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Portrait Gallery: Nicole Smith, J.H. Shelton teaching award winner

Nicole Smith, J.H. Shelton Teaching Award, 2011Nicole Smith, winner of the 2011 J.H. Shelton teaching award, studies medieval literature and how it reflects  morality and sexuality. Away from the classroom, she does handstands and counts two Portuguese Water Dogs as family members.

What is your official title, and how long have you been at UNT?

My official title is Assistant Professor of English. This is my seventh year at UNT.

What is your academic and professional background?

I completed my undergraduate work at Duke University, and received my doctorate in English from Rutgers University. I have participated in a National Endowment of the Humanities summer seminar on the Seven Deadly Sins at Cambridge University in England, and I have been trained in paleography (the art of reading old handwriting) by Oxford University’s Ralph Hanna. My job at UNT was my first after completing my doctorate.

How did you become interested in late medieval literature? 

David Aers, James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, introduced me to medieval literature.  Under his tutelage I learned that medieval writers were just as interested in exploring questions of morality and sexuality - two topics of great interest to me - as we are today. Even though the Middle Ages may seem so far removed from everything that we know in the 21st Century, the literature produced at that time forces its readers to confront social, sexual and political issues that are pertinent now.

Tell us about your book.

My book is titled Sartorial Strategies: Outfitting Aristocrats and Fashioning Conduct in Late Medieval Literature. It takes two watershed moments in fashion history - drawing garments close to the body through either tight lacing and knotting in the 12th Century or novel couture techniques - like curved seams, darts, and rounded armholes in the 14th Century - and uses them as bookends for reading about moral conduct in medieval romances and spiritual guides. These fashion changes prompted churchmen to criticize fitted attire as either lustful or prideful. I argue that select medieval writers (namely, Marie de France, Heldris de Cornualle, the Gawain-poet and Geoffrey Chaucer) use representations of the fashionable body not as a sign of sin but a sign of virtue.

The research and writing processes were fascinating. For the research, I particularly enjoyed reading the vivid descriptions that medieval clergymen would give to fashionable men and women. Of course, noble aristocrats believed that wearing the latest fashions (tightly laced garments for women or fitted jackets and hose for men) revealed their own beauty or social status, but churchmen thought otherwise. They called fashionable women harlots or wives of the devil, while couture-clad men were often criticized as being effeminate or too concerned with appearing better than others. Because this book is based on my doctoral dissertation, the writing process was long and involved a lot of rewriting and rethinking of the book's argument. It will be published in in 2012 by the University of Notre Dame Press.

You received the 2011 J.H. Shelton Award in Teaching. What are the criteria?

I was at first astonished and then deeply honored because UNT has so many fine teachers on its faculty. The Shelton award recognizes outstanding contributions in creating an effective and stimulating learning environment. Faculty are nominated by students or faculty members and selected by the Faculty Senate’s Awards Committee.

Who or what inspires you?

Professionally, I am inspired by smart students, strange texts and risk-taking scholars whose work breaks new ground. Personally, I am inspired by the virtues of those closest to me: my father's patience, my mother's selflessness, my husband's tenacity and my children's innocence.

How do you define success?

Success is achieving the goals I set.  Some days the goals are high and lofty. Other days, they are simple and banal, and sometimes the most rewarding.

 Tell us about your family and hobbies.

I met my husband in Paris and brought him home with me.  We now have a son, a daughter and two Portuguese Water Dogs (but not in that order). I enjoy cooking, dancing, and doing handstands. Before having children, I really loved to sew my own clothing.

(Interview by Brooke Nottingham, student assistant, University Relations, Communications and Marketing.)

(It's not possible to know everyone on a big, busy campus. So InHouse periodically publishes Portrait Gallery features to help us learn about our colleagues and their contributions to the university's success. Send suggestions for Portrait Gallery subjects by email to InHouse with "Portrait Gallery" in the subject line.)

Posted on: Sun 04 December 2011

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