This is the twenty-fourth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
Spencer Strub ‘05 has been curious about literature, language, and exploring the past from a young age.
“My first time reading Chaucer was when I picked some book up off a bookshelf at my mom’s house,” Strub said. His mother, Liane Strub, teaches English at M-A. “I thought, ‘Hmm… What’s this?’ and tried really hard to read it for about half an hour, but absolutely could not understand it, so I put it back on the shelf. Sometimes, you’re just not ready yet.”
A few years later, Strub picked up The Canterbury Tales again, this time for a college course. The second time around, he was captivated. “Reading medieval literature is like stepping into a completely different world—it’s difficult, and weird, and often quite beautiful,” he said. Strub went on to become one of the leading Chaucer scholars in the country. He has taught in the English departments at Boston University, Harvard, and UC Berkeley. Now, he is an Associate Research Scholar in the Humanities Council at Princeton, teaching English as he works on a book about emotion, community, and belonging in late medieval literature and culture.
Looking back on high school, Strub described M-A as “a fairly chaotic place” with high academic standards and a collaborative culture.
He was the Editor-in-Chief of Bear Naked News, M-A’s previous school newspaper, and remembers the journalism program fondly. “The yearbook kids would often come over to the journalism room and we would all hang out and play Uno together,” he said.
“Our journalism advisor, Doss Welsh, was always playing music—a lot of Bob Dylan—but we never really appreciated that it was Bob Dylan. We complained, ‘Ugh, what is this old-person music?’” he continued. “We also printed out the paper copies of the newspaper on super cheap newsprint, so whenever people read it, their hands would turn completely black from the ink.”
“When it rained, the hallways became slip ‘n slides—an effect of M-A’s lack of drainage—and I remember the Green turning into a puddle,” he recalled.
“M-A is an institution that is flawed in certain ways, but I wish that there were more places like it and more schools like it,” he said. “M-A teaches students to think really hard and work really hard, but there is never the sense that your success is at the expense of someone else’s. The scale of the school, the diversity, and the collaborative environment is really special. There’s a lot going on—things are in constant motion—but everyone is in it together.”
Of his classes, Strub remembered dissecting cats in Patrick Roisen’s AP Biology course, lighting Bunsen burners in Maria Caryotakis’s Chemistry course, and listening to engaging lectures in Richard Weaver’s U.S. History course. “There is so much American History in my head from junior year of high school that has stuck with me because Mr. Weaver was such an inspiring teacher and cared so much about the content. I could list so many more—I had so many great teachers at M-A,” he said.
During his senior year, Strub enrolled in his mother’s AP Literature course. “She was the only teacher offering the class, so I had to take hers. I think I did a solid job—I don’t think I was the best student in the class, but I did okay,” he said.
The big dividing line between Spencer and Liane Strub? Virginia Woolf. “My mom is not at all a Virginia Woolf fan and I am a big Virginia Woolf fan,” he explained. “We agree to disagree. It’s very civil. We do have similar tastes in some ways though. She’s not a Jane Austen person and I’m also not a Jane Austen person. Austen is brilliant, but I think the wit is a little dry—If I’m going to be reading about 19th century people getting married, I’d like there to be some tragedy involved.”
Strub went on to study English at Harvard University. He wrote for the newspaper and arts magazine there, and helped run the writing center. “The writing center kind of consumed my life,” he explained. “There would be about a thousand appointments per semester of kids needing help with their papers. It was fun, though. Getting peers’ feedback on writing is so important.”
After graduating from college, Strub was unemployed for about a year. “But don’t let people think that being an English major means that you’re inevitably unemployed,” he said. “I made some bad decisions my senior year of college and hadn’t lined anything up. It was also 2009 and the employment market crashed.”
Strub lived at his mom’s house for six months before finding work writing user manuals for a streaming services startup. He explained, “As a technical writer with a fairly limited technical background, I would first go talk to some engineers and feel completely confused about what the technology even was. Then, I would go try to explain it to other people and feel even more confused. When I finally started to understand it, I would write it up in a way that was accessible to non-engineers. It was an exercise in pushing my comfort zone.”
On the side, Strub joined some fiction and magazine writers’ communities. “I was considering pursuing a career as a fiction writer, but then I decided that becoming a medievalist would be more secure employment,” he said. “I chose the more practical of two impractical choices.”
Strub then attended graduate school to study English and Medieval Literature—“lots of deciphering manuscripts and reading in dead languages,” he explained. He earned a PhD from UC Berkeley in 2018 after writing a dissertation titled “Disciplining the Tongue: Speech and Emotion in Later Middle English Poetry.”
The skills Strub learned in his user manual-drafting days transferred well to his career in academia. He explained, “If you’re an academic, you’re used to talking to other academics in a very arcane, technical way. If you’re teaching or writing for the public, you need to turn around and explain things in ways that are more accessible.”
Strub taught English at Boston University for six months, expository writing at Harvard for two years, Medieval Literature at UC Berkeley for a year, and now works in the Princeton English department. “I like to encourage my students to have the confidence to push back on my ideas, and the ideas of critics and scholars, about old texts,” he said. “Some people think that these old texts are only for experts or specialists or certain people, but really, they are common property of humanity. We all have interesting things to say about our shared past.”
During quarantine in 2020, Strub studied the parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Death plague in medieval Europe, and wrote an article titled “Illness & Crisis, from Medieval Plague Tracts to Covid-19” for the New York Review of Books.
In September 2022, the New Yorker published a parody of Chaucerian verse featuring Strub and his wife Ellora Derenoncourt, a labor economist.
Strub’s in-progress book Scorn, Shame, and the Making of a Medieval Reading Public explores how late medieval writers remade a set of negative emotions into markers of group belonging and poetic self-representation.
“Our modern assumptions get challenged by reading old medieval works,” he said. “It’s so historically distant—a lot of the material has been lost. We’ll never know everything perfectly. The poem I think about the most, ‘Piers Ploughman,’ survives in 55 manuscripts. It was a bestseller of the age, and we don’t know who the poet was. That kind of thing is quite thrilling. There are limits to our knowledge, and I think that provides some humility.”
Strub’s advice to current M-A students: Be adventurous in college. Give yourself some space to explore classes you might not otherwise take, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and don’t stress too much about it because grades in college are important but not essential.
Also, having taught a lot of students in the UC system who transferred from community colleges, if you’re not thinking about heading straight to a four-year college right away, you’re never too old. There is always time for more education. You can always change your career, and learning should be accessible to everyone.
On his favorite books, Strub said, “My favorite books? Oh my god. That is such a hard question. Toni Morrison’s Sula is an amazing book. It’s short and emotionally wrenching. John McPhee has written copiously about geology and weird nonfiction stuff, and I love his book Control of Nature. I could honestly sit here and list like a hundred. I’ll throw The Canterbury Tales in there too.”
Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!