Nahir Otaño Gracia became one of Beloit’s newest assistant professors in the English department this fall. Hailing from Puerto Rico and belonging to a small group of medieval scholars of color, Nahir told Beloit News about her roles as professor, activist, and Reggaeton enthusiast.
What classes are you teaching this semester and what are you enjoying about teaching them?
I’m teaching a 190 English course on multiethnic comedy in America, and Ia 251 course, which is a survey course on medieval literature, called Warriors, Monsters, and Giants. I really like the students. They are coming from all different sorts of backgrounds and academic stages. In my introductory course, I’m finding out how to navigate that balance between students who are more vocal and sort of have ideas already, and the students who are sort of shy and being introduced to it.We’re talking a lot about how comedy discusses issues of race and gender, so we’re also finding ways to communicate with each other on very difficult topics. The medieval course: I think it’s more challenging for the students because the material is very old and sometimes it’s not even accessible in some ways. So for these older students, sometimes I think that it’s an experience they haven’t had in a long time to feel like they can’t access the text and have to figure out that they learned how to do that [before].
What was your journey here, to Beloit, and to teach?
It felt like it’s a really long journey. I did my bachelor’s at the University of Puerto Rico, and I was going to be a Caribbeanist. And then almost at the end of my career--I think in the second semester of my junior year--I took a course on medieval Arthurian texts, a course on Vikings, and a course on Puerto Rican literature. They pushed me. When I went to grad school with plans to be a Caribbeanist, I got there and I said, “Actually, I wanna be a medievalist who also delves into Caribbean studies, not just a Caribbeanist.” I got really lucky because my grad school said, “Okay, do it.” Because medieval studies is such a white field - it’s over 99 percent white - it also inherently turned me into an activist in ways I never imagined.
In order for a medievalist of color like myself to thrive in a field like medieval studies, you have to create your own communities. It’s not just being a medievalist and studying the past, but being aware of how medievalists before me have constructed that past and how they have done so at the expense of people of color -- in some ways, how they have excluded diversity from their understanding of the Middle Ages. So this is something that became part of my scholarship, in part because these are topics that I’ve always cared about, but in part because I couldn’t escape it in some ways.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I’m actually trying very hard to dive into the community. I tried out for the dance teams, and I tried out with my 7-year-old, and we made it! So now my daughter and I are going to a be in December Dance.
We made it to two different teams to divide the awesomeness of mother and daughter. My whole body hurts! I’m going to be in the hip-hop/Reggaeton dance group. I just jumped in and tried new things and said I want to be a little like my students and just experience Beloit College as much as I can.
What are your favorite books and who are your favorite authors?
All the books I love basically don’t have authors. I love medieval Arthurian texts, mainly from the 12th to the 16th century. I have made myself learn a lot of dead languages so I could read those texts. My main goal is trying to understand how these Arthurian texts get rewritten and reshaped and changed for new medieval audiences. What do they tell us about those cultures because of those changes that they make? What do they keep and why? What I’ve found hasn’t been very happy, mainly. They are very much tied to the Crusades and a desire to take away the diversity of the Middle Ages.
What can students learn through these medieval texts?What we need is people willing to exercise their imaginations when they’re reading these texts, because if you can’t take that raw story and even turn it into yourself to understand it, you’re just not going to get how brilliant they are. I think that the patience that reading these texts gives you, and the capacity to accept difference, will make us better human beings in many other contexts.