Kosto and the office petIt’s been a while since the last one, but we’ve finally collected ourselves enough to head back to office hours. Liz Naiden got up at 9am to visit the castle keep of medievalist and long-time CC professor Adam Kosto. Read on for the earnest, conscientious prof’s views on weird medieval people, Columbia undergrad culture (THAT’S YOU), and the story of But Not the armadillo, pictured at right.

So the focus of your work is medieval history, how did you get into that?

Actually, a great teacher in college. When I entered I was going to be a math and science guy, and I’d done so much math and science in high school that I figured I had room to take some fun courses and I took a fun course and got hooked on medieval history.

What “hooked” you about it?

What I like about it is that it’s such a puzzle. And it’s such a puzzle because we have so little information from a thousand years ago that trying to piece together the lives of these people – who we tend to forget were people, not caricatures in books – is really challenging. That’s what makes it fun for me, I like puzzles. Plus medieval culture is very strange and foreign to us, mostly I think because it is so much more religious. I think to someone in a religious community it would be less strange. But a lot of the things we find strange in medieval culture are the expression of religious belief and practice. For example, today I’m going to be talking about the cult of relics. These are the bones of saints that people would pull out of the tombs and parade around towns as people were going off to war or on other festive occasions. Very, very bizarre.

What are you working on right now?

The main project I’m working on now is a book on hostages. Hostages in the Middle Ages were given rather than taken. You gave a hostage as a guarantee for an agreement, so if you were entering into a peace treaty with a neighboring king, it would be sealed by handing over your son or another family member. Or financial deals were sealed by handing over one of your men. This, also, seems really bizarre, hence the puzzle.

Do you get them back ever?

Yes! And that’s what got me interested in this – the way this is supposed to work is that if you do not give me my money, or if you break the agreement, then I kill the hostage. And in practice, we don’t find records of any hostages being killed. So how did it work? It is really weird. This is one of the puzzles that attracted me.

How did you get to Columbia?

There are not a lot of jobs for medieval historians, and when one finishes a PhD in medieval history one tends to apply for every single one that is out there, and I was fortunate enough to get this one. I spent two years in Seattle before I came here while my wife had a post doc in Seattle, the first year was finishing up the dissertation and the second year I did adjunct teaching at the University of Washington and Seattle University and wrote lots of applications. And I felt like I’d won the lottery when I got this job, and I still feel like I’ve won the lottery. For what I do this is one of the handful of best places in the world to do it.

Is your wife a professor as well?

She is. She’s a BioStat professor at the University of Pennsylvania. So we’ve been in Philadelphia for many years now.

You live in Philadelphia?!?

I live in Philadelphia. I am a one man Amtrak subsidies program. Not every day, but I come up two or three days a week. It’s two and a half hours door to door. I caught a 6:52 train this morning, so I woke up at a quarter to 6. And you’ll note that I’m here for 9 o’clock office hours, so I have no sympathy for students who can’t show up to them.

More medieval fun after the jump!

Tell me about the famous armadillo.

This is “But Not” the armadillo. But Not was a refuge from my daughter’s stuffed animal collection. There was a great purge, and of all the victims I saved But Not from being donated to…someone, let’s just say I save him from some evil fate. But Not is a But Not because there’s a Sandra Boynton kiddie book – “a hog and a frog went out for a jog, but not the hippopotamus. And the cat and the rat came back, but not the hippopotamus. And in the end the hippopotamus gets to join in, but not the armadillo. It’s a little sad. But But Not was a present for my daughter from a friend of mine. So he lives with me now on top of my books.

How old are your kids?

My son is 9 and my daughter is 7. My life is very kid-centric, which sort of spills over into class occasionally. Have I mentioned the kids in class this week yet? Yeah, probably.

What’s your sense of Columbia’s undergrad culture?

Columbia has this reputation for protest, but one of the things I’ve been struck by is that we went through and are currently going through incredible political and international upheaval, and especially when it was bad a few years ago, no one here was protesting. During the Bush years the campus was not going nuts, as you might expect it to. I found myself yelling at a CC class about the fact that it was their peers that were going off to war, and it was rather raw at that point. I think Columbia gets a lot of press because it’s a big target, and so the public image of Columbia is a result of whatever use outside political forces make of the university for their own purposes.

In terms of the undergraduate culture, what strikes me is how little I know about it. I lived on Morningside drive for a long time, and spent many hours on campus including late at night, but I never really got a sense of what the students were doing when they weren’t reading Augustine. The isolation of the faculty from the student culture is striking, especially compared to my undergraduate experience at Yale. Here you have New York City. So my theory has always been that you guys are off doing things in the city, but I honestly don’t know because there’s that disconnect. And I wonder if that’s one of the effects of the professional advising system, as opposed to the faculty advising system a lot of schools have.

Would you rather be advising students?

Than sitting in empty office hours? I’m happy to advise students! If I had a better idea of what students were thinking when they were choosing to take X, Y, or Z course, or what they hope to get out of their history major, I’d be a better teacher. I think the majority of my colleagues would love to do it too – I think most of them would agree that the undergrads are the best thing about being here.