Friday, October 06, 2006

What do you know?

The title's a quote taken from a grouchy me, last Tuesday. At a crowded birthday dinner for a friend, someone asked what I did.

"I'm a medievalist."
"Isn't that kind of narrow?"

I can't say I fielded the question as well as I would have liked. I started with the above ("what do you know?"), followed it up with a sputtering "1,000 years of stuff. 1,000 years!" and when that did nothing to conjure away my interlocutor's blank stare, "and I work in three languages. It's hardly...narrow."

With that, the spell was broken. All it took was the languages, although I guess I should have added, in all honesty, that no one speaks any of them anymore.

Normally, when I say I'm a medievalist, I get one of two responses: 1) they ask if I belong to the SCA or engage in SCA-related program activities; 2) they talk about the Crusades, about which I know next to nothing: cannibalism, sack of Constantinople, and Orlando Bloom, and then I'm tapped. I'm not complaining, mind you. It's nice, comforting even, to see people try to make a connection. It's just that, well, I'd like to hear something else: but not what I heard on Tuesday.

This being Friday, it's a good time to engage in a bit of frivolity. JJC threw duct tape at us; Eileen, naughty wallets; and me, I'm asking for your stories. What's happened when you tell people what you do? I'm not directing this question solely at medievalists.

Sat. Morning Update
I decided to revisit the subject from a slightly different direction. Here you go:

I suppose the reactions of non-medievalists and, especially, non-academics are predictable. To a degree, the reactions, at least with my family or other people from back home, are due to class. Because I'm likely the only medievalist they're ever going to meet, I might as well have declared myself a Martian. With these people, I get either confusion ('you can get paid for that?' or 'no, that's not what I asked. What's your job'?), attempts to engage the Other (who is, astonishingly enough for my family, me) that are, nakedly, only attempts at incorporation or assimilation ('what you need to do is go into business and use your medieval knowledge to get rich: you'd know all this stuff that no one else did, so you'd have that advantage'), or, more rarely, I get hostility ('know-nothing academics'), either because they sense, I hope not justly, contempt for their class on my part--after all, I'm not one of them anymore--or, because they can't find a place for what I do and what I am in their world, there's an angry attempt to set things right through mockery.

So I'm pleased as punch when people try to make some connection on the basis of my interests. That's, dare I say, an ethical moment: paging EJ and Lévinas....

Generally I've found the best thing to do is to follow Liza's example (in the comments) by telling them something gross or weird about what I study. I find the animal trials work well for that. In other words, I find some moment in the Middle Ages that's as Other to me as the Middle Ages, in toto, are to them. I approach my own field of study and, to a large degree, myself with the bemused or off-kilter fascination of the non-expert. Because I think I have a handle on the opening of the General Prologue and its significance (as inhuman sexuality, as compulsory heterosexuality, as whatever), when someone finds out I'm a medievalist and quotes it to me, I'm likely to be frustrated by the chasm between what I (think I) know and what they don't know, or refuse to know, or cannot know. Bridging that chasm, if it's indeed there, would take a semester or, say, 85 minutes before I set everyone aright, before I found, once again, satisfaction or free access to the buffet table or whatever it is I want. But with the animal trials--dressing a pig up as a person and hanging it for murder--no theory, pace Jody Enders, will ever put that right. The trials are just too strange, for me, the supposed expert now estranged from his expertise, and for my interlocutors, of course. I might have had to humiliate my expertise to get their interest, but at least they might leave knowing how unassimilable my own field of study is to anyone's experience and hence how much pleasure it promises. It's possible to do this with Chaucer but it's harder to do it, quickly, for whatever reason.

Now, to evade the risk of this turning into one of those chronic Chronicle first-person pieces, I'll cede the floor to Zizek:

On the rare occasions when, owing to various kinds of social obligations, I cannot avoid meeting my relatives who have nothing to do with Lacanian theory (or with theory in general), sooner or later the conversation always takes the same unpleasant turn: with barely concealed hostility and envy lurking beneath a polite surface, they ask me how much I earn by my writing and publishing abroad, and giving lectures around the world. Surprisingly, whichever answer I give sounds wrong to them: if I admit that I earn what, in their eyes, is a considerable sum of money, they consider it unjust that I earn so much for my empty philosophizing, while they, who are doing 'real work,' have to sweat for a much lesser reward; if I tell them a small sum, they assert, with deep satisfaction, that even this is too much--who needs my kind of philosophizing in these times of social crisis? Why should we spend taxpayers' money on it? The underlying premise of their reasoning is that, to put it bluntly, whatever I earn, I earn too much--why? It is not only that they consider my kind of work useless: what one can discern beneath this official, public reproach is the envy of enjoyment. That is to say, it soon becomes obvious what really bothers them: the notion that I actually enjoy my work. They possess a vague intuition of how I find jouissance in what I do; which is why, in their eyes, money is never a proper equivalent for my work. No wonder, then, that what I earn always oscillates between the two extremes of 'too little' and 'too much': such an oscillation is an unmistakable sign that we are dealing with jouissance. (Plague of Fantasies, 53-54)


Eileen Joy said...

Usually, Karl, I avoid the typical consequences of the question by lying [seriously]. One time I said I was a physicist. I really, really did. Another time I said I had just gotten out of jail for car-jacking, but that it was essentially a case of mistaken identity. Which reminds me of a poem I once wrote under the pseudonym "Candida: The Wine Bar Poet of Monterey" [a persona I invented for the purposes of doing poetry slams, which I participated in umpteen years ago]:

Marigolds and Forgetting

When the doctor told me
I had only three months to live,
I told him it was a fatal case
of mistaken identity.

Now, I almost hate to tell you this, Karl, but last night I was hanging out at my favorite wine bar on Grand Avenue in St. Louis--Erato--and the waiter asked me while I was always writing on my computer and *what* was I writing? I hesitated. At that exact moment I was actually going over something I had written for the book I am editing [with Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey] on reality tv, torture, Charlemagne, pig soup, George Bush, and the Middle Ages [because it's really not just about those things, but since we can never figure out how to title the damn book, there you have it], and I was also responding to one of Jeffrey's posts on this blog. But I blurted out, "I'm a writer, well, um, what I mean is, I teach medieval literature, and that's what I write about." The waiter visibly brightened and said, "really? that is SO cool! I'm Scottish and Scandinavian, so I totally get into that." [I almost didn't believe him as he looked to be about 23 and is a dead ringer for Colin Farrell.] He continued, "Did you know they're making 'Beowulf' into a movie." "Yeah," I said, "and I'm especially excited about Angeline Jolie as Grendel's mother." To which he replied, "Yeah, can you remember who's playing Grendel? I have a friend who's totally in love with that guy. He was McFly." Of course, I knew the reference immediately [we all do] and said, "Yeah, that's Crispin Glover." "Yeah!" Do you know how this all ended? He made me promise to donate to the bar a copy of "The Postmodern Beowulf" when it comes out and he'll buy me a drink to celebrate. Okay, this never happens. And I thought: this guy is so good-lucking he's blinding me with his attractiveness. Did he just say he would buy me a drink?" Then I remembered I was gay. But, in any case, chalk one up for the coolness of medieval studies.

J J Cohen said...

First, let me just say: that picture you've chosen to illustrate your post is the most repulsive baked good I have ever seen. What is it???

I tend to tell those who ask that I am a professor of English. Then, should they ask what I teach, I say I'm a medievalist. Frequently i will then be queried whether I teach "Old English, like Chaucer." Sometimes I stifle the inner pedant and say "Yes." Often at this point my interlocutor will announce that she or he memorized the opening lines of the General Prologue in high school, and then begin to recite them with gusto.

Alas, my patience now fails me. I will interrupt on the second line and say "Would you like to guess how many people have recited the General Prologue to me unasked?"

Somewhat crestfallen, the person will mutter "OK."


Thus ends the conversation about what I do.

Eileen Joy said...

This is all also reminding me of an article I read in Star [yes, Star] this morning while my car was being detailed [um, yeah, I sometimes have my car detailed; I'm not embarrassed to say it: I really love me car, a VW Beetle]. Apparently Pierce Brosnan really hates it when he goes into a bar and they ask him if he wants his usual: a martini, shaken not stirred. It pisses hiom off so much he sometimes storms out. But at the end of the day, he's still Pierce Brosnan and good-looking as hell. So he should chill. There are worse things in life.

Karl Steel said...

My grouchyness no doubt derives from professional jealousy against my younger brother, the cardiologist. Everyone wants to talk about hearts; almost no one cares about, oh, Prudentius or Chretien.

EJ: hilarious. I hope you've prepared a few physicist facts in preparation. When we're at Kzoo, don't forget to ask how I totalled my Beetle 13 years ago.

Thanks for the heartening story. While the race thing is a bit unsettling, the combined enthusiasm for Crispen Glover (have you seen The Orkly Kid? One of my all-time favorites) and Beowulf makes me very happy on this, a grading day, and hence a day I would probably rather be in the grave.

Now, I did have an experience like that not too long back. I was picking up produce at my CSA and got to talking about writing with a fellow who turned out to have written Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Bright guy, friendly, and, when we got to talking about medieval antisemitism, he said he was getting material together for a project on a case (1320s) of a Jew who suffered forced baptism and returned to living as a Jew until inquistors charged him with apostacy. This was a case I knew, and I managed to load him down with bibliography (Kruger's Spectral Jew and J. Cohen's Living Letters) before we went our ways.

I think that's pretty much as good as it gets for me, anyhow.

the most repulsive baked good I have ever seen. What is it???

That, my friend, is Ang. Jolie's Grendel's mother costume.

Okay, it's a 'fat rascal' from Betty's Tea Room in Yorkshire. It's sort of a scone, if you like scones. I don't.

JJC: I can't believe that story. From someone else, yes, but not you.

I've actually avoided the Chaucer recitation thing, but once I did, swear to god, get a Virgil recitation. I think as soon as I hit the enclitic in 'Arma virumque cano' I faked multiple fainting fits.

LeVostreGC said...

If yow plese excusen a litel product placement, heere ys oon of the qweryez that ffolke moste often maken whanne ich telle hem ich am from medieval Engelonde.

And yit, me semeth discordant that on thys blogge, we talke much of bringinge thes matirs to a greter audience, and of relatynge the medieval to the contemporarie, and yit at the verye moment of personal contact, we falle in to disdayn at the affecioun and interest of othir (howevir fulle of presumpcioun or ignorance hir inquyrez may be)? Shal nat 'act locally,' so to speke?

Peraventure the dreded recitacioun of myn prologe coud serven as an 'occasio docendi.' Whanne Aprille ginneth shouren, make interupcion and ask the reciter 'yis, but what does it MEAN?' - and thus enter in to a conversacioun about my worth and my werkes and why thos lynes were into his or her hede ycrammed so long agoon. But for goddes sake, make sure ther aren drinkes ynogh nere to yow bifor swich a conversacioun biginne.

Anonymous said...

My favorite reaction is "oh, medieval--that's like Shakespeare, right?" I seem to get that a lot (after which people sometimes want to recite Portia's "the quality of mercy" speech from the Merchant of Venice). Or else, "Whoa, you must be really smart"--which, while flattering, is difficult to respond to. I've settled on just saying, "Yes. Yes, I am."

J J Cohen said...

Chaucer, as always, speaks the truth.

Alas, however, for the fallen state of the professorate. Whenever someone presents me with a teachable moment, or asks a penetrating if naive question about the Middle Ages, I peevishly state "I'm off the clock!"

Alas, lackaday, alas.

J J Cohen said...

(OK, I feel obliged to add: I am in fact a poseur. I am in fact not nearly as disdainful as my blog comments hint [what is this thing you earth people call 'humor'?]. Nor, I admit, is my Shriner as sad as I have made him out to be. Foisted on my own petard, or something).

LeVostreGC said...

Ye speke trewley, Mayster Galfridus. Thogh the spirit wille, the flesshe kan be weak, and we are alle frayle ffolke much biset by labour. Ich mente nat to sound so lyk Polly Anne, or implie that ich do handle thes thinges in parfayt wyse; in deed, sed contra oft in conversaciouns myn eyen haue rolled so ferre vp in my heed that thei made neurological discoveries. Oones, I bete a friar in the strete for he askid me "Did Dante know Galileo?"

N50 said...

What do they say?
"eh up - we'er reet proud o yer. Just don't start blithering on all posh like that Chaucer laddie. Got a reet plum in his mouth, him! Eggs is eggs is what we say."

Karl Steel said...

Actually, GC, I love the Arthur question. My students, once they find out I'm a medievalist,* always find a way to ask me about Mr Q. R. Futurus himself, and they always get a little gape-mouthed when I tell them about the Glastonbury tomb.

Haven't had it hit in real life yet: more's the pity. Or, for that matter, I've yet to attend the great Dante v. Galileo match, y-clepped the "mano a mano in Paridiso' by those on the qui vive.

I am remembering, too, a dinner party conversation with someone who had majored in classics in college and clearly sorely missed it, even though she'd graduated (I'm guessing) some 15 years before. And, because I have some Latin, she saw an opening. Her husband groused all through dinner as she regaled me with conversion--barely understood on my part I'm afraid--about Cicero's prosedy.

JJC: Off the clock! Merchant's Time! That's not our time.

I am in fact a poseur

But perhaps an aspiring grouch?
* Once more, I'm teaching on of those year-long Beowulf to V. Woolf courses, except mine starts earlier (the Homeric Hymn to Demeter) and ends later (Harlem Renaissance).

Anonymous said...

Hi, Karl. I've been getting a lot of those introduction sessions lately (new grad school, new people) -- I tend to get certain categories of reactions when I tell people I study Renaissance literature: 1) Oh. [dead stop, eyes start shifting to other conversations for an excuse to leave] 2) Renaissance, is that like Bocaccio? 3) ... why?

I tend to either catch people's interest by regaling them with early modern dismemberment tidbits, or let them off with a warning to read Thomas Middleton before I meet them next.

JJC: I was charmed when you told us on the first day of Chaucer that people tended to recite the GP at you. Made me want to go and learn it straightaway so I could give you a new rendition.

EJ: I met a grad student last week who told me she was a neurophysiologist -- thanks to your post I now suspect her for a medievalist in hiding. I'll draw her out yet.


Glaukôpis said...

See, the standard reaction in the U.S. to telling anyone you're a Classicist is: "Oh, like Shakespeare!"

After you glare at them for a moment and mutter, "Actually, no" and explain that you are, in fact, studying Greek and Latin stuff, they sort of nod, smile, and walk away. Sometimes they pretend they think it's amazing you can do dead languages.

If they don't think it's Shakespeare, they tend to just ask, "What's that?" Sometimes, they think it's Classical music too. And sometimes, if you say the part about Latin first, they think you mean Latin America.

Fortunately, I'm now across the pond and in a University where I don't have to explain myself nearly as much.

Anonymous said...

I always like comparing stories with my partner, who does computer stuff for a living. As soon as he tells people that, they instantly ask him how to hook up a fax machine, or what to do about their spam problems, or if he will come over and look at their dying Windows machines. He is always instantly inundated with little trifling "please solve all of my problems!" questions.

I, on the other hand, tell people I study medieval history. Once, I said that at a gathering of engineering school alumni, and the guy I was talking to burst out laughing and said, "Oh, like King Arthur, right?" and he thought he had made a really funny joke. I looked at him with a totally straight face and said, "Yes, like King Arthur," because I actually do study Arthurian stuff. It took me a long time to convince him that King Arthur actually is something that people study in school and get degrees in and get paid (pittances) for.

The other response I get a lot is, "Oh, what a depressing period," or, "Gosh, it sure is a dull period--nothing changed during all that time. No progress at all." I sigh, and try to explain that it was not dull, that there was progress, and that progress is an Enlightenment ideal anyway, but many people wander off before I get a chance to finish.

It is also amusing how often people seem to have questions stored up, like they have just been dying to find a medievalist and ask. Once, as soon as I said I do medieval history, a man instantly asked me some question about the development of medieval armor--he obviously knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about the topic, but was glad to find someone who had some answers. Another person seemed really glad to finally find someone who could tell him about the historical development of romantic love. Fortunately I had just given a presentation about courtly love the week before, and had some answers, of sorts, for him. But those conversations usually leave me off in a little corner talking to this one person with lots of little questions for a long long time when I would much rather stop "talking shop" for once.


Karl Steel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hell, Karl, I feel this way telling people at SLAC what I do. As the only Medievalist of any type on campus -- and also, as far as I can tell, the only person with an interest semi-academic in sff, I don't really fit in. But if I say I'm a Historian, or that I teach History, people are instantly reminded of their coaches who taught history.

I'm still not entirely comfortable with finding a way to explain myself. It doesn't help that my colleagues who do get it want me to come and give talks to their classes on stuff that's practically modern, i.e., stuff that happened in the 14th and 15th centuries. No one wants to hear about the 9th c. Hmph.

And yeah, I get the same thing with members of my family. "all that education and you make how much?"

My solution is to say, in a self-deprecating, non-threatening way, "I am a Medieval Historian" or something like that. Most of the time, it's a conversation stopper anyway. Maybe I should become the avenging angel of Medieval History, disabusing people of their ignorant misperceptions. I would like that. But it might make me slightly less popular!

Eileen Joy said...

Hear hear to what Chaucer said about more drinking and lightening up a bit. I've never really had conversations with people who either put down what I do or want to engage me in what might appear to be "inane" conversations. Generally, they either shy away like I have the black plague [because the erudition they *assume* I possess is scaring them] or they say, "cool!" I think both reactions are fitting. Now, if we can somehow combine these two reactions--"you're really smart" with "the Middle Ages are cool"--then I think we'll be moving in a good direction. Of course, in many part of America, being smart is not valued; knowing and learning from history is not valued; and even a really cool HBO series like "Rome" is not even watched. There is a fierce anti-intellectualism and even an anti-aestheticism [an anti-"high" Art, in other words], that we have to recognize and somehow contend with. "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog," to my mind, is just the right mix of high and low, but of course, you have to possess a certain education to "get" all of it. But even just one of those Zazzle t-shirts, worn in the rights places, does a hell of a lot of good cultural work [that is both amusing and also learned]. But too often, as we've discussed on this blog before, scholars of the classical and medieval periods often view themselves as custodians [even, gate-keepers] of their respective historical periods and their respective texts, and a lot of venting of spleens is expended on all the ways that contemporary culture supposedly gets our periods "all wrong." That's okay, up to a point, and if it's a case of a government, or a powerful group, using the past to justify acts of genocide or war or torture [etc.], then scholars of these periods have an absolute responsibility to, somehow, not allow this abuse of the past to go uncorrected, unchecked, etc. But in the case of art, I think there has to be more leeway for creative appropriations of the past. Chaucer himself, as Shakespeare, was this kind of appropriator. There will be no end to all the anachronistic Middle Ages that will present themselves both in the popular imagination and in popular culture. This is all to the good. But, again, when a government, such as Bush's White House, decided they can rewrite habeus corpus, it's a serious matter, indeed. One would hope, then, that our constitutional lawyers are also good historians, or at least read the right book, or consult the right colleagues.

Eileen Joy said...

JJC: in case you worry, those of us who have read your work know that you are not disdainful . . . of practically *anything*. And even if you claim that your little Shriner is morose, or that you were morose as a graduate student, well . . . we don't really believe you, anyway.

Alexandra P said...

I sympathise to an extent with the Anon who talked abut their partner doing computer stuff. Mine does, too, and he too gets the inane questions about computer things - as well as a great deal of kudos! Me, I'm a high school teacher ("mainly history, little bit of English on the side"), so I get regaled with a) the stories of what a horror my interloctor was at school (as if I haven't expereinced most of it already), b) how much they loved history at school, or c) how much they hated history and why do we force it on poor little defenceless teens anyway? And when I explain that I teach ancient and medieval and Australian and an elective on human rights... well, there is a lot of potential for ?amusing? stories. And btw, should I ever meet any of you. I can guarantee that I will say "cool! Which area do you specialise in?" and then ask if you would prefer to talk about sport, or the weather....

Another Damned Medievalist said...

OMG -- Today, a colleague asked me if I considered myself a medievalist -- I mean, would I want to be introduced that way. And I said, well, yes, or as a Medieval/Ancient historian (we were talking about a situation where he would be introduced as a professor of Social Science X). He said, "really? You don't find that people give you a hard time? I'm not sure I would tell people that." I still don't know what he means. And frankly, since in this part of the country, if I don't say I'm a medievalist, people ask me about the Civil War ...

Karl Steel said...

A hard time how?

There's a teaching moment if I ever saw one.

If you ever get a chance, let us know what the reply is....

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, my impression was that he thought it was just plain weird. He's very nice, but I think he sees self-identifying as a medievalist as akin to self-identifying to being a cyborg or alien ...

Dr. Virago said...

This is so weird...I'm way behind on blog reading and I was thinking of doing a post on my own blog about *exactly* this subject (with the subtopic of "do you introduce yourself via your discipline first or your speciality first"). I may still do my post and link to this, though maybe everyone's all tapped out.

Anywho, even though no one will see this since I'm coming late to this thread, I have to tell my favorite two "I'm a medievalist" stories.

Story 1:
At a wrap party for an *awesome* play called "Ugly's First World," written by Jeff Dorchen and directed by Bill Cusack, and very clearly influenced by medieval drama (Jeff was in the Harlotry Players at UMich), Jeff introduced me to Bill by saying, "This is V. She's a medievalist." Bill's response: "Coooooooooooool."

Story 2:
I was in Denmark, waiting on some bureaucratic thing or another (long story -- not interesting) and so had time to kill, as did the other waiting person there. He was from the Faroe Islands, I believe. Anywho, we got to talking and he asked what I did. I answered in my usual way: "I teach English literature, especially of the medieval period." He got visibly excited and asked, "Do you teach Beowulf?!" "Yes, I do." "That's all about us, you know! Danes! Vikings!" What made this enthusiasm particularly charming to me was the appropriately Scandinavian pronunciation of "vikings!" -- "weekings!"

But yeah, mostly I get the responses other people have encountered.

Karl Steel said...

DV: I'm still reading. Totally do your own post and link, although I'm more than a little reminded of that Spy magazine feature, "Logrolling in our time." From Story 2: did you make sure the guy checked his spear before he got on the plane?

My medieval story, akin to your Story 1, involves seeing HBO's version of Angels in America on the big screen with a preshow Q & A with Kushner himself. I was beside myself with excitement, I think, and when he said, appropos of what I don't remember, that he had studied medieval literature as an undergrad at Columbia, I threw my hand up. I had no idea what I was going to say -- likely: "me too! not an undergrad, but, yeah, medieval literature. omigod I love your playwritin'" -- so thank god he didn't call on me.

Dr. Virago said...

Karl -- Your potential response to Kushner is probably exactly what I would have had going through my head, too. And how cool that he mentioned studying medieval literature! More of our creative writing students need to hear things like that!

Jon said...

My version of this is what I've called the Allende conundrum:

"Here's the conundrum. Should one encourage such interest in one's field? Or should one reveal that, well, in fact just about every Latin Americanist critic with a shred of self-respect hates Isabel Allende."

Enemy of the Republic said...

I too am a medievalist. But I teach Intellectual Heritage, so I have learned to be a biblical, ancient Greek, Freudian, Darwian, Marxist, Lockian, and an Enlightenment scholar. But I always shove Dante in no matter what!!!