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My Kalamazoo roared to a most excellent start thanks to Noah Guynn, Theresa Coletti, Donna Beth Ellard, Eileen, Karla Mallette, Deborah McGrady and Zrinka Stahuljak. Noah formed and introduced the Exemplaria panel on "Literature, Theory, and the Future of Medieval Studies: Middle English and Its Others," while all the others gave insightful presentations. Eileen took copious notes -- something I failed to do -- and is going to post her ruminations on the session as a whole tomorrow. Meanwhile, I offer my own short presentation below.
In his session proposal Noah posed a series of trenchant questions for panelists to consider. I’ve been rolling them around in my head since last summer, and they’re still rolling, because the questions were future directed. While I am pretty good at comprehending the past my predictive powers are notoriously lacking. Nonetheless I want to tackle Noah’s queries briefly as way of spurring further conversation – because, in the end, that’s what this session has to be about. No one can declare what the future is going to be: its uncertainty is its promise. What we must commit to undertaking together in the face of this prospective precariousness is the forging of the future that we desire and the humanities deserve.
Because we are not well served by passivity, nor by being in a reactive position, I am going to say that again. What we must commit to undertaking together in the face of this prospective precariousness is the forging of the future that we desire and the humanities deserve.
What [does] the future hold for medieval literary studies in all its breadth and depth, including Middle English studies and the disciplines that increasingly find themselves in its shadows[?]
Without some active and creative intervention, not much that is cheerful. Some resource-rich institutions will continue onward with their various programs preserved in the amber that derives from a healthy endowment and long traditions of alumni support. Less affluent private institutions will likely follow the austere course they have been tracing for some time: not replacing tenure track lines in the humanities after retirements, filling these positions with adjunct and other forms of exploitative labor, leading to dwindled departments that cannot adequately run themselves; subsequent consolidation and even elimination of programs. STEM and vocational training will remain the apple of the post-secondary education eye, with the humanities seen as service rather than research disciplines. Everything about this model is wrong, from the STEM obsession itself to the ways in which Science, Engineering Technology and Medicine are conceived and taught. Under the banner of economic austerity, ideological changes can be implemented that have nothing to do with saving money. Public institutions will follow a similar course, though at a much accelerated rate, not only since they typically possess fewer resources but also because in certain states (Iowa, Florida) legislators are inimical to professoriat, believing their lives to be too easy. I don’t think anti-intellectualism will abate any time soon. Nor will the recession: we graduate students who owe tens of thousands of dollars to unscrupulous government-supported lenders, dooming our young to years of indentured servitude to pay off their price of passage. The humanities have a difficult time breathing under such constriction.
Can minority disciplines withstand the pressures of institutional consolidation and interdisciplinary expansion?
Without some active and creative intervention, only with great difficulty, and maybe not for long. Boutique institutions will continue to offer the array of programs they have long supported, but none of these will likely grow. The question of whether to train future specialists in early literature and history within them will be a pressing one, given that the number of jobs will likely continue to trend downwards. Meanwhile other institutions will persist in allowing such programs to dwindle to the point where they are terminated or consolidated. It is possible that under the English umbrella can be found resources (including jobs) that have evaporated elsewhere: it seems easier at the moment to do the French of England in an English department than to do medieval French and hope to get a position in a Romance Languages program. Yet English Departments thereby become the blob that engulfs everything, absorbing and assimilating the positions and practices of minority disciplines – sometimes intentionally, under the banner of globalism or transnationalism, sometimes because of extramural institutional decisions. English Departments will likely do this without the humanities growing overall.
What kinds of intellectual losses will medieval studies sustain as faculty lines and entire programs are lost or enveloped into larger units?
The downside of what I’ve outlined above is that when Wace and Marie de France become British writers, they lose their place in francophone tradition. Disciplinary training ceases to matter. Yet how can interdisciplinary endeavors be executed in the absence of disciplines? Global or transnational literature as practiced by English Departments usually means quietly making the world revolve around an anglophone, even anglophile axis. The same thing happens to the theorists early literature specialists use to communicate with their peers in later literature: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Latour become authors known in translation and absorbed into the arsenal of established practices for interpreting the English and American canons.
The Question of Theory (condenses three questions)
Theory in whatever form offers something that humanists otherwise lack: a potential lingua franca. Medieval cultural studies has been savvy about this communalizing use. Look at the inaugural issue of postmedieval, where specialists in medieval studies, early modern studies, and later posthumanisms share space. Many of its contributors are in English Departments; many are not. Theory has enabled scholars of early literature to engage in conversations across temporal and disciplinary boundaries – and local evidence suggests to me that the dialogue is a shared one. But here is the rub: we often speak about theory as if it were its own entity, as if it accomplished things by itself. We associate theory with certain key figures who are distant or dead, but we don’t otherwise embody its practice. If medieval cultural studies has been at all effective in bringing critical attention to the period through the alliances it has enabled, then let’s not forget that these alliances do not come out of nowhere. They take dedicated work. They require scholars who know how to bring people together socially and intellectually. They take insistent outreach (via social media and personal connection), as well as the cultivation of multiple federations.
We live in an age that has rightly given up on the heroic model of scholarship, where a lone individual accomplishes admirable feats of monographic creation. We recognize that collaboration is all. And yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the power of Big Personalities. If minority disciplines have a hope for reinvigoration, if humanists have a hope for reinvigoration, it might just be in the cultivation of such academics, charismatic scholars whose endeavors are not focused on self-aggrandizement but upon the collective and cooperative renewal of the humanities. We need a playful but not ironic sense of mission. We need to become better leaders, movers, shakers, administrators, and activists. We need to be willing to step into spotlights, advocate widely, confederate promiscuously, proselytize even to the converted, form the largest and most vigorous collectives possible and get over our own modesty.