Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nicole Nolan Sidhu on Gender and Middle English Studies

by J J Cohen

The latest Literature Compass [6/4 (2009): 864–885] has a fascinating essay by Nicole Nolan Sidhu on "Love in a Cold Climate: The Future of  Feminism and Gender Studies in Middle English  Scholarship." Her argument, in a nutshell, is that while gender studies have increased steadily in the field of Middle English studies since the 1990s, such scholarship is not generally undertaken by those at the (US News and World Report determined) top 50 research institutions, and does not appear with frequency in top tier journals. Given the inherent importance of such work, the evident lack prestige of gender studies is deeply troubling, especially as young in the field scholars who undertake such scholarship move towards tenure.

The study is quite provocative, and well worth reading. I wish it didn't make so much of my offhand remark about a medievalist trifecta of journals way back when (at least not without bringing up the vigorous discussion that ensued: I was not making an ex cathedra pronouncement, mainly because I don't have a cathedra to sit upon). Highlight for me: the outline of the careers of Holly Crocker and Tison Pugh as scholars engaged in extremely important gender studies projects without sufficient institutional (in the large sense) support.

While I do wonder if much gender studies work hasn't become less visible simply because it is no longer named or called out (i.e. some of the topics that are being discussed right now really can't be analyzed without feminism, but feminism might not be a keyword that is called out in the work), Sidhu's essay, together with Liz Scala's recent essay on gender and historicism, suggests that a gulf exists between how much the field says it values feminism, gender studies, and queer theory, not enough of it is being published in the most visible journals and by scholars at elite universities. 

10 comments:

Dr. Virago said...

Ack, and I inspired that off-hand remark! It's all *my* fault! :)

Seriously, though, thanks for linking to this interesting and provocative (in a good way) article. My criticism of it, which follows, is in no way influenced by the fact that I wasn't cited in the article, I swear. Really.

I think you're right, Jeffrey, to note that gender studies might be less visible because it isn't called out as such in the works that nevertheless rely on its assumptions. Given that Sidhu relies so much on the way that books and articles are indexed in the MLA bibliography, it may also be that they're not being understood as such. Lord knows I'm continually baffled by the way my own work gets categorized and indexed. And she notes in a footnote that searching for "woman" or "women" doesn't suffice since work about women isn't necessarily feminist, but that's often how feminist work about women gets indexed.

And her insistence on only counting whole panels on gender at conferences is problematic. I understand her implicit point that it makes gender studies more visible, but doesn't that also *marginalize* gender studies? That is, doesn't it say that the proper place of gender studies work is with its own kind, over there on the gender studies panel? I've worked my whole young career on gender, but actually have never appeared on a panel specifically about gender. I see that as a positive thing, because it means the scholars who came to hear about the other subjects my papers addressed *also* heard papers addressing gender and those subjects.

Moreover, as cool as her use of Holly and Tison as models is, it weirdly turns their successes into a kind of victimhood. Shouldn't we be *glad* that one of the editors of Exemplaria isn't at a high prestige institution? Doesn't that tell us that good and influential work is good work, regardless of its institutional origin? Isn't that a good thing? And there are many particular, idiosyncratic, personal reasons why Holly and Tison are at their respective institutions. Sidhu's broader numbers about the field are a little more persuasive than this anecdotal evidence, but again, much of that relies on the problems I've outlined above.

And finally, why stick to Middle English scholars, especially since a number of scholars move across languages and periods?

Sarah Rees Jones said...

ack! cannot read Compass publications (even though I wrote one)...

irina said...

I don't have access either. Is there any way, ahem, that a copy of the article could be made available? (Perhaps the author has a legally shareable pdf?)

Now I'm going to go reflect on the irony of digital publications *still* being difficult to access...

Karl Steel said...

I just asked my Interlibrary Loan for a copy. I know Brooklyn College isn't a research institution, but still....

irina said...

Ok, I finally got my hands on the article. My first reaction is that I agree very much with Dr. Virago's sentiment that we need to be looking at the productivity of scholars from schools that aren't top-ranked by US News as a sign of success. Sidhu acknowledges Bonnie Wheeler's importance as feminist scholar, medievalist, and editor. Still, she doesn't mention the fact that Wheeler's institution isn't even ranked by the US News graduate English listing. (Owing, no doubt, to the fact that it didn't have a doctoral program until a few years ago.)

I wonder if Anglo-Saxonists aren't a little more accustomed to the idea that many of our field's shining lights teach at out of the way places. (This may remain a sad fact of life for a while, considering that not even all of the Ivies have Old English faculty. I'm not going to say here what I think of that.) This is not to say that we shouldn't criticize systematic unfairness when we see it, but I also think it's a potentially positive aspect of the texture of North American university life that students at non-Ivy or Ivyish universities can study with brilliant, productive, innovative, and even extremely influential scholars.

Anonymous said...

Alas, I can't recall my google password, so this will have to be anonymous.

I do have a PDF of the relevant article--I'm happy to send along if anyone wants it. Just email: pingham@indiana.edu. I'll attach it to a return email.

Cheers,

Patty Ingham

Karl Steel said...

I'm glad to see the issue of the place of gender critique/history being raised, although I'm hesitant abt some of the language (e.g., "heterosexual identities" (872), which I know is in a summary of Pugh, but...). With Dr V. (to whose fine points I have little to add), I wonder if the focus on ME is also a problem. There may not have been many ME articles in Speculum that engaged w/ gender (or feminism), but how many ME and especially ME literature exclusive articles have there been in Speculum in the last 10 years, anyhow? Unfortunately, the index here is incomplete, and most of my Specula are at my office. Of the 4 I have here, however, I note another article that NNS might have picked up had she cast her net a bit wider, W. Mark Ormrod's 'The Trials of Alice Perrers' (April 2008)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Of relevance to the discussion here.

LanglandinSydney said...

Lawrence Warner here, coming to this (Sidhu essay discussion) pretty late. For what it's worth, The Yearbook of Langland Studies would adore receiving more gender-focused submissions. Our last essay that would fit Sidhu's definition was probably Masha Raskolnikov ‘Promising the Female, Delivering the Male' in the 2005 volume and of course there was the whole 1998 volume way before my time.

Sidhu might interpret this as evidence that the elite gatekeepers were chillingly suppressing gender-focused work: it's hard to know whether the journals she doesn't exempt from her general accusation that work on ME and gender is being suppressed (see n 2; n 9 says Exemplaria and SAC are OK) are implicitly targeted or just overlooked as not elite enough to worry about, but I can say that in our case we can't publish what's not submitted. Sometimes we score a commission (as with Judith Bennett's essay in the 2006 volume) but usually we rely on the energy of the world of ME scholarship.

Again, maybe this just isn't what Sidhu is talking about. But if that's the case, then it'd be interesting to know why it's not. And if it is, then perhaps the air isn't nearly as chilly as she believes.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks, Lawrence. We can't publish what's not submitted deserves emphasis, especially because an open submission process doesn't always yield (for many, many reasons) the best mix of what one might like to see in print.

That's a tortured way of restating what a recent MLA report 9I think it was MLA) found: that blind but open peer review submission to journals does not attract the cross section of work one would expect. Sometimes a combination of invitation and open submission works best -- at least that is what I have found in my own putting together of conference panels and edited collections.