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Alumna studies crossdressing saints at UPenn

By Andreia Bulhao

Some may say that the world of academia is boring; those people probably aren’t studying crossdressing saints of the Middle Ages. The Young Alumni Lecture held Wednesday, Nov. 16 in the Science Complex Physics building featured Courtney Rydel, a former student of the College. Rydel is now studying to get her Ph.D in medieval literature, with a dissertation titled “Legendary Effects: Women Saints of the Legenda Aurea in England 1260-1563.” She reflected on her experiences in graduate school, giving advice to future graduate students and explaining her current research.
Rydel graduated from the College in 2006 with a B.A. in English. She is currently working towards her Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rydel’s work explained the role of gender created in early English literature, using saints to demonstrate this phenomenon. These literary works revolved around female saints who posed as men, concealing their gender for different reasons, some more distinct than others.  According to Rydel, this representation of gender surprised her, simply because it was such an early time period.
The idea of concealing one’s gender is not uncommon among great literary works, however.

“People were always interested in this theme. It’s nothing new. It’s a trend that links up to being extraordinary,” Rydel said.

Though it seemed as though she has found her passion, Rydel admitted that it didn’t come so easily.

“I went in and people in graduate school were already so invested in what they work on. After a year at the University of Pennsylvania, I got myself working, casting about trying to figure out what my dissertation was going to be,” Rydel said.

Rydel’s advisor had tried to convince graduate students to focus on the Legenda Aurea for a while. When Rydel realized that it combined her interests in medieval literature and saints, it seemed like the perfect match.

“It was very much about ‘not this … not this … yes, this!’ It was an instinctive and totally illogical falling in love,” she said.

Now in her sixth and final year at the University of Pennsylvania, Rydel has become very familiar with its graduate program.

So what was her advice for future graduate students?

First and foremost, Rydel stressed using all of the resources the College has to offer, and valuing the skills developed here, emphasizing the use of fundamental research and professional skills acquired at the College.

“You need all of these skills because graduate school requires you to learn differently,” Rydel said.    “Speaking up in class now can prepare you to jump into that environment, because in grad school, it’s not about the basics.”

The most important bit of advice Rydel had for future graduate students, however was this: Get a life outside of the books.

“Your work is really absorbent. You need outside activities to stay sane,” she said.


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