Scandinavian Studies Prof. Comes to Eliot Post
Stephen A. Mitchell, soon to be the fourth master of Eliot House, believes that students and faculty have a lot to learn from each other.
A self-proclaimed member of what he terms the North House crew team's "Z boat," Mitchell may pick up a thing or two from Eliot's top-ranked rowing ensemble. And if the cult following that Mitchell has brought to his Core course, "Frozen Heroes," is any indication, the professor of Scandinavian and folklore may soon make Viking ships as appealing as crew shells.
Says one Folklore and Mythology co-worker of Mitchell, "He's a professor of Scandinavian, and it comes out in everything."
And although Cambridge, Mass. shares few features with the European peninsula, Mitchell still manages to fill his life with reminders of Scandinavian culture and literature.
His three children, for instance, share Scandinavian names. Mitchell's five-year-old fraternal twins are named Katrina and Erik, and his 11-month-old daughter is called Anneke.
Erik Mitchell, a huge Lego fan by his parents' admission, discovered that there are fringe benefits to having a father who loves Scandinavia; he was able to visit the Legoland theme park on a recent trip to Denmark.
"I located a field that really set my heart on fire," admits Mitchell, who begins his term as master of Eliot House in the fall.
Kristine L. Forsgard, who is married to Mitchell, will be co-master of Eliot. A former residential tutor, Forsgard has also been a teaching fellow, and served from 1987 to 1988 as director of fellowships at the Office of Career Services (OCS).
Besides "Frozen Heroes," officially called Literarure and Arts C-37, Mitchell teaches a graduate seminar on medieval Scandinavian folklore and an undergraduate course on witchcraft. He also chairs the Department of Folklore and Mythology. His forthcoming book, Heroic Saga and Ballad, examines medieval Icelandic legends and their heritage in modern Scandinavian folklore.
Mitchell discovered his subject at the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with the class of 1974.
"I just lucked into it," he says, crediting one of his early teachers for encouraging his interest in the field. His graduate studies in Scandinavian took him to the University of Minnesota and to Lunds University in Sweden. Mitchell first came to Harvard as an assistant professor in the fall of 1980 and received tenure three years ago.
Mitchell is "definitely one of the greatest professors I've had, if not the greatest," says Abbey Kohn '91, who calls the professor "supportive of students" and "interested in helping people."
Forsgard, like Mitchell, has traveled extensively. In her childhood, Forsgard says, she lived on both coasts and attended five different high schools in four years. The incoming Eliot co-master graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1976 with a degree in botany. She became a graduate student at Harvard in 1979, after taking a succession of area jobs, including a position at a Cambridge consulting firm for which she managed the restaurant 33 Dunster Street.
Forsgard led sections in Science B-15, "Evolutionary Biology," taught by Baird Professor of Science E.O. Wilson, and in Science B-30, "Reproductive Biology," taught by Professor of Biology Robert M. Woollacott.
She says she thinks her teaching experience will help her better relate to students.
"I really loved those years as a teaching fellow," Forsgard says. "One of the important things that I can bring to the house is an understanding of what undergraduates go through."
Next year, Forsgard says she will return to botany to work on Genus Hevea, the type of plant from which we get 98 percent of our natural rubber.
"After having three children and working at OCS, my graduate botany career was kind of put on hold for a little bit," says Forsgard, who plans to get her doctorate and pursue a botany career.
Forsgard says she is glad that Eliot sponsors such community service programs as Project HAND, Jimmy Fund and Big Brother/Big Sister.
"I think that's a wonderful tradition of public service," says Forsgard, who has run community service projects herself in the past. Those include a kite-making workshop at a public library in her hometown.
Mitchell and Forsgard say they want to bring Eliot students to their current home in Harvard, Mass., where they say the scenery is beautiful.
"We may try and involve the sophomore class and take them out there and show them the countryside," Mitchell says.
This wouldn't be the first time Mitchell has opened his home to students, according to Joseph W. Secondine '92, who has taken four classes with Mitchell. Secondine says Mitchell invited his students to his house to pick apples and extended another invitation to the unlucky students who stayed at school during Thanksgiving break.
Mitchell and Forsgard haven't lived at their suburban home for long; they spent most of the past decade in the College house system. Mitchell was a resident tutor at North House from 1983 to 1987, and Forsgard served as an Eliot House tutor from 1980 to 1989. The two were co-tutors in North House from 1985 to 1987.
Mitchell says he decided to become involved in the house system when he realized that "this is an education that I can get and take away with me."
He says his plans for Eliot include trying to promote more in-house drama and "thinking of innovative ways to bring the students and faculty back together--the kind of intellectual discourse that the houses are designed to foster within the social context."
Though Eliot's departing master, Alan C. Heimert '49, was outspoken against randomization, Mitchell says he is less interested in the issue.
"The debate about randomization is over," Forsgard says. "What we'd like to do is make sure that we help to foster the friendliest community possible."
Mitchell's children are looking forward to unlimited supply of yogurt and tofu and a basement perfect for biking and rollerskating, the professor says.
Forsgard says Anneke is "just a very sweet little girl who is just starting to walk." The twins, Mitchell says, are "like night and day."
While Katrina is talkative, he says, "Erik is pretty much a 'yup, nope' kind of guy."
Aside from Legos, Erik's penchants include ships and Vikings, his father and mother say. Mitchell admits that he has had a bit of influence on his son's choice of toys. And Katrina's interests, according to her parents, lie more along the lines of sports and ponies.
"They're really interested in living in the house now," Forsgard says. "Both of them are very much into sports. They're going to be able to go to intramurals...they'll be great cheerleaders."
Johannes K. Juette contributed to the reporting of this article.