Faculty Spotlight: Beth Coggeshall

Fri, 03/25/22
Dr. Elizabeth Coggeshall

FSU assistant professor of Italian and Dante scholar Beth Coggeshall. Courtesy photo.

Beth Coggeshall is an assistant professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Coggeshall earned her doctorate from Stanford University in 2012 before coming to FSU in 2017. She specializes in the literature and culture of medieval Italy, with a particular focus on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and she regularly teaches Dante’s “Inferno” in translation at FSU. In 2019, Coggeshall won the FSU Undergraduate Teaching Award and in 2020, the FSU Undergraduate Mentor Award. She most recently received a Greater Good: Humanities in Academia grant from Florida Humanities to support the keynote address of acclaimed Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison at the Dante Society of America symposium, part of the New College of Florida Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Can you tell me about your background?

I was born in Illinois, but my family moved around a lot since my father is also an academic working in the sciences. Before moving to Tallahassee, I spent half of my life in the Midwest and the other half in California.

What brought you to FSU? Why do you enjoy working here?

FSU has one of the most vibrant Italian faculties in the country. Not only do my colleagues do excellent work — in their research and in their classrooms — but they are also excellent people. The FSU Italian Program has a very tight-knit community among its faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, and I feel lucky to count them as my colleagues and friends.

How did you first become interested in Dante’s work?

I first got interested in Dante as a freshman in college. I had a rocky start to college — I didn’t fit in at the university I chose to attend, Notre Dame, and I struggled a lot in the first few weeks of school. At the time, I was taking Italian 1. I was only taking it because I knew I wanted to study abroad in Italy, and at my school we were required to study the language before we went (which I would recommend to anyone considering studying abroad — knowing some of the language makes the study abroad experience so much more rewarding!).

One day, my Italian professor invited me for coffee. She asked me — without me having hinted at anything — if I was considering transferring to another school. I don’t know how she knew, but she was right. She gave me two pieces of advice: first, that I stay at the university for at least one year to give the university a real shot at convincing me that it was a good place for me. Second, she advised me to take a class with a certain professor before I go. That professor happened to specialize in medieval Italian literature, especially Dante. I took a basic first-year writing course with him that spring, and we started by reading selected cantos of “Inferno.” I was hooked — by the poem, by its beauty and density, by the way he taught it, by the kinds of discussions the poem opened up for us, and by how much it challenged me, especially on questions of individual freedom and moral responsibility. After that class, I never thought about transferring again. I ended up taking all the courses he offered, especially his courses on Dante. By the end of my degree, I had a double-major in medieval studies and Italian, and, while I never quite found my place in the broader cultural community of that university, I found my intellectual home in the poem and with the faculty and students in my two departments.

In short, I came to my area of study because of the close, individual mentorship of specific faculty members who cared enough about my well-being to recognize when I was struggling and to intervene. I was fortunate enough to find faculty who really saw me, and their relentless encouragement and rigorous instruction led me to my area of study.

What are your current research interests? Why are you passionate about them?

I just finished “On Amistà: Negotiating Friendship in Dante's Italy,” a book-length project that should be published next year. The book explores the strategic ways late medieval Italian poets talked about their “friends,” which could refer to a rival, colleague, patron, etc. “Friend” is a term that is still ambiguously tossed around today, and we need to be attentive to this in order to learn from the ethical dilemmas that its use raised for medieval Christian society.

In addition to that major project, I am the co-director, with Arielle Saiber of Bowdoin College, of a digital archive on Dante’s resonance in contemporary global cultures, Dante Today. Our work on the archive has allowed us to converse with and learn from a wide range of audiences that engage with Dante’s works. We have corresponded with high school and college teachers, artists and musicians, scholars and curators — all of them fans of Dante’s work, who use his works as a lens through which they can describe, interpret, celebrate and critique the contemporary world. It has been a constant learning experience, and that’s what I love about it.

The most important questions that the poem raises are about moral freedom and personal responsibility, especially when living under adverse social, political or moral conditions. Dante writes about these conditions with eloquence and insight that many contemporary artists and writers have found resonant with their own circumstances. Dante also writes with a stunning moral clarity that constantly challenges me to root out the inconsistencies in my own moral behaviors and beliefs, and I try to use his poem as a springboard for challenging students to articulate their own moral positions.

What would you like the public to know about your research? Why is it important?

Dante’s “Comedy” continues to invite readers to engage with the poet in a sustained and ever-changing dialogue that has persisted for 700 years. Twenty-first-century readers, writers, artists, and performers from around the world draw inspiration from Dante's example, calling out the corruption of their own leaders, or leaning on his verses for the beauty, hope and resilience they communicate even in conditions of struggle. The work that we do for Dante Today highlights new voices in the global conversation emerging from Dante’s poem. Each of those new voices interlaces with Dante’s in ways that breathe new life into the poem’s verses so that, as Dante says, dead poetry may rise again.

What is the best part of your job?

I love to collaborate with and learn from others — peers, friends, students, community members and so on. Collaboration is not something we often get to practice in humanities research, so I seek out as many opportunities as I can find to talk about ideas with others, be it in a classroom, at a conference, through a working group or over coffee.

Are there any challenging parts of your job?

There are so many challenging parts of my job, which is part of why I love doing it! When I have a particularly difficult day, I used to always think to myself, “I had a terrible day today. I spent the whole day thinking about this problem and I couldn’t solve it.” In the last few years, I have sought to change that narrative. Now, I say to myself, “I had a great day today. I got to dedicate myself to thinking about a problem that I don’t yet have the answer to.” What’s not to love about being genuinely challenged in your work?

Who are your role models? Are there certain people that have influenced you the most?

I have had the great privilege of knowing many outstanding educators, as a student, as a colleague, and in my own family. I learn so much from talking with thoughtful teachers about teaching.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have a totally delightful five-year-old daughter who takes up all my free time. She loves music, and has good taste, so we always have new music on at home. I also enjoy going for a good, long walk, when I can catch up with distant friends on the phone.

If your students could only learn one thing from you, what would it be and why?

I often tell the students in my classes that one of the privileges of being in college is that we get to spend two 75-minute periods per week discussing hard questions. I hope that my students learn to enjoy that special part of the college experience, and to embrace the subjects, courses and conversations that most challenge them and ignite their curiosity.