Life on the Hilltop: Bonnie Wheeler’s Dedication to Scholarship and Students


Bonnie Wheeler, Associate Professor and Director of Medieval Studies, was given a “40 years at SMU” party this August, and it came with a joyful twist: hosts Kathryn and Stephen Arata announced their intent to establish The Bonnie Wheeler Centennial Professorship in Medieval European Literature. The professorship will be housed in the English Department, Wheeler’s institutional home at SMU.

Wheeler wears many hats as a scholar-teacher. She founded the interdisciplinary SMU Medieval Studies Program in 1978 (and has directed it ever since). Here students can choose a minor, major, or M.A. Its graduates go into every career with the knowledge that, when they get to Paris or Istanbul, they will be able to impress their companions with information about the art, literature, and history of these places.

Wheeler’s academic work in medieval literature and culture is wide-ranging. In her own 14 edited volumes—on subjects as diverse as Becoming Male in the Middle Ages and Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc—Wheeler expresses her commitment to collaborative, interdisciplinary work. She founded the academic journal Arthuriana at SMU and edited it for almost 20 years before successfully managing its transition to Purdue University. She is series editor for the highly regarded, pluridisciplinary, peer reviewed New Middle Ages book series (224 books by October 2016), which is dedicated to recuperating the history of previously ignored medieval subjects, especially the history of women. She has served on the elected executive councils of all the important professional organizations in her field.

She has created such a profound and grateful impression on her professional colleagues that she was surprised by a festschrift in 2013: Magistra Doctissima: Essays in Honor of Bonnie Wheeler. In addition to the festschrift, Wheeler was also gifted with the Bonnie Wheeler Fund, which allows women scholars stuck below the “glass ceiling” in Medieval Studies paid time to focus on whatever it will take for them to get promoted. The fledging fund has already aided one woman to become a full professor. At this time, the fund allows one woman about three months to focus on her writing. With continued donations, Wheeler hopes that “the fellowship might provide funds for at least two women a year to break through the glass ceiling.” When gender equality is reached at the highest levels in academe, then the endowment will expand to include all scholars. For more information and to donate to the Bonnie Wheeler Fund, please visit bonniewheelerfund.org.

Above all her other commitments, however, Bonnie Wheeler says that her primary passion is her commitment to teaching SMU students and to helping them succeed both in and out of the classroom. During her 40-year career at SMU, Wheeler has seen a lot of change with the campus, however her dedication and passion to the students has remained constant.

Her teaching and mentoring extends beyond the classroom, even holding teas and dinners for students and other faculty in her home close to campus. Wheeler feels that this is the perfect way to get to know her students outside of the classroom while also helping them grow. Former students recall learning the finer points of etiquette during her famous “A-list” dinners—everything from the way to eat Artichokes and Asparagus to how to manage eight pieces of silverware at a place setting—all while in a supportive and entertaining environment.

“The better I get to know my students, the more I can help them discover their own interests. In the motto we invented for the SMU-in-Oxford program when I directed it for several years, ‘Labor atque Ludus’: Work and Play Intensely.  Hard academic work is itself joy. My sandbox happens to be the Middle Ages. I love having students make their own mounds and castles there for a brief time before they head into their full adult lives,” she explained.

When asked why she studies Medieval Studies, Wheeler sighed and said with a smile that she spends her “life in dialogue with Chaucer and everything Chaucer read. I want and need my students to be part of that conversation, since it ranges across all human concerns today. What does life mean? Why live? How do great thinkers and writers invest life with meaning?  How does poetry and fiction, like the Arthurian legendary, require us to become deeply engaged in society and to recognize our political and social obligations?  Some people choose sports or Fox News, but for me, Chaucer is more vivid and also hilarious. He keeps things in proportion.”