Westmont Magazine New Faculty Eager to Blend Faith and Learning
The humanities division welcomes new professors in the English and Theater Arts departments
Jamie Friedman, assistant professor of English, became fascinated by medieval studies when an English professor visited her history class to discuss Beowulf, the Old English epic poem. “He had us beat on the desks while he chanted the verse,” Friedman says. “The content of the poem and the sounds reverberated in my gut, and I was hooked.”
At Whitworth University, Friedman focused on English literature and French language and literature with an emphasis on medieval studies. She earned master’s degrees at Portland State University and Cornell University and a doctorate in medieval studies at Cornell.
Her research and teaching interests focus on literary, identity and gender theories. “I’ve found that identity studies are one way of getting at who we are and how we exist in our skin as humans in the world,” she says. “I think medieval writers, especially in the 14th century, are also interested in identity and how identities can be questioned. It happens to be an interesting time to think about the big ideas that matter now.”
Some of Friedman’s favorite Whitworth professors were Westmont alums. “It’s a similar kind of institution that also wants to blend rigorous academics and the embodiment of faith, bringing those two realms together in robust dialog,” she says. “The opportunity to be a believer, teaching at an institution where our faith is a component of how and what we are learning, is exciting.”
She says teaching about medieval literature and intermixing that with faith is fluid since culture in the Middle Ages is steeped in Christianity. “I love the way medieval literature is alive in that it’s earthy, or infused with their experience in the flesh,” she says.
“These writers wrestle with profound, and profoundly relevant, theological and ideological questions: how to embody identities within the Christian community, how to encounter gendered, racial, and religious others, what it means to engage the secular with the sacred. I’ve found that students, especially at this time in their lives, are also interested in grappling with these questions.”
Robert Hamel, assistant professor of theatre arts, was a Lutheran pastor for 25 years, but says theater has always been in his family. His wife, Susan, is a theater professional, and together they staged theatrical events in churches. Most recently, Robert organized summer theater shows in Iowa City, Iowa, raising money for ELCA World Hunger Appeal and Bread for the World. Through one show, they were able to raise funds to build a dormitory at a Tanzanian seminary.
“That got me interested in this whole area of faith and the theater arts and what a powerful tool it is to tell all kinds of stories,” Hamel says. “Faith stories and societal stories help us all to look at things that sometimes we don’t want to look at, but are called to look at.”
Hamel graduated from Cornell College and earned a master of divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. Seventeen years later, he went to the University of Iowa, earning a master’s degree in religion (biblical literature) and a master of fine arts degree in theatre arts with an emphasis in scenic design. For the past five years, Hamel has been assistant professor, technical director and theater department coordinator at Graceland University in Iowa. He says the wonderful thing about teaching at Westmont is that it allows him to connect his faith and love of theater.
“As Christians, our faith calls us to look at those things,” Hamel says, “to address the world, proclaiming our Lord, but at the same time looking through our Lord’s eyes at the injustices in the world — the poor, the homeless, the outcast, the people we would rather forget about in life — and it’s very exciting to do it in a straightforward and intentional way.”
The first show Hamel will design at Westmont is “Servant of Two Masters,” an Italian comedy written in 1743 in the commedia dell’arte style accentuated by masks. “Being a designer and technician, it’s exciting to talk about staging it outdoors in this lovely California climate,” he says. “Here, you don’t have to worry about whether you can stage a show outside or not like you do in Iowa, where you have rain or mosquito creatures bigger then ravens.”