Profile with Maria Sachiko Cecire 

Maria Sachiko Cecire (Virginia & Keble 2006) is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Bard College, and founding Director of Experimental Humanities, Bard’s liberal arts-driven answer to the digital humanities. Her research considers medievalism in modern fantasy, with a focus on children’s literature and media. She holds a DPhil in English and an MSt in English Medieval Studies from the University of Oxford, and a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I grew up in Virginia, so I talk about Newport News, Virginia as where I come from. I’m now in the Hudson Valley just north of New York City, and it feels like home every time I come back from a trip. I guess home is where you make it.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: When I was little I asked my dad what a baby doctor was and he said an obstetrician. So I went around from the age of five telling people I wanted to be an obstetrician, which resulted in a lot of amused and slightly confused looks. I don’t think I fully understood at the time what an obstetrician’s job entailed.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about your experience at Oxford?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I knew I was going to Oxford to learn, but I didn’t expect so much of my learning to be about how to build an intentional adult life. Growing up in the 80s and 90s my vision of what an “adult” woman should be involved a husband and kids and some kind of job where I got to wear high heels and carry a briefcase. I don’t think I knew much more than that. Oxford gave me the great luxury of time to really consider what I want adulthood to mean for me, and to begin to author my own life instead of slipping into a stereotype or following a predetermined path.

Rhodes Project: Tell me a little bit about your research.

Maria Sachiko Cecire: One of the things I love about my job is the ability to wear a couple of different scholarly hats at the same time.  My book project, which has grown out of my DPhil thesis, is about how we reconstruct the Middle Ages in children’s fantasy and what this means for Anglo-American identity. By returning to the medieval past over and over again we have made it into this dynamic site for imaginative play - especially now that the fantasy genre has become so mainstream. I look at how we use medievalisms to think about our present selves in what I see as important, revealing ways. Meanwhile I’ve also been directing the Experimental Humanities initiative at Bard, which focuses on how technologies mediate what it means to be human – and how they’ve always done that. My own scholarship has shifted thanks to all the things I’ve learned while setting up this program. So now I’m writing more about new media as well as traditional literature, and have gotten back into documentary filmmaking as a way of thinking through some questions about staging medieval drama.

Rhodes Project: What is the biggest misconception about the medieval period?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I’d say it’s the idea that the Middle Ages was primarily this backwards time in Western history. You often hear the word “medieval” used as a derogatory term. I think that’s an injustice to the people that lived then and the incredible intellectual and artistic achievements of that long period. But in a funny way our vision of the Middle Ages as irrational and violent seems necessary to our idealizations of it as also full of nobility and heroism and chivalry, with the potential for enchantment. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Rhodes Project: How did you become interested in children’s literature?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I’m Japanese-Italian and I grew up in southern Virginia – and I remember one day having this moment when I realized looking in the mirror that I would never be blonde like a fairy-tale princess. It’s pretty obvious if you look at me, but at the time it was a shock! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become interested in how it is that I as a child had this image of my own potential that was bound to the kinds of literature that I was reading and ideas of cultural destiny. I got interested in the texts that are really important to us as young people - that in many ways form us into the types of people we are - and how they work on us as individuals and as a society.

Rhodes Project: What is something interesting you have learned from a student?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I’m always learning about interesting new platforms and internet phenomena from the students in my media studies classes. One of the most interesting things for me is learning what they consider to be “retro” or old. Just last week a student told me that in this age of smartphone-enabled Autocorrect, he and his friends use txt-speak (where the number 4 stands for the word “for,” etc.) mostly for ironic or humorous effect. This is a really interesting shift, and it shows their awareness of the social meanings that technologies help bring into being. But I can see a lot of people misunderstanding the creative ways they’re using language, just because of the fact that it’s in a text message. So it’s important to me to stay open to learning from my students’ experiences!

Rhodes Project: What does mentorship mean to you?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I try to seek out people who are living their lives in a way that I find admirable and would like to emulate. They often end up being peers or people who are just a few years further along in their careers, because I think many of the decisions I’m making have to do with adapting to rapid change and forging new paths. A lot of what’s been interesting for me is to talk to and work with friends who are actively trying to determine for themselves “what kind of a career do I want to have?”, “what kind of partnership do I want to have?”, “what kind of a family or community do I want to have?”, etc., and experimenting with how to make that possible.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do outside of work?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I work on popular culture and contemporary media, so a lot of the things I like to do outside of work technically are also work - reading literature, watching TV, keeping up with what’s happening with media and technology. But aside from that, I like to cook, be with friends, run and do yoga, and hang out on my fantastic big porch. I live in the forest, so I like to sit on my hammock swing, drink tea and read for pleasure - even if it may eventually end up coming into my work, I can still lose myself in a good book!    

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to in the next five years?

Maria Sachiko Cecire: I’m looking forward to the things that I can’t even imagine yet. So much of my young life was about reaching for things that I couldn’t name, so I love how my job right now is to be constantly exposed to new ideas, and to be able to work on all kinds of projects. I’m also hoping to finish my book in the next few years, and I’m really excited to see where it’ll go. 

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