Ph.D. candidate from the UK takes road less traveled to ND, launches Medieval Institute podcast

Author: Eric Heath

Ph.D. candidate Will Beattie
Ph.D. candidate Will Beattie, co-founder of the Medieval Institute's podcast, Meeting in the Middle Ages

“Everything is better with a heavy metal soundtrack.” This might sound like an odd statement coming from a medievalist who spends his days poring over ancient manuscripts of sermons. But like many elements of Ph.D. candidate Will Beattie’s unorthodox life journey, somehow it all makes sense.

Beattie is a 5th year graduate student in the medieval studies program at Notre Dame. His research centers around the use of apocalyptic imagery in medieval preaching literature — cue the heavy metal — and the story of how Beattie ended up in South Bend reads a bit like an ancient epic.

Unorthodox journey to ND

Beattie’s tale begins in England — land of Beowulf, Chaucer, and King Arthur. Also the land of Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings movies were an early pull on Beattie’s young imagination, as were his father’s love of fantasy fiction books. But it was a course he took on English literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland that really changed the trajectory of Beattie’s life. As part of the course, he was introduced to an ancient poem written in Old English called The Dream of the Rood. The poem is about a man who has a vision of the cross, and the cross narrates its own history, starting with the moment it was cut down and moving all the way through to the crucifixion. “I was just really taken with the language and the imagery,” says Beattie. “And I think at that moment I decided, okay, this is what I'm going to keep studying now.”

Even beyond the beauty of the language and imagery, though, Beattie became fascinated by the intersection of culture hinted at in the poem’s origins and physical transcription. The fact that the poem — in addition to being discovered in an Old English manuscript — was also found carved into a stone cross in the runic alphabet of Germanic peoples, suggested a shared mythology and raised important questions in Beattie’s mind about the relationship between “English” Christians and “Scandinavian” Christians, descendants of Viking invaders who eventually settled in England. For Beattie, this cultural murkiness was enticing, showing that “even something as apparently straightforward as a Christian poem, can quickly become quite a bit more complicated when you look at the history.”

Beattie explains in his own words what it's like to work with ancient manuscripts.

Beattie followed the “telltale tingle” of academic interest to the University of York, where he pursued a master’s degree in Medieval Studies. It turned out that the city of York was the perfect place for Beattie to dig deeper into the history of cultural mixing in England during the early Middle Ages. Viking invaders captured the city in the year 866 C.E., and York soon after became an important and influential trading post, with significant mixing between the Vikings and surrounding Anglo-Saxons. York was also well suited for Beattie, as his academic interests began to coalesce around apocalyptic homilies and sermons of the late Anglo-Saxon period, including one of the most prolific writers of the era — Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. Beattie describes Wulfstan’s writings this way: “He's got a very distinctive style, very fire and brimstone, very bombastic kind of sermons.” One might even say, heavy metal from the pulpit?

By the end of his master’s program, Beattie was ready for a new adventure. He was interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, but he wanted to be well-rounded — equally proficient at both teaching and research. To make sure his teaching skills were up to par, he signed on to go and teach English to schoolkids in Hong Kong, not an easy task given the linguistic challenges the kids there faced. “Some of these kids are not only learning English,” he says, “they're also learning Cantonese because maybe they were speaking Mandarin as their first language. So you get all sorts of interesting challenges which are thrown up by that. You're teaching children or students who are trying to learn two languages at once and you have to try to engage them and make it attainable and interesting. That was really fun.”

Beattie in training with his team for a dragon boat race in Hong Kong in 2017.
Beattie in training with his team for a dragon boat race in Hong Kong in 2017.

One year overseas turned into three, and slowly Beattie’s itch to get back to research returned. When he began thinking about where to pursue a Ph.D. program, he remembered that many of the books he had read and cited during his undergraduate and master’s programs had been published by Notre Dame Press. Beyond that, he knew very little about the school nestled deep in the American midwest. Still, he was intrigued enough that winter to board a plane in Hong Kong and fly 16 hours to South Bend to see for himself. Unprepared for the midwest cold and unable to find a winter coat in Hong Kong, Beattie showed up on campus wearing only a bomber jacket. “That’s probably what saved me,” he jokes, “because they probably said to themselves, that’s the nutcase who was completely inappropriately dressed for this. He’s perfect! He’s unhinged — like we all are. So, when I turned up, everyone was so friendly and so welcoming and accommodating, and I thought, this is actually a place I can really see myself spending a few years of my life, if I’m lucky enough to be accepted.”

Beattie performing with drone metal band Heliovore in 2014 while attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Beattie performing with drone metal band Heliovore in 2014 while attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Acceptance into the medieval studies doctoral program — housed in Notre Dame’s prestigious Medieval Institute, the University's interdisciplinary center for all things Middle Ages — followed quickly; Beattie packed his bags and once more set off to the other side of the world to begin a new phase of his life. He had expected a smooth transition to life in the states and was surprised at the challenges he encountered. “There was culture shock, definitely,” he recalls. “Weirdly, it was more of a culture shock for me moving from a British background to the U.S. than it was from the U.K. to Hong Kong. Maybe one of the reasons is that I expected it to be easier than it was.” Without a car, Beattie found it was sometimes difficult to get around American cities, and filing taxes became a new and complicated challenge. There were also subtle things — funny things like the smaller size of a pint in a pub or how Americans didn’t put the full price on something until tax was added at the register. But, Beattie says, at the end of the day, these things were minor, and he soon found himself enjoying life in his new home. Until COVID-19.

Beattie was a teaching assistant for a class when the world shut down in March 2020. Like everyone else, he scrambled to adapt to online instruction, trying to respond to his students’ needs and keep up with his own online coursework. He remained in South Bend the entire time, missing his friends and family back in the U.K., but relying on new friends in town to stay “reasonably sane.” Fortunately, his research wasn’t overly affected by the shutdown. Beattie says he knows plenty of others who weren’t so lucky.

Learning to lead with LASER

Toward the end of the COVID-impacted 2020–21 academic year, one of Beattie’s faculty members in the Medieval Institute sent him an email encouraging him to apply to a year-long leadership program called LASER (Leadership Advancing Socially Engaged Research), run by the Graduate School for 3rd and 4th year doctoral candidates. He had heard about the program and was intrigued. It was interdisciplinary, promised to develop leadership skills, and was designed to help doctoral scholars think about their research in the context of being a force for good. Beattie applied and was accepted with the 2021–22 academic year cohort.

Dr. John Lubker, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic affairs and the founder of LASER, remembers Beattie’s immediate interest in breaking down the walls surrounding his field of medieval studies.

“Right off the bat, Will was passionate about public discourse surrounding his discipline,” says Lubker. “He wanted to develop his ability to communicate his research clearly and effectively with non-specialists, and to identify potential points of collaboration between medieval and non-medieval fields. It seems like LASER was able to help him accomplish his goal.”

Will Beattie — top row, 3rd from the right — along with his AY 2021-22 LASER cohort. (Aug. 2022)
Beattie — top row, 3rd from the right — along with his AY 2021-22 LASER cohort. (Aug. 2022)

To help explain his often-esoteric medieval research to his LASER cohort, Lubker recalls that Beattie would often fall back on using metaphors about — what else — heavy metal music: “It was his way of communicating a complex topic in ways that people could understand.”

Out of 17 LASER participants that year, Beattie was one of only a handful studying in the humanities. The rest were coming from science, engineering, and social science backgrounds, and Beattie soon found that their experience with both research and leadership was very different from his own. Whereas he spent most of his time alone, reading and writing, his LASER colleagues talked about constant collaboration in their labs; working together on projects, finding ways to lead a team, and similar experiences. Beattie appreciated their perspective and tried to think of ways he could incorporate the collaborative approach into his own work.

“Right now I'm working independently, but how can I apply in my own work that idea of getting the most out of your team and finding ways to support and empower each other? And I think teaching is one of the obvious ways that we can do that; finding ways to empower students and give them a sense of ownership over the course can be really valuable. So that's one of the main things I took away from LASER.”

For Beattie, the program was also an important way of building community and connections with other like-minded graduate students, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

“We had all gone through this period of isolation,” he says, “and I think that a lot of graduate students probably felt, as I did, quite alone in some ways, just by dint of being international students away from families and friends. And I think that LASER — in terms of just the social, collegial aspects — was great for bringing people back together. We'd all gone through a very strange time, but we could still come together and have really good conversations and be relaxed and learn to trust each other. That was something which John Lubker really emphasized: the importance of getting comfortable with each other, being vulnerable as well, and being willing to talk about successes and failures and really reflect on ourselves as colleagues and leaders.”

A podcast is born

The final component of the LASER program was for participants to design and execute a leadership project over the course of the academic year. Beattie initially wanted to build out a role playing game where participants could explore virtual medieval settings — e.g. a monastery — and learn about the Middle Ages in a more interactive way. But it became clear that the scope of that project was far greater than the limited timeframe that LASER afforded.

Instead, Beattie began to reflect on the conversations he was having with his fellow cohort members about teamwork and collaboration, and one day inspiration struck: He would launch a podcast about the work of his colleagues; scholars doing the meticulous — and sometimes invisible — work of medieval studies.

In contrast to the scores of existing podcasts about specific people or periods in history, Beattie decided he would do something different; like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, he would pull back the curtain on medievalists and see if he could give listeners a behind the scenes look at how “the sausage gets made.”

Beattie explains it this way: “Okay, I understand broadly what a historian or a literary scholar might do. I know what they might conclude, but I don't really understand exactly how they go about getting to that conclusion. What's the process?”

His plan would be to invite medievalists onto the show to tell listeners what it was like to track down a long-forgotten manuscript or to gain access to the world’s most restrictive libraries.

Medieval studies Ph.D. candidates Will Beattie (foreground) and Benjamin Pykare co-hosting the “Meeting in the Middle Ages” podcast for Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. (Dec. 2022)Medieval studies doctoral students Beattie (foreground) and Benjamin Pykare co-hosting the Meeting in the Middle Ages podcast for Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. (Dec. 2022)

To help with his new endeavor — and to double down on the LASER theme of collaboration — Beattie recruited a co-host; and he didn’t have to look far. Benjamin Pykare is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Medieval Institute, and he jumped at the chance to work on the project.

“When Will approached me about the podcast idea, I was immediately excited,” says Pykare. “It felt like a natural and innovative idea: the Medieval Institute has so many great scholars, and we get so many accomplished visitors, why not get them in front of a microphone and have them share their work with a broader audience?”

And so, a podcast was born. Beattie and Pykare named the show Meeting in the Middle Ages and soon decided to approach the Medieval Institute (“The MI”) to propose that it become the sponsor and institutional “owner” of the podcast. The benefits of this would be three-fold: 1) it would mean the show would live on even after Beattie and Pykare graduated, 2) the MI’s conferences and lecture series would help provide a steady stream of guests for the show to interview, and 3) it would bring a greater spotlight to the show and to Medieval Institute scholars and events.

Medieval studies Ph.D. candidate Will Beattie at work on the Medieval Institute’s podcast, Meeting in the Middle Ages. (Dec. 2022)
Beattie at work on the Medieval Institute’s podcast, Meeting in the Middle Ages. (Dec. 2022)

The Medieval Institute’s assistant director, Dr. Megan Hall, says the MI was thrilled when Beattie and Pykare pitched the idea: “The podcast is a wonderful way to reach far beyond the walls of the University, helping demystify what studying the Middle Ages looks like and why it's important. When we can underwrite this kind of resource — scholarly and accessible to a broad audience — as well as support emerging scholars, it's a tremendous win for all of us.” 

Meeting in the Middle Ages officially launched in September 2022; it is available on the Medieval Institute's website and most major podcast platforms.

Among the show’s early episodes were a conversation with Dr. Andrew Irving about ancient libraries and the importance of weighing manuscripts and a conversation with Dr. Rachel Koopmans about her adventures studying stained glass.

Beattie says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive: “I think people have been really excited about it actually, which is lovely to hear. And I know it's good for us because we want to get a lot of these people on. We want to chat with more people in the department and with grad students. We want to get their work out there. And we hope that Meeting in the Middle Ages will be something which the Medieval Institute will have as part of its core public engagement program forever.”

Reflecting on ND and thinking about the future

When he isn’t prepping for a show interview or parsing out apocalyptic sermon imagery, Beattie still finds plenty to enjoy about his life as a Notre Dame graduate student, calling the community here “incredibly warm and kind.” And in spite of the challenges — taxes, public transit, and smaller pints — his advice to other prospective international students who are considering Notre Dame is to “go for it.” He is quick to point out the abundance of resources, offices, and other groups on campus who are dedicated to assisting international students, and who have come to his aid on many occasions.

When the time comes to say farewell to the Golden Dome, Beattie says he’s likely to look at heading back to Europe, but says he will be open to any number of new career opportunities; whether in traditional academia or something in the public-facing education sector. He smiles when he mentions the Jorvik Viking Centre as an example of a great public-facing museum back in his old stomping grounds of York. “They do really amazing work,” he says. World-class scholarship and engaging viking history — perhaps set to the soundtrack of a certain genre of music — what could be better?