Friday, August 13, 2010

Dreaming a Future for the MAA

by J J Cohen

In the comments here, Aunt Pansy observes:
There will be exciting things upcoming [for the MAA]. A new Executive Director in a little less than a year, a new set of by-laws, perhaps some insurance for directors and councilors and officers to prevent them being threatened with the individual financial costs of law-suits for failing to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities? more supportive attitudes towards grad students? better turn-around for submissions to Speculum?
In the comments to this post, Karl writes:
Things might settle back into the status quo ante, but perhaps not? Not to be too cutesy, but in this confusion and uncertainty, we might be seeing the rumblings of an actual future, an opening into who knows what.
ADM adds:
I'm not sure what it is that the MAA wants to be, or that its members want it to be. It may be a time for redefinition -- or definition? Another thought: the MAA is old. It used to be *the* medievalists' society in America. But so many other societies have grown up in the last 15-20 (or fewer) years, and my impression is that these societies, e.g., those that focus on the Early Middle Ages, were created by people who felt that the MAA meetings and Speculum did not really represent their scholarly interests ... Basically, MAA isn't the 800-lb gorilla anymore, but I think it still sees itself that way. The reality is that people have broader options and less money for memberships and subscriptions. This may be the time for a re-think on how to make the organization more relevant to all of us, or perhaps to specialize to a couple of core groups.
To keep the conversation productive, and future focused, let me piggyback on these important queries and ask: what do you want to see from the MAA in the years ahead? How can the organization remain vital, and where should its communal energies be focused?

28 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I think I want to see fewer mixed metaphors ("seeing the rumblings").

BUT great questions, Jeffrey, thanks, and thanks for posting this.

Eileen Joy said...

To be honest, this post and the comments are troubling me a bit. I've been deeply dismayed by the MAA's *handling* of its decision, and by the rhetoric associated with that decision, to *not* move its annual meeting out of Tempe, Arizona. And clearly, many within the MAA are troubled by that, too, and maybe there is even some of what we might call dissension within the leadership ranks as well. Further, some serious bumbling has been going on, and the recent resignation of 3 members of the local programming committee [which I applaud] should give the leadership of the MAA some serious pause regarding their recent decision, and maybe they might even be brave enough to re-consider that decision. And if my own personal hopes were realized, they would carefully read the letter by the president of the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association [where she explained why and how the NCSA decided to move its annual meeting out of Tempe] that I posted here a few days ago and come to understand that polling one's membership as the primary mechanism for coming to terms with a decision such as this one might not be the best idea [especially when the margins are so close, especially because they did not really get responses from the full membership, because the membership is somewhat fluid from year to year, because this entailed a moral decision as well as one of fiduciary responsibility and you don't always leave moral or even fiduciary decisions to a so-called "majority" vote--that's why it's called "leader"-ship--and so on and so forth].

However, I find the idea that the MAA should re-consider its future in light of all of this, or that they should narrow their focus, or that their "old"-ness somehow means they are too creaky or "irrelevant" [and don't get me wrong: I left the MAA roundabout 2006 because I actually *do* think they have become, for better or worse, the conservative rear-guard and they haven't been kind, over time, to those scholars trying to do innovative and theoretical work and "Speculum," *most* of the time, bores me], might be a bit premature, maybe even a little condescending. I would say that as an organization, its overall membership represents many many many of the best scholars in medieval studies and "Speculum" has published some of the best and most enduring scholarship in our field [it was an article by Jeffrey in "Speculum,"--"The Flow of Blood in Norwich"--that first drew me to Jeffrey's work and it was their special issue on "The New Philology" that, along with Allen Frantzen's "Desire for Origins," mainly inspired my dissertation].

At the same time, for many of us, annual meetings of the MAA have become a standard for how dull and conservative our field can be [and YET--everyone is entitled to their scholarly methodologies and ideologies!], and I think what we ultimately have here is not a question of: what is wrong with the MAA, but what is wrong with its current leadership structure, and related to that [maybe], what is wrong with *some* of its current leaders?

[to be continued]

Anonymous said...

I would like to see the organization treat emerging scholars with more courtesy and respect. This is based on a frustrating experience in connection with the Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize. While alone this would probably not lead me to cancel my membership, it provides one more reason along with the Arizona decision, etc.

Eileen Joy said...

[continuing]

The fact that the MAA is the oldest association of medievalists in North America for some means" most venerable + worthy of worship/continual curatorship in its present form and for others: let it die a slow, painful death. I'm exaggerating a bit here to make a point, but I want to say it's not about a choice between: 1. because it's old, it's traditional, and that's okay and even important, by god, OR: 2. because it's old, and traditional, it has to become more relevant somehow, or it will cease to be useful in any meaningful way. As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to defend the humanities and humanism [yet, newly defined], and who is a medievalist [i.e.: likes old things], I think we have to approach Jeffrey's provocative questions by considering that the MAA will *always* be worthy of defending as an institution [and hopefully it will endure], while also recognizing that the best institutions actually *do* have to change over time [or they really will cease to be relevant, even if they survive--they just become museum-like, like the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, VA, where I went to school]. Contra ADM, I think it is actually good to have a large-ish, umbrella-like organization that represents *all* of medieval studies in North America, regardless of specialization, but the MAA is to be faulted for, over time, having shut out some of those specializations from their meetings and journal. So, as such a large organization, they should work harder to be more welcoming [esp. to grad. students and junior faculty doing edgy work] and more receptive and more inclusive. They should do everything TRANSPARENTLY: i.e. nothing behind closed doors. They should be more open and forthright about their deliberative processes relative to the administration of their annual meeting and journal and other programs and initiatives. "Speculum" should do more special issues with more guest editors, and it should be more "global" in its many "Middle Ages," European, Asian, and other/trans-wise. It should work actively to help ameliorate the situation of the marginalization of medieval studies in No. American universities by actively seeking to demonstrate the relevancy of the Middle Ages to contemporary life and thought via its annual meetings and journal and also through other to-be-dreamed-of-still programs and initiatives. It should figure out ways to partner with other associations, both within and without medieval studies, to collectively work on initiatives aimed at strengthening the position of the humanities in No. American universities. It should be a voice for progress within the field, while also being a home for scholars who work in all areas and methodological approaches, conservative and less so, because ours is a field that requires collectivist labors and every scholar, no matter their specialty or bent, is vital to the enterprise.

And if there are one or two holdouts among the MAA leadership who don't believe in change of any kind, show them the door.

Etc. Etc.

Eileen Joy said...

I would also like to add here that, as the oldest [and I assume, the largest] association of medievalists in North America, the MAA has the excellent and unparalleled *opportunity* to work on behalf of the continued health of medieval studies [and the humanities, more largely] in institutions of higher learning in the US, and it should do so with as many partners as possible. Sure, over time, as ADM points out, other associations and institutions have sprung up in order to address specializations and regional concerns better than the MAA has or is willing to, and we will likely [and hopefully] see more of these, but it's still good to have "big-tent" groups as well [BABEL, in fact, is envisioned as a "big-tent" group, but purposefully has an anti-hierarchichal/open structure and no "leadership" structure, per se] who hopefully will dedicate themselves to what I would call "large vision/future-oriented" initiatives and missions. When Rick Emmerson was the Exec. Director of the MAA, he indicated to me that such could be the case, and he was even interested in a MAA/BABEL collaboration. It is to be hoped that other MAA members would view such ventures as a proper pursuit of the MAA.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Eileen, I don't think the umbrella idea is at all Contra what I was suggesting. What I meant was that, if the MAA wishes to be *the* representative umbrella organization, it needs to do a much better job at it -- otherwise, it should pick a focus. Because right now, it really isn't. I think that is what it *should* be, fwiw. I'd like to see it represent a broader swath of Medieval Studies AND the scholars of Medieval Studies.

Eileen Joy said...

ADM: got it; appreciate the clarifications to your prior comments, and TOTALLY agree. You've been one of the most vocal and ethically committed [and brave] commenters on this whole situation, and while we don't always agree on the fine points, I respect your positions and person immensely.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Eileen -- It's nice to be seen to be those things, although I am not so sure of the brave part. I just say what I think. People are free to tell me I'm full of crap, if they disagree, and they might even be right :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

also, considering your own outspoken lead on this, how could the rest of us do otherwise :-)

Eileen Joy said...

@Karl: sitting here in the Denver airport, I just *saw* a rumbling tumble by. It's kind of like a big dust ball that makes noise, but you can see it all right.

anna klosowska said...

I think the MAA is the Chesterfield sofa of medieval studies.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I think you are just facing a mid-life crisis. Of course the MAA needs to change (don't we all) - but it is a powerful institution which has achieved great things for medieval studies outside as well as within America and should not be ditched over the Arizona issue (and no I wouldn't go to Arizona if I stood in your shoes, which i don't).

In Europe the nation state is a problematic thing of the past (*I hope* at least) - so I do not dream for such a thing here. I am happy enough to keep those old national associations which do exist - but for all of us the question of institutional identity is a fascinating and enriching subject to consider (I really want to avoid saying it is problematic). May your consideration of what it means to be a medievalist in the US bring great things for the future - but please don't leave the middle ages out of your discussion of that future.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

My own wish list includes: less empyrean and more active in contemporary debates about why the past matters, and what the study of the Middle Ages contributes to such conversations; increased cultivation of the next generation of scholars; more transparency in governance decisions; better fostering of a sense of medievalist community; more alliances with similar organizations in the humanities. That'd be a start.

Anonymous said...

My dream is that it be a organziation that studies the Middle Ages and doesn't become embroiled in contemporary American politics as an organization.
There are thousands of medievalists who have various personal, political, theological, and philosophical ideas about contemporary American or world society. If your conscience won't allow you to step foot in Arizona, then don't go. Who can argue with another person's conscience? I won't.

I won't go because it costs too much money and there are numerous other opportunities to gather with medievalists and discuss scholarship and if we so desire modern politics or sports in our personal relationships. (*Although I've been a member of MAA for many years, I've never attended because of costs.) For instance, I considered going to Chicago, but after looking at the costs of travel, hotel, food, and registration it would have been my travel budget for a few years. "Kalamazoo" and regional meetings are still the best bang for the medievalist's buck. At least for those of us who have very limited amount of funds for such events and save up personal funds for travel too.

BTW, I don't like the Arizona law.

Eileen Joy said...

And to Anonymous here, I would say that an MAA that would be "embroiled in contemporary America politics" is not necessarily the same thing as an MAA that would take as part of its mission the efforts, wherever possible, to demonstrate the enduring *value* of the study of medieval literature, history, archaeology, art, etc. to the contemporary humanities. And having also said that, I have to also say, though, that any humanities discipline or field that thinks it could ever be beyond or above politics, is dreaming, and also isn't [in my opinion] taking seriously enough the ethics of knowledge production.

Anonymous said...

The General said:
I would want an institution that addresses its diversity issues head on. An organization that does not cower from taking a stand to protect its members from being persecuted. An organization that doesn't actually believe it's the ivory tower and wants to keep it that way. They may say that they are not doing this, but their decisions (along with several comments in various of the posts at ITM) suggest that they do not care about opening the field up to scholars of color or scholars who do not speak with an Anglo-American accent. I don't see them offering up sessions on how to deal with the lack of diversity in the field. Or offering up a special issue on "Race" in Speculum. Or any monetary scholarships for diversity graduate students or scholars. Their decisions and follow-up letters say to me that they are fine with just keeping the MAA looking, speaking, and acting like it has for its entire history. No one wants to say the word, but yes, what they are doing is a form of racism. In studies about diversity in hiring and tenure decisions in the US, these studies have shown that what happens in meetings that decide hiring, tenure, and promotion is that faculty (and let's face it, most are not exactly diverse--look at the pitiful statistics in the Chronicle every summer and consider what our field looks like at Kalamazoo) want to hire, tenure, and promote people who are like them which is statistically white, upper middle class, and even now heavily male. So, yes MAA by saying it's OK to hold the meeting in Arizona (where you know a portion of your membership will be persecuted), you are also saying that it's their problem and really why such a fuss. You should just keep a stiff upper lip and push on. It's a subtle form of institutional racism (and yes, individually people can say they are not racist, but as an organization and unit, it has acted as such).

Anonymous said...

The General said (pt. 2):
It is saying to its minority membership (those who have left and those who remain) that you have to pretend that it's just a minor political issue and really just chalk it up to experience. It's OK for the institution to put you in a position where you will not be treated equally or fairly. It's asking you why you are making such a big deal of it. They also say, just don't come. So now MAA has become a place where only certain people can feel free to attend, deliver ideas, and network. The things we all need to eventually gain a job, tenure, or promotion. Yet, somehow equal access and treatment at its professional conference does not seem high on the priority list. So what I really want: an MAA that is not racist.

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you, General, for making these comments, especially vis-a-vis the points re: institutional racism, which oftentimes can be very subtle, yet damaging. I have been depressed for a long while now about the dearth of minority candidates in medieval studies, especially in Old & Middle English studies. When Alice Sheppard [formerly at Penn. State] left the field, I took it as a kind of personal blow [meaning: I felt OE studies really needed her scholarship & person and without her my field is more impoverished]. And anyone who says that the MAA cannot afford to pay too much attention to scholars within its ranks that represent a very small set of voices on this subject [and therefore represent a kind of "minority" squeaky wheel + too narrowly-defined partisan interests], really doe not understand what "umbrella" organization means.

"postmedieval," by the way, will ne doing a cluster of essays on "Race," to be edited by Cord Whitaker [Univ. of New Hampshire].

Eileen Joy said...

Boy, I wish I could type/spell better this afternoon. Paint fumes.

Anonymous said...

". . . should work actively to help ameliorate the situation of the marginalization of medieval studies in No. American universities. . ."

Ah, but the MAA, based in Cambridge, embodies the institutional solipsism and self-regard of top-tier R1 universities. Do "scholars" at regional public universities really produce research (or graduate students) worth so much that Ivy-League professors should waste their precious time advocating the field beyond the circle of the elect? Pearls before swine. The importance of Cambridge-centered social-academic network obviously exempts it from political and ethical claims which obtain for lesser mortals.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the MAA is based in Cambridge, but it has no institutional affiliation that could justify Anonymous' last post. Of the current officers and councillors and staff, only one is affiliated with an "ivy-league" institution, and that's the University of Pennsylvania. Look at the articles they've published in recent years and you will see a clear diversifying of topics and authors as compared to decades ago. "Speculum" is a journal with very high standards...they're not going to publish something just because it's a hot topic. The essays there are all well-written, well-argued, and well-structured, and aimed at a
generalized audience of medievalists worldwide. The medieval academy is a thriving organization with more than 4000 members whose leaders - thoughtful scholars who do indeed have actual morals and ethical values - are doing the best they can in a very difficult and fraught situation.

Eileen Joy said...

@Anonymous [i.e. the *last* person to post here as "Anonymous"]: I apologize for the comment just above yours from "Anonymous"--I think it's completely stupid, but we try to post all comments as democratically as possible [and we occasionally do NOT post comments, or bar comments, that we deem to have been proffered in in the worst sort of rude and antagonistic "spirits," as it were]. The primary authors of ITM [and I hope I can say this for all of us] do not concur with those statements, and we are very much in empathy with members of the MAA, and its leadership, who have struggled and suffered through this situation. I personally wished for a different outcome and I have some disappointment with that but I don't impugn the organization as a whole or its individual members with a broad brush. And I would never make the assumption that the members of this organization would *all* automatically share some sort of cliched elitist ideology, by virtue of the Academy's location in Cambridge. Over time, the organization has developed a deserved reputation for its conservatism [and perhaps in different times and places, its elitism--this is actually an inescapable fact of many academic organizations and even university life in general, depending on where you are at any given moment], but the MAA has also, slowly but surely, undergone changes and progressive reforms. Most of us understand this, even when we disagree with the recent decision, and even when, perhaps, we decide to leave the MAA, or not to go to Tempe yet stay as members of the MAA, etc. What is needed now is open, transparent, and polite discourse aimed at the hopefully continued health of medieval studies *at large* in the American university, from a variety of institutional and other perspectives. Thank you for your candid comments.

Virginia Blanton said...

Dear all~

I've been thinking a lot about this series of comments and about the results of the SMFS vote not to sponsor a session at the MAA meeting in Tempe. The initial post by JJC about the future of the MAA and who/what medievalists are strikes at the heart of the debate over this issue, as do many of the comments SMFS voters posted. There's clearly a lot that we need to address.

After seeing the results and reading the comments of the SMFS vote, the SMFS Advisory Board requested that a roundtable be added to the Kalamazoo program (unfortunately we were turned down) on the subject of state and national politics vis-a-vis organizational identities. SMFS is interested in partnering with BABEL and other interested groups to develop a session on this as soon as possible (Kalamazoo 2012 seems to far away but may have to be the default location/time to include as many as possible [read: big tent] in the discussion).

For those of you interested, here are the results of the SMFS vote, along with a series of provocative comments on the issue: http://hosted.lib.uiowa.edu/smfs/mff/news.html

Do let me know if you would like to participate in a roundtable on this issue--or if you have ideas about venues where we might organize sessions.

Best,
Ginny

Eileen Joy said...

Ginny: thanks for this comment--you can count BABEL in for a shared session [somewhere] on this topic. 2012 @Kalamazoo does seem very far away, indeed, and BABEL has just launched a new conference, but it only happens every 2 years, and the 2010 program [@UT-Austin, 4-6 Nov. 2010] is already set. But I wonder if SMFS, BABEL, MEARCSTAPA, and some other groups might not want to organize a 1-day symposium on the subject in a location that many people could get to without too many travel hassles? I would be happy to help co-ordinate that, maybe even this spring or early summer?

Also--what do you think about a "stealth" Kalamazoo session, where either SMFS or BABEL uses their "business meeting" to host a forum? Just a thought.

Virginia Blanton said...

Thanks Eileen. An interesting idea about the stealth approach, but I would hate to jeopardize any future sessions our collective groups might want to do in future years at Kzoo.

Also, given that we would want it to be big tent, it would need to be an open and well-advertised forum. I'm committed to organizing another conference next June -- and yes, I knew the BABEL conference in Austin is already set. So...

What do you think about an "online conference" or forum like this blog, where folks could post 5-10 minute "papers" and have a dialogue virtually? It has the benefit of no travel costs and inclusivity. It would be a matter of finding some server space, but I think that shouldn't be a problem. There is interest among the SMFS Advisory Board to publish a special issue of Medieval Feminist Forum on the identity of our organization in light of the comments raised (or we could consider a joint publication or some such). In any case, a virtual or real-time interactive digital conference/volume might work well. What do you think?

Eileen Joy said...

Ginny: I like the idea of a "virtual" conference; it could even include audiocasts/podcasts in addition to printed "papers" or "statements." There are all sorts of marvelous options these days for free online + print-on-demand "books" or "booklets." SMFA and BABEL could partner to host such a "meeting," then could co-edit/co-publish together such a "booklet," available online *and* in printed form at a very low fee [under $10]. BABEL is currently exploring the idea of launching a "booklet-novella" series that would utilize open-source publishing sites and services, both in order to continue to support the "book" as an object, but to also make them cheap [and still beautiful, as objects].

Virginia Blanton said...

Terrific! I like the idea of the audio/podcast as well. I'll share all of this with the Ad Board and we can get something rolling. A wholly different kind of "stealth" approach.

Eileen Joy said...

Sounds terrific, and you can reach me easily at either:

eileenajoy@gmail.com

or:

ejoy@siue.edu