on the back burner."

Both of Gelber's sons are now grown and live on the East Coast. Gideon is an architect in New York City, and his younger brother, Jesse, recently graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music with a concentration in jazz performance. Give the eager stage mom an opening to talk about the opera Jesse is currently writing and she'll belt out a few measures from his latest composition.

"You hardly ever find women scholars of a certain generation who are vocal parents like Hester," says Meg Worley, a third-year graduate student in comparative literature. "You hear even fewer of them saying, 'I'm proud of my children and I'm not afraid to say so.'"

Worley met Gelber three years ago, when she was looking for reading suggestions for a qualifying exam. After discussing medieval logic with Gelber for more than two hours one day, Worley knew she'd found the professor she'd like to work with on a directed reading project.

"When Hester got back from Oxford this year, I went to see her during office hours," Worley says. "But before I could re-introduce myself, she said, 'I don't remember your name, but we talked for a long time once, didn't we?' "

Gelber agreed to the proposed independent study project, with a caveat that floored Worley.

"She said, 'You know, I don't think we can have any fun with this unless we put in two hours a week,'" Worley recalls. "That had never happened before ­ that a professor was so willing to carve such a huge chunk out of her own research time."

Space for creative work

Gelber has two books in progress at the moment: It Could Have Been Otherwise, and a work tentatively titled The Retributive Cosmos that will explore how the medieval divine command universe developed serious cracks from the 12th century onward and eventually fell apart with the experience of Thomas More.

In It Could Have Been Otherwise Gelber writes that "the intellectual vitality at Oxford during the first 40 years of the 14th century, compared to a certain stodginess at Paris, owed much to the relative openness of the university to experimentation and new opinions." And she goes on to note that "an important condition for the health of an educational community is its tolerance for experimentation and for new or idiosyncratic ideas."

During her sabbatical at Oxford last year, Gelber pioneered a course for the Stanford Study Center titled "Origin of the Universities." Although she says she does not look to the Middle Ages for "answers to our situation," Gelber suggests that what distinguished Oxford at the peak of its intellectual vitality can be just as energizing today.

"I believe that space for creative work, in which people develop new questions and new analytic tools to apply across intellectual boundaries, characterizes universities at their best moments," she says.

In "Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy," a course she designed several years ago and will teach for the second time in winter quarter, Gelber says her greatest enjoyment comes from watching students respond to the authors they read by constructing their own fictional religions or religious situations.

"I think we don't have enough opportunities at universities today to exercise creativity, to really let loose," she says. "But science fiction is one way for us to imagine ourselves into the future.

"When students get a taste for that, for moving to the edge, they create new ways to think. They find that they can be participants, and they find that what they do matters."


By Diane Manuel

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