Pilgrimage to professorship: George Greenia talks life from the seminary to the schoolroom
Written by Leonor Grave|
March 20, 2017
One year into his retirement from teaching full-time, modern languages professor George Greenia is leading a life that is far from quiet. Greenia, who is still actively involved in academia, is cooking more than ever and exploring new avenues of knowledge.
In addition to working on international research projects and continuing to go on pilgrimages in Spain, he’s been teaching and taking classes with the Christopher Wren Association. Through CWA, Greenia teaches a class on the ideas in medieval books and he is taking classes like Slavery in Virginia and Art History on the Nile.
Long before his retirement and long before Greenia stepped foot on the campus of the College of William and Mary, he was a young boy growing up in Detroit.
Life was interesting — I didn’t know it at the time,” Greenia said. “My older brothers were all smoking and riding motorcycles and I needed a way to rebel, so instead of smoking and riding bicycles I went to a Franciscan seminary.”
“Life was interesting — I didn’t know it at the time,” Greenia said. “My older brothers were all smoking and riding motorcycles and I needed a way to rebel, so instead of smoking and riding bicycles I went to a Franciscan seminary.”
After studying at a Wisconsin-based seminary for five years on the track to becoming a Franciscan brother, Greenia realized that his calling was to higher education, so he left the seminary to go to college.
“I’m in different vows now — I’m married,” Greenia said. “So I never went back, but I still have wonderful friends there and it was just one of the happiest, healthiest groups I’ve ever seen.”
With the aid of an interest-free loan from the seminary, Greenia got his undergraduate degree from Marquette University in Wisconsin, where he majored in Latin and Spanish. Greenia said his knowledge of theology and languages made him a perfect fit for the field of medieval studies.
“[My background] was a way to explain things that otherwise are so mysterious and maybe even creepy for other people — living in a monastery, wearing a habit,” Greenia said. “You know, people would ask me, ‘What’s this thing about having this hood over your head?’ You know, it’s just that monasteries are cold and hoodies are warm.”
Greenia’s academic pursuits led him to get a doctoral degree in medieval studies from the University of Michigan, and, after brief stints as a visiting professor at several other universities, he joined the faculty of the College’s Hispanic studies department in the fall of 1982. However, Greenia said that if given the option, he would not relish the opportunity to live in the middle ages.
“Cervantes, the Spanish author, he dies at 67 — he’s got six teeth left and they don’t touch,” Greenia said. “And that was the norm for the age. So, another historic period? No thank you. You know, it’s taken a lifetime — you spend your lifetime learning to navigate and re-navigate your historical moment. So no, there’s no silly nostalgia for another time period.”
Though Greenia has taught many courses over his years at the College, he considers Love and Prostitution in Medieval Spain — which would flash-fill during registration based on name alone — as one of his favorites.
“I would always tell students on the first day of Love and Prostitution, ‘Please tell your parents there’s no practicum, there’s no field experience, there’s no lab, we’re just going to read stuff and talk about it,’” Greenia said.
In addition to his accomplishments in the world of academia, Greenia contributed to establishing non-discrimination policies at the College over the course of his career. In 2006, he was awarded the Founders’ Cup for Outstanding Lifetime Service to the Gay and Lesbian members of the College of William and Mary Community by the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae Association.
“I was out when I came to William and Mary and some well-intentioned colleagues told me, ‘Don’t come out until you’ve had tenure,’ and I figured, ‘If being out keeps me from getting tenured, I shouldn’t be here,’” Greenia said. “Actually [being out] turned out to be more of a protection than a liability, because there were so many wonderful folks who made sure that the ‘gay bit’ would not interfere with my getting tenure.”
Greenia served as the faculty facilitator of the Gay Student Support Group on campus, which met every Monday night at the College for 24 years. However, according to Greenia, while the College has become a much more accepting and diverse place over the years, shifts in attitude happened slowly.
“Things were very much underground back then,” Greenia said. “People were very much hiding, fearful; especially students. Already, when I came in ’82, people were coming out. It took a number of years before people were out on the faculty, openly saying that they were gay or lesbian. I thought that was good for the institution.”
Greenia said that while people are often confused about how he reconciles his identity as a gay man and as a Catholic, he considers both of those to be integral to who he is.
People know that I’m Catholic, and they associate me with Catholic causes, and with gay causes, and they don’t know how to fit them in,” Greenia said. “I feel they complement each other beautifully for me.”
“People know that I’m Catholic, and they associate me with Catholic causes, and with gay causes, and they don’t know how to fit them in,” Greenia said. “I feel they complement each other beautifully for me.”
Greenia sees colleges as having a unique role in affecting national cultural change, leading the way for progress.
“America has always been upset with what happens in college, because this is where America does its social experimentation,” Greenia said. “We’re coming out of a long period of complacency; the challenge is to integrate political awareness and activism into the four years that you’re also studying.”
2017 marks the 10th year since Greenia was knighted by order of King Juan Carlos I of Spain and granted the Encomienda de la Orden de Isabel la Catolica, the highest order given by the Spanish crown, in recognition of his promotion of Spanish culture within the United States. Greenia has published widely on the subject of the Spanish Middle Ages and its literature, language, art and social history, and for 14 years he was Editor of La Coronica, a journal devoted to medieval Iberia.
However, out of his myriad of accomplishments, Greenia said that his proudest achievement is the same thing that compelled him to leave the seminary in his youth: teaching.
“The great accomplishment of my life is teaching at the College of William and Mary,” Greenia said. “I can’t imagine a better place.”
Greenia retired in 2016 after 34 years at the College. In his time here, he founded the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies and served as director of the College’s medieval and renaissance studies program for 10 years, but he said that his connections with students have been the most rewarding.
“We are a world-class education, humanely scaled,” Greenia said. “I’ve known students as they arrive as freshmen — like the guy I was just talking to for his honors thesis — I’ve known him for four years. I saw when he arrived, I’ve seen him grow, I’ve seen him become an independent intellectual, who can use me, [but] he doesn’t need me anymore. And that’s what you hope for.”