I hope the following does not come out wrong. I do not know Michael Drout personally or follow his blog. I have read some of his work, but not much. I realize that by focusing on a single blog post I may be taking his words out of their widest context.
Drout recently published a rousing blog post on "Laying Down Markers." Drout writes of a colleague who suggested hiring a contemporary-focused scholar rather than a medievalist for a vacant position:
I decided not to let this go, as I'm sure everyone wanted me to. Instead, I laid down a marker: we are not going to make this decision without a debate about this idea on the merits of the argument and its philosophical structure. It will be a long, difficult, drawn-out debate, because I know my arguments very well and am happy to make them (and if they're not careful, I'll use rhetoric, I will...). But I am not going to do the typical thing, the medievalist thing (I'm sad to say), and make one gesture and then roll over. Instead, I'm going to be willing, as one of my colleagues put it in another circumstance "to die on this hill."Drout promises to be henceforth unrelenting in his defense of the Middle Ages, whether at faculty meetings or at the Faculty Club: "Every single time people try to discount, denigrate or ignore the field, I am going to make them engage in a long debate from first principles."
Several in the blogosphere have cheered the post. I could have more enthusiasm for Drout's endeavor if he were offering the possibility of true debate -- that is, if both sides could be open to having their positions modified and their minds changed, if both sides could acknowledge in advance that what they learn might alter how they conduct their scholarship and the ways in which they conceptualize their fields. Drout writes, though, that the debate he has in mind is more of weapon than catalyst, foisted to erode the will of auditors: "Eventually, for many people, it will just be easier to take the study of the Middle Ages seriously so as not to have to lose 2/3 of a meeting on a long, tedious but impassioned rant from / debate with Drout." Content matters less than strategy, for here words do not persuade so much as bludgeon: the threat is that these words will be unleashed unremittingly ... and without the expressed possibility of an audible reply.
What if we medievalists had conversations with our colleagues rather than debates? What if we formed alliances rather than took last stands on lofty mounds?
I've been in academia long enough to predict that reluctance to trigger a predictable "rant/debate" from a colleague leads not to an increased respect for his or her values and seriousness, but to an increased marginalization of the would-be debater. Does anyone listen to the self-appointed gadfly? Do deployers of well practiced rants ever actually obtain what they desire? Do they ever die, like bloodied Roland upon his angel-touched hill? Or do they slowly fade and diminish within an isolation they have brought upon themselves?
I spend a great deal of time pondering how to ensure that medieval studies forms alliances that can enrich understanding of the past and complicate conversations about the present and future. I'd like to think that my colleagues who work in the contemporary Caribbean or in nineteenth-century America can learn as much from me as I from them, and that we can mean it when we say that we belong to the same intellectual community. I've been reading Michel Serres recently, and he has some interesting quotes about how debate drove him from academia: "I have never understood why one must be at odds with those who do not share one's point of view." "Since war is the most common thing in the world, it causes indefinite repetition of the same gestures and same ideas." "I'm not convinced that debate ever advances thinking." Conversation, Serres will allow, can refine and clarify, but for the most part Serres chooses the monk's cell over colloquia. He is so weary of the martial game of knowledge that he writes as if he were Saint Anthony in the desert.
I would not make Serres' choice. I am no good at solitude, crave it as I sometimes do. My own credo? Provisional alliance. Communities built upon interests regardless of time period. An absence of resentment. An exploration of scholarship that moves outside inherited or pregiven boundaries. Invention and creation. The downside: some people will declare that you are not a real medievalist (because to some scholars, real medievalists are those who do what they themselves do, a terribly small world to find oneself trapped within). The upside: conversation and alliance-building work. In the three years I've been chairing English at GW we've had an influx of very good graduate students in early modern and medieval subjects, founded a new institute devoted to early Europe, we've added a new medievalist to our TT faculty, and we've grown our enrollments in every early course. These achievements happened with the assistance and through the good will of my colleagues, not because I drew a line or offered to perish on a hill.