Ever since she can remember, Dorsey Armstrong has had a soft spot in her heart for medieval times. “I think I was just born with it,” she says with a chuckle. A professor of English and medieval literature at Purdue since 2002, Armstrong is a recipient of this year’s Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy—Purdue’s highest undergraduate teaching honor.
Although Armstrong has always been bewitched by the distant past, her destiny became clear during her junior year at Stanford University as she watched Professor Seth Lerer speak passionately about the medieval classic The Canterbury Tales.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute—someone might pay me to do this, to speak about literature I love? ’” she says.
In her early years at Purdue, Armstrong worried about the immense amount of information she had to pack into her classes. “I was very nervous about making sure students walked away with all of the information they needed,” she says.
Now Armstrong finds that her classes have more breathing room, opening up time for students to bring their own perspectives and to make new discoveries about the material. One of her favorite discoveries was a student’s suggestion that the mythical King Arthur is an immortal figure much like the zombies on the TV show The Walking Dead. This inspired her to write an essay comparing the themes explored in both medieval literature and the zombie genre, such as the fear of foreigners, disease, and the decay of society.
“After all these years, I’m still learning, discovering, and finding inspiration,” Armstrong says. She credits her students with making her fall in love with literature all over again.
Armstrong’s classes are ultimately exuberant celebrations. Instead of a final exam, one class ends with a medieval feast complete with authentic food and entertainment. She fondly recalls when one student made a knight’s coat of chain mail and another replicated the medieval sling used to hurl heavy stones at castle walls. In his demonstration, he launched wet sponges from Heavilon Hall toward the Purdue Memorial Union.
Outside her classes, Armstrong publishes extensively about medieval culture, particularly the legend of King Arthur. In January 2009, she became editor-in-chief of Arthuriana, the official journal of the North American branch of the International Arthurian Society. This
prestigious publication explores the Arthurian legend from its medieval origins to its impact in the present day.
The passion Armstrong was born to follow keeps rewarding her again and again. “I have to pinch myself sometimes,” she says in response to finding her dream job. “I feel lucky every day.”