Medieval studies is not doing so well.
In the last year or so, as a field, we've been faced with rampant misogyny, racism, white-washing, and appropriation. And as a collective group, we have not responded well. We have been angry. We have ignored what it is pointed out to us. We have not listened. "Knee-jerk" seems to be the reaction in a lot of cases. Not thoughtful reflection. In some cases, we have denigrated and insulted colleagues and resulted in name calling on public platforms and social media.
As a graduate student, I have cringed at most of these interactions and I know from back channel conversations with other grad students that I am not alone.
I have several different responses, some are more nuanced than others, and I admit that in some instances, I am speaking outside of my field. But I think these conversations are important.
My work is on the devil. Who he is. How he is seen in literature. How he functions as a folkloric figure, the vehicle for the fears, anxieties, and desires, of a particular historical and cultural moment. In my work I have often used the phrase "demonizing Others." While I had one professor a couple of years ago suggest subaltern or altern was "becoming" the more used term, various people reading various drafts have not interrogated my use of the term, or mentioned that it was problematic. My work is not postcolonial, although I have some overlap with this, but I am not an expert. As my dissertation moved past analyzing a visually and ethnically different "Other" I thought less and less about the term, its history, and its implication.
While my current work has shifted away from this some, my work on the devil overlaps a lot with how marginalized groups are constructed as threats, dangers, adversaries, devils. I have a project I'm working on that analyzes seventeenth-century political pamphlet language that invokes the devil, and draws comparisons to modern-day political discourse. These conversations often include colonial and post-colonial ideas and biases. I wonder what the line is between using terms as a narrative shorthand, something people will recognize, and doing modern work that is inclusive and acknowledges the situation we're all writing, researching, and presenting in.
Our entire field has become complicated by modern-day white supremacists using our work, the things we hold dear, as evidence in their hateful arguments, symbols of their hate. Grad students and scholars alike wonder where this leaves them and their work. The people I have spoken to, mostly grad students, believe that our engagement with these problematic issues- appropriation of symbols, speaking out, correcting misinterpretations of texts, images, and runes, are now part of the work our scholarship- both published and public, needs to now do.
But some of us are unsure.
Those of us with medieval images and script as tattoos, are we now running the risk of being mistaken for racists? Is our art a counter narrative or are we lumped in by association? Given the permanence of our work, there's not a lot we can do. It has become a reality that these things may cause us to be judged by others in ways never intended. Loves and interests of our youth- the symbols and languages that for many of us got us into medieval studies, are now often problematic.
But, I believe that just as the texts we teach, the online conversations we have, the blogs we post, it is part of our responsibility now to correct the record. Speak out. The Public Medievalist's series on Race and Racism in the Middle Ages is, I think, part of what this engagement and work should look like.
But it is a minefield.
Particularly for grad students, adjuncts, early career scholars, speaking out, interrogating or working with these complicated, sensitive ideas and long-held concepts can be tricky. It's easy to misstep. It's easy to have things taken out of context. Senior scholars can yell at you. Publicly. Things can get nasty.
As teachers, I'd like to think that our end goal is a better educated populace. But educating others, helping younger scholars, has not always been the tone I've seen. And vulnerable people, students or staff, can't really comment on that because of the reasons above. So it's tricky. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, that this is not now part of the work we must do.
It seems as though much of this has solidified the last year. We've had conferences and speakers, and blog posts that have pointed out just how backwards some things still are. In part I think this is because many of academia's structures are outdated, antiquated, and slow to evolve and adapt the way we need to. Out world moves really fast now, and our field is still slow to react and change. And this is not a good thing. Of the people I know and listen to, the series of these varyingly awful events were an impetus to do better, do more.
Then came LEEDS. And the disappointing follow-up conversations. In many ways the events of LEEDS ratcheted up the awful. And unfortunately, it seems like people's reactions have also been turned up to 11. As a grad student, I look to senior scholars for guidance. How to respond, both in tone and content. The best platform, guidance on how to work through. And I admit to being disappointed in some people whose work I previously admired.
But I also learned from these conversations. As hard as some things were to hear, it made me reexamine how I used "Other" in my dissertation. I realized I was perpetuating postcolonial issues without any acknowledgement. While I thought my use of "Other" was more the in quotes that has been recommended to signal its problematic nature, I was perpetuating awful biases and presentations. So I went back through the dissertation and changed all my references, and included a note as to why. I do not want to contribute to erasure and racism. So I read, I listened, I changed.
But I also did not ask for help or clarification, or for anyone to read over a section to make sure it did what I wanted and didn't fall into pitfulls. Because I am afraid to. As a grad student, I completely understand not asking marginalized groups to do more invisible labor because others are unwilling. But as a grad student too, I have no wish to be yelled at or called names. And I realize that statement can be read as tone-policing, which I don't mean, but recognize too that intent doesn't matter.
I told you it was complicated.
As a grad student I want to learn, to do better, to understand why and how we must adapt and change, and then do that. I want to incorporate other fields, and be interdisciplinary. But there is danger in exploring outside your field. And my ability to DO that is limited when senior scholars in my field make it appear as though questions and genuine interest in doing better construct me as something I'm not.
And I worry about this. Because I don't think this is an environment to improve. Even though I understand why this is the response.
Into all of this, I read Adam Miyashiro's post on ISAS in Hawai'i this week.
He makes great points. Given the environment we're now in, all that is going on, all the issues that have come to public surface, the placement of this conference in Hawai'i was the perfect opportunity for improvements. Real change. And it was another awful fail.
I understand conferences are scheduled and planned months in advance, but these are not new issues. I wonder how many instances, how many conferences we're going to have that are condemned, before we change anything.
I am not a POC. I am a white woman. Whose step-dad, and adopted family is Japanese by way of Hawai'i. While I am often defined by the poverty I grew up in, I have a huge amount of privilege. I do not claim any special status. But last night, after reading Miyashiro's post, I had some thoughts, as someone whose family is from Hawai'i. Which I thought I'd share. At first it was just a thread (which I've included below, with some images, and some hyperlinks not in the original in the interest of a starting point for reading).
But I kept thinking about it all. How important these issues are, particularly for those of us who are new to the field, and are deeply invested in how this field presents itself, contributes, and acts.
I hope all of these conversations continue. I hope we make things better. I hope we educate, correct, and speak up. But I also hope we do it with kindness. I hope we give role models to younger scholars coming up.
Some random thoughts but not fully formed, so perhaps forgive. My
step-dad is Japanese. The family is from Okinawa. Came over in 30s. 1/
They worked plantations- pineapple and sugar in communities called camps
that still exist as similar to sharecropping, bought land after 2/
My grandpa lives in house he was raised in. Large extended family &
camp members. I have never felt so white as when I visited him 4/
I'll add too, that the conflicts between the Japanese/Okinawans that came over at the beginning of the 20th century and native Hawai'ians, is also interesting history that would have made for great basis to think about medieval studies.
I was looked askance at. Treated differently UNTIL grandpa introduced me as his granddaughter. Then everything changed 6/
Resorts, luaus are packaged, colonial crap. They're super smart- they
realized what people wanted & they charged fortunes. Good on them 8/
I mention all this because issues of how we frame our world, our
scholarship, our voices, & amplify voices of others have come back
And rightly so. Our fields because of slow speed of old structures don't evolve & adapt as they should and need to. 11/
So to any & all of my friends in Hawai'i this week I challenge you
to leave the resort. Read & listen to ACTUAL history not tourist
Think about role of military there. 13/
Think about stolen, kidnapped queens. Lost culture. Lost sovreignty. Having to commodify
culture to survive. Accept waves of foreigners in 30s. Lose more 14/
Think about what is displayed & presented. Versus what is true.
Think about why this place was chosen for this conference. 15/
If it was not chosen to illustrate how ALL these things should be
questions we integrate into our field, our scholarship, our
Then you have to face fact that it was chosen so white people could
justify a resort vacation in Hawai'i. Accepting @ face value. 17/
Visit sanctuary sites.
Listen, don't talk.
And bring THAT back to you.