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Faculty Focus: Gail Gibson Retires to Research a Different Kind of Afterlife

Gail McMurray Gibson
Professor Gail Gibson seated with costumed students for her final Chaucer feast. (Front l-r) Jordan Williamson ’15, Gail Gibson, Ellyson Glance ’16, Alex Gould ’17. (Back l-r) Ethan Levinson ’14, Bri Lazevnick ’15, Katherine Burd ’14, Carylye Glance ’16, Sam Castle ’14 and Nathan Argueta ’16.

On the record, Professor of English Gail McMurray Gibson retires from Davidson College at the end of the current school year. But from her point of view, it's less a retirement than a commencement in the academic sense of the word.

She is leaving college service, but has recently received an opportunity to thoroughly re-engage in the scholarly study of medieval literature that has fascinated her for the past 30 years.

Yes, she's packing up the shelves of books and drawers of slides lining her corner office in Chambers, (and would like for you to take a few on your way out!). But, thanks to a research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), she's also packing her house for a move to Washington, D.C., for a year of literary sleuthing at the Folger Shakespeare Library to complete her research and write a book on "Medieval Drama in Afterlife."

Medieval Plays Taught Morals

Medieval devotional dramas were a popular form of theatrical entertainment and religious instruction in England during the 15th and early 16th centuries. They were plays telling the narratives of scripture history and the saints' lives, plays about miraculously bleeding hosts of the altar, and allegories in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt the protagonist to choose a Godly life over one of sin and vice. But they linked English towns and parishes to pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and so were censored, then prohibited or ordered destroyed by the Church of England.

Gibson is now focused on how the handful of original medieval drama manuscripts that still exist have made it intact through 500 years of history. Gibson said, "Those that managed to survive did so not by accident or happenstance, but by intervention. I want to find out who saved them, how and why."

She plans to write a five-chapter book about the "afterlives" of five of the manuscripts. One of them, a group of morality plays known as "The Macro Plays," is housed in the Folger Library.

Her interest in the texts of medieval drama stems from "a kind of gossipy curiosity" about the people of that remote time. "I have come to know these people in some ways more intimately than I know my own friends," she said.

Most medieval drama scholarship has been aimed at reconstructing the original cultural contexts and performances of this theater. Gibson's current approach is different. She is examining the ways that early modern collectors acquired and cared for the texts, creating by their actions new cultural uses and histories for them as they were handed down through the centuries. She has spent her academic career interpreting the texts, and now will investigate their physical trail at the Folger and in English county record offices, private and public libraries, church records and museums.

During an investigation last summer at the Norfolk Record Office, she found evidence that one of the texts relevant to the cultural history of the Folger's "Macro Plays" had been placed for safe-keeping in a World War II air raid shelter!

Teaching Outside of the Box

"It's fascinating to me," she said. "It's a project about looking over and beyond the boundaries and borders of historical period, far beyond the scope of my usual research. But that's what we do with our students all the time at Davidson. We ask how things are informed by things outside of our fields. Teaching with that attitude is really the best way to learn."

With a father in the Navy, Gibson and her two sisters were raised all over the country until dad concluded his career in the D.C. area. Though she favored attending a liberal arts college, father insisted she follow his footsteps to Duke University. She did so, graduated magna cum laude there as an English major, and then did graduate work at Duke and UNC. She ultimately received her doctorate from the University of Virginia with distinction in 1975.

Gibson was enthralled with books at so early an age that she used to hire her youngest sister to allow her to read novels aloud to her in exchange for her weekly allowance. She also loved art and enrolled at Duke with the idea of majoring in art history. But compelling courses and teachers led her to study medieval English literature instead. Her dissertation was titled "The Images of Doubt and Belief: Visual Symbolism in the Middle English Plays of Joseph's Troubles about Mary."

A Distinguished Academic Career

Gail McMurray Gibson
In her capacity as the College Marshall, Gail Gibson led academic processions and bore the college mace for many years.

After earning her doctorate, she spent the years 1975 to 1983 teaching at Princeton University, where she had opportunity to work with graduate students. But she had a hunch she would enjoy a liberal arts college, and applied at Davidson after learning of an opening for a medievalist on the English faculty. She found her expectations about the academic atmosphere were well met. She recalled, "From the very beginning, I couldn't get over students raising their hands and saying, ‘I don't really understand that. Could you explain?' That's where education starts. I don't remember students at Princeton raising their hands except to show off what they knew."

She had been active in Princeton on the volunteer board of the university day care center, and when she arrived in Davidson she recognized the need and value for a similar center here. She enrolled the younger of her two children, Annie, in the Davidson-Cornelius Child Development Center, and that organization became her primary community service concern. Gibson joined and then eventually chaired the day care board of directors, and worked hard to raise its profile and garner community support. One such initiative was staging an annual fundraising Fifties Dance for more than a decade.

"It was one of few occasions at Davidson that brought together people of all ages," she noted. The center has also become a learning laboratory for Davidson psychology students interested in psychology and child development.

She was also for years involved in activities at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, doing everything from leading adult Sunday school classes to serving on the flower committee.

A Prolific Scholar

Her hard work, outstanding scholarship, community involvement and service on college committees have led her to become one of the most inspiring and decorated teachers at Davidson. Her CV runs for pages and pages with listings of academic achievements. It includes two books – The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages and The Religion and Arts of Childbed (now under contract). She was the Medieval editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature and also has written a multitude of book chapters, journal articles, reviews of the work of other scholars, conference papers and public lectures.

The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named her North Carolina Professor of the Year in 1987. She also won the college's Omicron Delta Kappa Teacher of the Year Award in 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Award in 1994, and the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award in 2000. She arrived on campus with the title of MacArthur Assistant Professor and in 1993 was subsequently appointed William R. Kenan Professor of English and Humanities.

She appreciated the autonomy Davidson affords faculty to develop seminars, and viewed them as learning experiences as much as teaching experiences. "Seminars give me the chance to be taught by my students," she said. "Everything about a liberal arts college stretches you, and makes you take intellectual risks."

Often in collaboration with other department members, she taught senior capstone courses such as "Reading the Body," and "Texts on the Edge," and a seminar called "Cult and Culture" that was inspired by public figures such as Princess Diana and Elvis Presley.

She admitted that if students had a complaint about her classes, it was that she talked too much. "I do get carried away with my own rhetorical zeal," she said. "But that's an occupational hazard."

She's looking forward to her year at the Folger Library, to living in an urban neighborhood directly across the street from her work, and communing daily with drama scholars, graduate students and other Folger Fellows. "That library is a very eccentric place," she said. "The reading room is designed as a gentleman's library in a Grand Tudor manor house. The light isn't so good, but it's quite beautiful. I love being there."

Before leaving campus on this next academic adventure, she has been teaching her final survey course this spring on "British Literature to 1800" and a seminar on Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The latter has been a staple of her teaching during her entire 39-year Davidson career, though she regularly found new ways to approach it.

Teaching Through Feasting

A favorite with students was Gibson's staging of a Chaucer banquet in her home. Students wore costumes, followed Medieval dining etiquette, and helped cook Medieval recipes drawn from Medieval cookery manuscripts. "The best way to know a culture is to know how it eats!" she explained.

The Chaucer banquets ultimately led her to develop popular writing classes focused on food that she taught for years – food as symbol, food as a reflection of culture, food memoir and the anthropology of food. "Those courses were way ahead of the current academic interest in food studies," she said.

While she does regret that her time in the classroom is drawing nigh, and dreads the inevitability of completely emptying her office of its lovingly accumulated contents, she's glad that her departure has been gradual, and that the NEH grant will guarantee her continued involvement with scholarship.

She describes teaching as a "selfish" act. "I love teaching, and try to remain mindful of making each class matter," she said. "But I don't think about changing the students' lives. They and I are mostly just laborers in the vineyard. For whatever reason, scholarship is what we enjoy, and we are lucky to have found in Davidson a place that encourages us to pursue it and share our discoveries."