Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Teaching, Learning

by J J Cohen

Breaking pedagogical news: it takes twenty years to learn to teach an undergraduate course well. OK, I am a slow learner: it took me that long to reach the point where I end a semester thinking, this is the kind of classroom I want to be within from now on. The fall semester is nearly complete -- fifty five grades to enter and then I'm done. I won't be teaching at GW again until 2016 (I'm at the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring, then have a semester of leave for the fall as I work on two book projects I'll blog about soon). And yes, on the one hand, I like to complete things and move along ... but on the other, I'll miss both my classes, the most enjoyable and possibly the most successful of my career to date. Here are a few things I've learned, or learned again.

1. All hail the students.
I am fortunate: GW students are wonderful, and they make me feel a strong attachment to the place. The students who enroll in my classes don't necessarily share all that much when it comes to background: they are fairly diverse in race, religion, gender and sexuality, geographic origin, and economic circumstances (though the latter can be invisible, surfacing in painful ways). Yet these students generally share earnestness, engagement, a sense of play, and a desire to build supportive communities. They care about each other. I watched these strengths in action on the first day of Chaucer class when, as we went round the room for introductions, one student requested that they be referenced by third person plural pronouns. The other students simply nodded assent and the introductions continued apace (while I thought: I really like this group).

Don't get me wrong: I have taught courses that have been an immense challenge (the Quiet Chaucer Class of 2011 will live forever as a low point; but then again, I also had to learn from that group that sometimes pedagogy has to be adaptive to what students want as well as what the instructor believes they need). I have had experiments in teaching go badly wrong and I have reported my fair share of GW undergrads for violations of the Code of Academic Integrity. But in general I know that I can rely on them to make a discussion based class -- even one with an enrollment of 90 -- work well.

2. Throw away your book.
The Riverside Chaucer is now, due to the tyranny of Cengage, over $100 to rent in paperback. I've been teaching Chaucer from the Riverside since graduate school: my own hardcover is held together with duck tape. Its decades of marginalia have framed how I lead class discussion for years. I could not in good conscience ask my students to buy or rent the Riverside this year, so I joined them in using the edition edited by Jill Mann for Penguin ($14). I decided this was a good opportunity to rely no longer on my accumulated notes, and so did not refer to my venerable Riverside for course prep. The Canterbury Tales did not become a blank slate by any means (I have this thing called a memory, quite faulty but still useful from time to time) -- yet the text seemed fresher than it had in years. The unthought inheritances of my normative training as a medievalist are still very much with me; teaching without that heritage inscribed on the page was liberating in small ways, though. Another way of putting this: my Riverside bears the visual evidence of having studied with and been a teaching assistant for Chaucerians like Larry Benson and Derek Pearsall -- and the whole Riverside project is framed by Benson's general editorship. The edition has a personality that owes something to him, evident in its textual apparatus, glosses, and its mediation through the community of colleagues and friends he chose for the editing of specific tales. That's good in some profound ways, but it is also a fact that I have not thought sufficiently through for the kind of Chaucer studies I want my students to have versus what the Riverside (and my training) offers. Using a clean edition of the text helped open some distance that I did not know I needed. In a semester during which speaking about sexual assault in class resonated profoundly with an ongoing public discussion of rape culture on campuses, not using the Riverside proved especially useful for framing rape in Chaucer's life and texts -- and for opting out of the long history of normalizing sexual assault into a familiar fabliau device, a motif of long history, or a joke.

3. Enough with the assessment.
It's remarkable to me how much we -- how much I -- have internalized the demand from accreditation bodies to assess everything, as if the success of a course in something as blessedly inutile as Middle English were readable from a series of metrics that mapping student achievement. In the end I don't care all that much if students can identify passages, explicate themes and key terms, compose a properly formatted bibliography. These things are nice but what I really want is to stoke their imaginations, get them to realize that the world is big and strange, expand their conceptual possibilities, and discover the pleasure of sustained attention to a work of art. I'm not sure how to assess wide-eyedness. I stopped aiming for coverage and started intensifying the time we have in class together, as a fellowship. Towards the end of my Chaucer class I realized through our conversations that all my students had reached proficiency in Middle English, had a good command of the Canterbury Tales, and were adept at making connections among the narratives. Instead of a final exam that would assess retention and promote coverage, I gave them a take home with two questions on it: a prospect that invited them to write about all the things we did not cover in class (what was left out? where might we have gone next? what futures have been opened up for study?), and a retrospect that invited them to collect their course materials, ruminate over them, and speak about the ground they had tread with the their classroom companions and with Chaucer, the changes in their understanding of the tales (and if they wished, themselves), along the way. I've never enjoyed reading finals so much.

Not every Chaucer class has to arrive in Canterbury. What about lingering along the way? Enough pretending that the humanities must be vocational training. My students repeatedly commented in their course evaluations on two things: how liberating it was to start at the same point as their peers in learning Middle English (shared vulnerability), and what a relief it was to have a class that embraced useless knowledge.

4. A closed classroom door cannot keep the world from entering.
This was a semester when gross miscarriages of racial justice unfolded repeatedly in the US: black men dying needlessly and white police officers exculpated. Rather than pretend a classroom is a temporary shelter against an unjust world, in both my classes we had discussions of race that touched upon Ferguson and its aftermath. In Chaucer our conversation on the day after the verdict became a rumination over community-making and inclusion: my students kept going back to the threats against the Pardoner and the kiss that reintegrates him. In Myths of Britain, we spoke repeatedly of the long history of racialized brutality, evident in many of the texts we read together: Othello and Isle of Pines, most strongly, but also Beowulf and Mandeville's Travels. We have many students of color in that class (about 20 of the 60), but we would have been talking about race in the course no matter what. I'm Jewish, my teaching partner is black, and in collaboration we teach our students the complexities of a literary tradition that was not written for us, that can often offer violence towards those we identify as being part of our own history, but a tradition we want to grapple with and think deeply about all the same. And we want to do that with our students -- an invitation to dialogue that they happily accepted.

5. Collaboration is scary when it works.
This year marked the sixth time I've taught Myths of Britain, a slowed down version of Intro to Brit Lit that focuses on close reading, slow looking, and better writing through repeated revision. But it's the first time I've co-taught the course, and that collaboration changed everything, leading to a complete reinvention. It helped that my teaching partner, Ayanna Thompson, happens to be a close friend. It also helps that we both gain a great deal of intellectual energy from challenging each other. That dynamic played out well in the classroom, where we worked out a back and forth that modeled for the students (we hope) how to disagree respectfully, playfully, with evidence, with passion. The student evaluations for the course were terrific, and one comment sticks with me: that Ayanna and I execute a Bonnie and Clyde routine well. I think that means we dress well and rob banks. Actually, what I think it means is that when it comes to reaching for some comparison for the team Ayanna and I formed, the student could not find an adequate model, since this collaboration crossed gender and racial differences in ways that don't happen enough in the academy. And I will admit, I was nervous teaching with a friend, especially one I know is so good in the classroom. It felt vulnerable, and the course will never be the same.

6. All hail the students.
None of this semester's experiments in pedagogy would have succeeded without a committed group of students. In Chaucer they happily did the work of tying Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book and Simon Gikandi's essays on the conditions of literary production to the Canterbury Tales. They were with me when I tore up the syllabus and let the end of the course become much more free form than the beginning. They experimented. And the same with the Myths of Britain students. As Ayanna and I attempted to find the best way to frame the class, they never abandoned us. Even when they disliked a text, they came to the lectures with plenty to say. They were there for each other: challenging, encouraging, companioning. It's rare, I know, when you can trust your students so much that you can play with the structure of the course as you are teaching it and know that they will respond well to the opening up of possibilities. Here's to more such rarities.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Communities, Collectivities, Ecologies: MKH's First Graduate Syllabus!

by Mary Kate Hurley

As the semester comes to its close and grading begins in earnest, I’m getting ready to teach my very first graduate seminar in the Spring, currently entitled “Community, Collectivity, Ecology.” I’m sharing my first pass at the syllabus in part because I’d love to get feedback as I finalize it.

Our graduate students at Ohio University are not, generally speaking, medievalists (although give me a few more semesters and I bet I can change that!). My plan, then, is not to focus on giving them a complete historical overview of the period nor to make them into medievalists, per se, although I do want to give them a good grounding in the period. Rather, I thought that brief introductions to critical trends in the field would be the most useful approach to take: the idea would be to use medieval literature as a kind of laboratory for thinking through theoretical ideas that they can import to their work in various fields.

My plan, then, is to teach the interconnections of the two divergent projects I’ve been developing over the past few years. The first, which is based on work from my current book project, locates the development of communities and collectivities in texts that are considered, broadly speaking, as translations. The second is a more ecology-driven project, one that considers how texts participate in their environments. Obviously the second project is far too under-developed to use as a paradigm for graduate study, so my plan here is to start exploring the way that community and collectivity, when taken expansively, shade into ecologies. What I mean by that: if you keep tracing the actors, collectivities can look a lot like ecologies. I want to explore those grey areas with my students, to try to figure out how these three terms interrelate, interpenetrate, and perhaps unhinge one another. I’m not quite sure what we will find, especially since the second half of the course is very much experimental, but I thought it worth a go. I would welcome any feedback or thoughts, especially in the last half of the course where I move to materials I'm less familiar with.


Course Description:
Where does humanity end and “nature” begin? Modern eco-critical, materialist, and object-oriented critical modes question the centrality of the human to literary texts and the worlds they create, describe, and inhabit, encouraging readers to acknowledge and circumvent the often tacit anthropocentrism of their concerns. In this course, we take the post-human to the pre-modern. Medieval authors knew nothing of Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, or Graham Harman, yet their depictions of human communities are deeply concerned with the ways humans are implicated in their environments. We’ll read medieval texts including Beowulf, Exeter Book poetry, Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, Marie de France, and Chaucer.
Marie de France, Lais (trans. Ferrante and Hanning)
Beowulf, trans. Roy Liuzza (2nd Edition, facing page edition and translation)
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
Coursepack and Blackboard Readings

Informed Participation: 25%
Short Discussion Papers and Leading Discussion (x2): 25%
Conference Paper 1 (including annotated bibliography and abstract): 25%
Conference Paper 2 (or article-length essay version of Conference Paper 1, plus annotated bibliography and abstract): 25%

Community, Collectivity, Ecology

Week One: Communities in Context
• Raymond Williams, Keywords (excerpt on Community)
• Brian Stock, Listening for the Text, “Textual Community”
• Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest” THRS 6 (1996): 25-49.

Week Two: Textual Communities, Communities of the Page
• Holsinger, “Of Pigs and Parchment”
• Elaine Treharne, Living Through Conquest (excerpt)
• Fleshing out the text: the Transcendent Manuscript in the Digital Age," Elaine Treharne (Postmedieval 4.4)

[Possible Workshop with rare librarians and local bookmakers to talk about the production and creation of books]

Week Three: Medieval Textual Communities
• Alfred’s Preface to the Pastoral Care
• Kathleen Davis, “National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Post-Colonialist Thinking about the Nation”
• Nicholas Howe, “Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England” JMEMS 34.1 (Winter 2004): 147-172.

Week Four: Medieval Textual Communities in Translation
• Geographical Preface and Excerpt from Old English Orosius (with Latin translation)
• Lawrence Venuti, “Translation, Community, Utopia”
• Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”

Week Five: Communities of Faith
• Aelfric, Life of Saint Gregory (ed. Clemoes)
• Clare Lees, “In Ælfric’s Words: Vigilance and the Nation in the Life of Saint Gregory” in A Companion to Ælfric, ed. Mary Swan and Hugh Magennis. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Week Six: Collectivity and Community
• Aelfric, Life of Saint Oswald
• Michel Callon, “Toward a Sociology of Translation”
• Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (excerpts)

Week Seven: Actors and Networks
• Bede, excerpt on Life of King Oswald
• Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (excerpts)
• Marianne Malo Chenard, “King Oswald’s Holy Hands: Metonymy and the Making of a Saint in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History”

Week Eight: Beowulf’s Collectivities
• Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Urn”
• Deleuze and Guattari, 10000 Plateaus (excerpt: Rhizome)

Week Nine: Animals
• Marie de France, Lais
• Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: “Cohabitation,” “Wolf, Man, and Wolf-Man” and “Conclusion”
• Peggy McCracken, “Animals and Translation in Marie de France”

Week Nine: Anglo-Saxon Oceans in Middle English
• Chaucer, The Man of Law’s Tale
• AHR Forum: Oceans of History, “Introduction”
• Horden and Purcell, “The Mediterranean and the New Thalassology”
• Ingrid Nelson, “Premodern Media and Networks of Transmission in the Man of Law’s Tale,” Exemplaria 2013

Week Ten: Wonder Ecologies
• Old English Wonders of the East (ed. and trans. Orchard)
• Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ed. and trans. Orchard)
• Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (excerpt)
• Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (excerpt)

Week Eleven: Landscapes
• Guðlac A and B
• Alfred Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion” (from The Postmodern Beowulf)
• Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (introduction)

Week Twelve: Saint Erkenwald and Time
Saint Erkenwald
• Karl Steel on Erkenwald and Claustrophilia

Week Thirteen: Made of Meat
Disputation of the Body and the Worms
• Karl Steel, “Abyss: Everything is Food,” Postmedieval 4.1

Week Fourteen: Presentations of Conference Paper 2 or expansion of Paper 1

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Off the Books: BABEL Goes to Toronto


all images from Sean Kernan, Secret Books

I submit to ink. I go into the elsewhere of chiaroscuro. The lack of transparency, the elaboration of shadow as a medium, makes the codex a soft bomb of potential. The sociality of reading does not always or only pertain to the present; it implicates the multi-temporal generosity of politics. Within this folded time, the person and an impersonal speech test and inflect and mix into one another. The book’s darkly confected scene is a speculative, temporally striated polis.

~Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”

As some of you may know, or as some of you may NOT know, the BABEL Working Group is moving its biennial meeting to odd-numbered years, starting in 2015, when we will be meeting at the University of Toronto, from October 9-11, under the banner, "Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering." We are pretty excited about this meeting, in no small measure because we've decided to let all potential session organizers decide what sort of structure(s) they might want for their sessions (duration-wise, format-wise, # of presenters-wise, setting-wise, etc.) and the programming committee will do their earnest best to pull these sessions together into a rowdy and invigorating un-conference stretching over 3 days. We are also going to experiment with how we structure the plenary [or un-plenary] sessions, so stay tuned on that! We have also worked really hard to construct a description of the conference's themes that both draws upon traditional manuscript and history of the book studies, and also examines various registers and valences of the phrase "off the books": how might we collectively explore various histories of the book and bookmaking, as well as consider what it means to go “off the books”: how ideas and various cultural and historical forms leap off from and out of books; how we ourselves are “off of” books and “over” books; what it means to go “off the books” or “off the record”: to go astray, between and off the lines, underground, and illegal, and to be unaccounted for. Going "off the books" thus means examining books themselves—their place in our culture, social imaginary, sense of history, and expectations of academic labor and value—while simultaneously examining their edges, aporias, margins, lacunae, and Others.

You can see the full Call for Sessions here --

-- and I will also repost it here:

4th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

 ~ Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering ~

9-11 October 2015

University of Toronto, Canada


*Send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 1, 2015, to:

For its 4th Biennial Meeting, to be held at the University of Toronto from October 9-11, 2015, BABEL proposes to take flight both along and off the fractal edges of the book. As an institutional and intellectual locus, the book has long occupied a privileged place as an ultimate substrate and platform for the inscription and dissemination of sustained thought and argument, of the images and ideas signified in language, and of the cultural-historical “goods” of various groups, societies and polities over time. Moreover, both the printed book and manuscript hold a prominent place in the foundation of humanistic study (think of how Homer’s corpus survives in the present thanks to its translation from papyrus to medieval manuscript “edition,” or of the British Museum Library, founded in 1753, whose three founding collections—donated by “mad hoarder” library- and cabinet-builders Robert Cotton, Hans Sloane, and Robert Harley—have been instrumental in the establishment of the study of English literature in the UK and North America, and beyond). The book is not only an object, form, and genre, but also a demand, a requirement, and a form of labor. It is the supposed monument to tenure-worthy academic production (the monograph), as well as the chief marker of communal academic and para-academic labors (edited collections, art books, climate change manga), and also a space of outright resistance to the status quo in academic publishing and beyond. The book is also a symbol and reification of authority, canonicity, and official terms, accounts, ledgers, and judgments. It is a location of nostalgia, an affective touchstone for a past that maybe never was, that also always remains entangled with the present of each book’s production. The book is also the chief exemplum of the print epoch in the long history of media forms: the blank white page that waits passively to be imprinted—impressed with/by—the works of human subjectivity and intellectual-cultural production (but is this also a mirage?). The book, further, signifies a certain slow process of cultural production, one that is often valued so highly precisely because it is perceived as difficult, painstaking, voluminous, weighty, and “serious”—the worthy achievement of a certain Olympiad-style intellectual athleticism.


We are calling upon individuals and groups interested in proposing sessions for our 2015 biennial meeting that would explore various histories of the book and bookmaking, as well as consider what it means to go “off the books”: how ideas and various cultural and historical forms leap off from and out of books; how we ourselves are “off of” books and “over” books; what it means to go “off the books” or “off the record”: to go astray, between and off the lines, underground, and illegal, and to be unaccounted for. Going off the books means examining books themselves—their place in our culture, social imaginary, sense of history, and expectations of academic labor and value—while simultaneously examining their edges, aporias, margins, lacunae, and Others. What might be potentialized, opened up, and made when we break books, or break with books? Can we ever really leave books, or are we always somehow interleaved—both in our solitary studies but also within our University-at-large—with the books that have formed our education(s)? Are there ways in which books themselves have provided spaces of subterfuge, for going “outward bound” and “off the record,” for resisting the business-as-usual of the Academy and other institutions? Does going off the books, refusing to keep records, and shredding the evidence-as-usual, while disseminating our ideas in other (more supposedly radically “off-book” forms), allow us to escape surveillance, or does it simply bind us to a surfeit of labors that can never be properly compensated? Will we ever be able to pay the price of our departure(s) from the forms of cultural capital that have ensured so many programs of study, so many positions, so many jobs? And why would we desire this path? We propose the sub-title “making, breaking, binding, burning, leaving, gathering” as a set of keywords (that are, importantly, also verbings and actions) with which we challenge everyone to propose sessions that would investigate the multiple trajectories and valences and entanglements of the past and present of being both bound to and off the books.


Pre- and post-print media are “off the books” on either side. The manuscript books that existed before and for a long time after the invention of the printed “book” can be considered pre- or peri- or proto-books, not-books, un-books, books that shouldn’t be or that never were; they are the messy material instantiations of the collected labor, texts, thoughts, economies, ecologies and authorities of literary, philosophical, and devotional production; they have been made, re-made, bound, unbound, stolen, modified, collected, decorated, cut up, passed around, re-used, thrown away, burned, eaten by mold, worms and critters, scraped, swaddled, broken and bequeathed. Scrolls, rolls, booklets, tablets, quartos, charters, interlinear and marginal commentaries, and various other “documents” are the (un/non)-books that never were. So too digital media of various sorts are (un/non)-books that never were—instead of a unified, finite, and monolithic/monographic material presence, their existence is diffused throughout the infrastructure of electronic media and articulated for more or less fleeting periods on multi-purpose surfaces; digital inscriptions and forms of dissemination show us the limits of the book (material or not) even as they re-write and re-invent it (and digital forms of inscription themselves have limits that we wish to explore vis-a-vis the longer histories of “the book”).

Our current moment inspires and calls forth a whole set of questions relative to the past, present, and future of the book: Is the digital age offing the book? Is the book merely dying on its own? Or being killed? Is it changing? Is it now? Is it then? Is it alive? Is it zombified? Consider, for example, that among so many “hard” media forms that have been introduced since the invention of the printed book, only the book remains as a sort of durable information/entertainment platform—as opposed to celluloid film, the phonograph record, the reel-to-reel tape, the 8-track tape, the VHS tape, the cassette tape, the floppy disk, the hard- and zip- and flash-drive, the CD, the DVD, and so on. If, while everything else (all information, all “knowledge”) migrates to the “cloud,” the book persists, is this persistence perversely anomalous, or somehow the natural result of a brilliantly built-in anti-obsolescence/anti-cloud? What does it mean that the liveliness of books—if such can be argued for—is predicated upon the use and objectification and even death of other beings: animals, cotton plants, oak galls, geese, trees, etc.? Or upon the nearly off-the-books subsistence wages of outsourced proofreaders and warehouse workers (Amazon’s “pickers,” for example)? And what about the (often) unpaid labors of writers, editors, booksellers, and publishers who continue to make and purvey books even as they are declared “over” and “dead, whether for a certain fatalistic love of something “old,” a wild ambition to reboot a supposedly anachronistic form, the desire for a materially tactile instantiation of the imagination’s felicitous and promiscuous errancies, or for the hope of a more robust public commons in which not just all ideas, but all forms of the dissemination of those ideas, has equal purchase upon our collective attention?


Is the book more than an object-form? Is it also an ideal that governs certain measures of scholarly production, now and in the past? Is it magical, talismanic, more-than-human? Is it a thing to be read, or a thing reading? Is it an inscription, or an instantiation, or an incarnation?  Is it even legible? What do we do with unreadable, invisible, or impossible books? Is “the book” singular or multiple? Is it disseminated, iterated, copied, composed, collected, gathered, bound, and in what ways? Is it a figure, a ground, a horizon? Is it a little world, made cunningly, or is it utterly false: a cracked mirror, a bad representation of everything it purports to “body forth”? Indeed, what sort of a body is a book? What bodies does the book gather around itself, and in which times and places? What sort of “gathering” (which is also a “thing”) is this?

“Off the Books,” as a conference-event, is also about more than physical (or post-physical) “books” (delineated, perhaps overly narrowly, as those objects we find on shelves in libraries that still have shelves). In thinking outside the authorized, official, documented, and on-the-record spaces of intellectual labor and production, we also invite session proposals that consider what it means—emotionally, ideologically, culturally, socially, institutionally, practically—to be “off the books” of the university’s usual protocols, and off the books of our disciplines’ usual methodologies, to be outside the parameters of what is defined, recognized and rewarded in the current iteration(s) of the Academy. We want to think carefully (and with a certain will to action) about the growing body of contingent labor, unpaid labor, unacknowledged labor, precarious labor. We want to think about the university’s “books”—its accounts, its records, its rules, its protocols of oversight, and its production(s) of its own (often oppressive and overly managerial-bureaucratic-technocratic) authority, both within particular institutions (whether Harvard or the City University of New York or wherever) and also within Western culture more broadly. We also want to think about the erasures (and the psycho-somatic violence) often involved in the production of the Academy’s “official” records: which bodies, agencies, agendas, accounts, motivations, ecologies, and economies do the official documents cover up, suppress, oppress, or exploit?


In thinking about being “off” the university’s books (its ledger-keeping, its endless demands for assessment, its austerity measures, its sorting mechanisms, its status-based hierarchies, etc.), we therefore also want to consider forms of resistance that go “off the [university’s regular] books,” about undisciplined and undisciplinary labor, about so-called “academic” work that takes up residence in all the outré, dimly lit, queer “dives” of the para- and non-Academy, all the “come what may” places that flicker and shimmer in the spaces of the in-between, the marginal, the gutter, the underground, the temporary autonomous zones. How can we leave the standard “playbook” behind? How can we produce subversive labors that allow us to gather together in gestures of misfit future-izing, even while we risk censure, and maybe even our “careers,” while also building new spaces for the University-to-come? How can we perpetuate and sustain the whisper networks that affirm the validity and worth of the personal “account” and also construct more durable architectures of heterotopic (dissensual) solidarity? How can we bring bodies that have been historically suppressed and erased into better focus and positions of self-empowerment and disturbing vocality (“disturbing” because these voices thankfully, if distressingly, don’t allow for self-assured complacency or banal forms of leftist liberal pieties)?

“Off the books” is thus also meant to signify a collective recognition of (and even an active, and not a passive, mourning for) what never survived to make the leap from book to book to book to book to book—papyrus, tablet, manuscript, print, digital—with a recognition of what is not yet in the book (recorded), but should or could be. To feel that something is, and has been, “off the books” is a condition of (a necessary) longing (or nervous angst) for the ways in which that lost (and covered-over) past retains a kernel of something that could still be realized (think: Walter Benjamin’s idea that those living in the past, who were the “losers” of history, are turning by the dint of a secret heliotropism toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history). Books contain, but they also include. The canon is a problem only because of what it occludes (it could contain, in Whitman’s parlance, multitudes); one response to judgmental and even accidental occlusions is a radically promiscuous practice of inclusion. We might think, then, of what has not yet been “on/in the books,” or what has only recently started to arrive in some sort of “book” form (if even as ancillary “data” or companion “environment”), or what kinds of heretofore unanticipated “books” might be brought about by new techniques, new translations, and new technologies. We might also think about which books we wish had never arrived—books that we desire to lose, unteach, forget, dismember, or relegate to the domain of bad dreams.


We invite proposals for sessions that take us both “on” and “off” books in any of the ways we have outlined, or in ways we have not yet imagined. As with all BABEL endeavors, we invite and welcome provocations that address and confront and work through questions, issues, and subject areas we have not yet anticipated. Further, we invite creative proposals for sessions from all academic fields and sites of para-academic work. Most importantly, this year we launch a new conference (or un-conference) structure: instead of determining in advance that sessions will be 90 minutes each, or 60 minutes each (as we have done in the past), we want YOU to propose the session you want to imagine, at the speed you want to run it: for example, a “speed-dating” or “dork short” session, with 20+ people circulating and doing 1-minute introductions of their research to one another over the course of an hour or more; a seminar that meets for an hour a day each of the 3 days; a 90-minute panel with three traditional papers; an hour-long roundtable discussion with 5 or more persons presenting research/ideas/writing relative to a specific topic or question; a session that would take place over a brunch or lunch or during the cocktail hour; seminar-workshops of 10 or more persons who have circulated work and/or readings in advance; “flash-paper” sessions where presenters have been given prompts in advance that they then “respond” to in short (3-5-minute) performances; a session that extends over the entire 3 days with some sort of performance or exhibit; a “linked” session, spanning 2 hours with a break in-between, with presentations in first half and “breakout” group discussions in the second half; a “slow reading” session where 6+ people bring a passage, an image, a text, an object, etc. which is then “chewed over/ruminated” slowly with audience; a creatively designed “poster/object” session; an anti-plenary plenary session; a “maker/making/unmaking” workshop/lab; a session delivered entirely with emoticons; an intellectual “dim sum” sessions that takes place over real “dim sum”; a session where people give away work they will never be able to finish; etc., etc.

Think about sessions, too, in the form of: working group, demonstration, performance, collision course, dramatic reading, thought-experiment, dialogue, debate, seminar (with papers circulated in advance), drinking game, diatribe, testimony, flash mob (or other type of flash-event), roundtable discussion, complaint, drawing-room comedy, speculation, gymnasium, protest, clinical trial, séance, laboratory, masque, exhibition, recording session, screening, potlatch, cabinet, slam, etc. In addition to calling for sessions that address books and being “on” or “off” the books, we also invite sessions that are themselves “off the books”—that is, off the record, secretive, hidden, not conducted according to the usual protocols, or not institutional or official in any way imaginable. We have set aside the following spaces: 2 rooms that can hold 50 people each; 1 room that can hold about 80; 1 seminar room that can hold 6-10; a hallway that can hold an exhibit, or posters, or a small performance, or a very friendly flash mob; etc. If you propose a session, and a time (preferably in half-hour increments), we will work to make a schedule that will accommodate a lively, rowdy multiplicity of sessions.

Please send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 1, 2015, to:


BABEL@UToronto 2015 Programming Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Arthur Bahr (M.I.T.), Roland Betancourt (University of California, Irvine), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University), Maura Coughlin (Bryant University), Lowell Duckert (West Virginia University), Irina Dumitrescu (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn), Alexandra Gillespie (University of Toronto), Rick Godden (Tulane University), Andrew Griffin (University of California, Santa Barbara), David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY), Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio University), Eileen A. Joy (BABEL Working Group), Dorothy Kim (Vassar College), J. Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Susan Nakley (St. Joseph’s College, NY), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Daniel C. Remein (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Arthur J. Russell (Arizona State University), Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Sean Smith (Dept. of Biological Flow, Toronto), Karl Tobias Steel (Brooklyn College), Cord Whitaker (Wellesley College), Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University), and Laura Yoder (New York University)

BABEL Future(s) Steering Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Sakina Bryant (Sonoma State University), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University), Lara Farina (West Virginia University), Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University), Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University)

Friday, December 05, 2014


by J J Cohen

I have an ongoing small project that is part of a larger project about following ecotheory's keywords as verbs rather than instantiating its terms as unmoving nouns. The small project is called "Drown."

An excellent undergraduate class at the University of Miami in Ohio heard an early version (thank you Tobias Menely!) and some faculty and graduate students helped me immensely to refine it at the University of Victoria in November (thank you and happy birthday Allan Mitchell!). Blog readers with a good memory will recall I placed some notes about it here back in May 2013, recording the invaluable assistance social media (Facebook plus blog) had been in gathering materials and ideas. Here's the latest version, the abstract in progress for a lecture I'll give at Emory in March (where I'll be the Kemp Malone speaker: how great is it to have a series named for Kemp Malone?)

Let me know what you think. Material to be covered includes gleefully catastrophic depictions of global warming that include sunken cities; Noah in Jewish, Islamic and Christian tradition; medieval depictions of Noah's ark; the Chester play of Noah's Flood; the Miller's Tale. Moonrise Kingdom probably ought to be in there as well since it encases and enacts Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. Then again, there is only so much time ...

Suggestions for deepening my archive are most welcome, as are secondary readings, challenges to the way this inquiry is framed, anything that comes to mind.


Here’s what your city will look like when the ice sheets melt. So declares the headline of a recent story about maps that illustrate the transformation of urban sprawls into ocean-embraced archipelagos. As sea levels rise 40 or 80 meters, San Francisco, Vancouver, and landlocked Portland will become sudden peninsulas and clustered islands that ascend from roiled inlets, fjords, and newly formed seas. London will become Venice, and Venice Atlantis. What is at stake in our desire to imagine cities submerged? Why do we seldom in the process consider the lives of those likeliest to perish in the rising waters, Katrina anew? Why are we not perturbed by the imperative these depictions hurl against land and people, the command to drown?

Perhaps because we have learnt to adopt the viewpoint of Noah. Whereas Jewish and Islamic traditions wondered if Noah was a just man, since he (unlike Cain, Jacob, Abraham) did not argue with God when the Flood was declared, did not attempt to save the people with whom he dwelled, medieval Christian manuscript illustrations typically depict Noah serenely floating in his ark, surrounded by his family and a harmonious menagerie. Yet some late medieval depictions of the Deluge show the ark adrift on a sea of corpses, or render the ocean transparent so that the victims of biblical climate change must be acknowledged. What would happen if we stopped using the Flood as our unspoken cognitive frame for global warming – or at least if we stopped playing the role of Noah and abandoned hope of salvaging small community in an ark built against more complicated, more collective, more livable futures. What if we thought with more sympathy about what is lost when we uncritically embrace the apocalypse conveyed by drown?

Dorothy Kim on the Rules of Twitter

by J J Cohen

Do not miss Dorothy Kim's excellent post at Hybrid Pedagogy on "The Rules of Twitter." The essay is useful for many, many reasons --- and covers a much wider ground than its title indicates. Dorothy's piece is, among other things, a probing consideration of racial dynamics on Twitter; social media as multiracial, multiclass, multigender space (boisterous and overlapping digital publics); Twitter and protest, grieving, conferences, abuse, inclusivity, challenge, and pedagogy. The whole Twitterverse is crammed into that piece. One of my favorite paragraphs calls to task the familiar laments over the demise of social media by emphasizing what is dying is the "front porch," suburban model of chatting with the neighbors. Twitter is not a segregated space, but a "hacked digital media public commons" where the privilege of being white and wealthy and comfortable on that porch may well be taken to task:
The relocation of Twitter — from the bucolic image of conversations with neighbors in the “American Dream” single-family neighborhood to loud Broadway (clearly envisioning New York City) — is a statement about digital white flight. However, the neighborhood in the eyes of these white male pundits was always imagined as safe, suburban — by default — white, and upper-middle class. Basically, these pundits are blind to their own white privilege in discussing a digital space. And this is the issue: Twitter was never a porch, it has always been a mediated public space, a hacked public space.
Read the post in its entirety, and follow Dorothy Kim on Twitter as well.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Hello! From your BABEL Steering Committee

by your BABEL Steering Committee

Greetings, everyone! This voice, our voice addressing you now, is the newly minted collective voice of the Steering Committee of the BABEL Working Group, chosen by election earlier this month. Here we are, gathered together in a first speech act to introduce ourselves and say a bit more about BABEL. BABEL strives to be a non-hierarchical collective, a gathering of academics, para-academics, and students, artists, and makers of all sorts. BABEL conducts ongoing experiments in how intellectual life can be simultaneously more wild and more just. Many, but not all, of these experiments have taken place in the domain of medieval studies. We, says the committee, are thrilled to be helms-people of BABEL at present, and look forward to listening to you, testing which ways the winds blow and the currents pulse, and helping set our course. We will serve fixed terms, expiring on a rolling basis, allowing for new committee members to be chosen by nomination and election. Here are the individuals who compose “us”:

Karl Steel,
Chris Piuma,  

At present, the Steering Committee is testing and playing with how we might best be a part of BABEL’s future. To that end, we’d love to hear from you. We welcome ideas, concerns, and suggestions. And we plan to set up some formal structures for gathering points of view from outside the Committee – and for the Committee to share our reflections, concerns, and plans-in-the-making. The first of these structures are social media forums, including a Facebookgroup  and Google+ community, both called BABEL Futures. Their purpose is the two-way exchange of BABEL related plots, information, and possibilities. We encourage you to join!!

Thanks to recent discussions (like Mary Kate Hurley’s thoughtfulposting at In the Middle, and the comments it engendered) and to the survey conducted after the 2014 BABEL conference in Santa Barbara, we have already at hand a number of perspectives on BABEL that we can reflect on and imagine turning into concrete changes and practices. Together, these perspectives demonstrate that BABEL is a big tent: it contains, shall we say, dabblers as well as BABELers – both those who are passing through, in the transient constellation of a conference session or an online conversation, and those who are deeply embedded in BABEL’s growth and change over the last few years. Whether you’re in the thick of it or in the shallows, in the middle or on the fringe, we’d like to hear from you. What kind of creative and intellectual spaces can BABEL construct and support? How might these spaces exist within the fleeting face-to-face encounters of conferences, the media of publishing, or the broader worlds we inhabit?

You can expect to hear more from us soon, including details of where the good ship BABEL might be heading and details of how we can collectively set its course. In the short term, do join our facebook group and Google+ community. We hope these will be forums for interacting, conspiring, and collaborating, and we will also use them to make announcements and share information. Make of them what you will. The floor is open. And sometimes it will be a dance floor….

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Talking Ferguson in a Medieval Classroom


Continue reading Mary Kate Hurley below, and join the conversation in the comments.
This evening's master's course was supposed to discuss Geraldine Heng, Richard Cole (on Jews in Old Norse Lit), and Jeffrey J Cohen. We were supposed to mop-up last week's Mandeville class by returning to his geographic imagination and "spherical ethics," with references to Walter of Metz (eg) and this fascinating medieval map from a Carthusian Mandeville epitome. But, as we're a course on race and representation, I proposed that we start with 10 minutes close reading of Darren Wilson's testimony, drawing out the connections we could make to other readings over the semester. I got the idea from David Perry, who, along with Rick Godden, developed an excellent and very welcome framework for discussing Ferguson.
Perry writes:
There are serious questions about the believability of [Wilson's] testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.
I used this as my model, having in mind Godden's comments on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [next day edit: see Rick Godden's write up here and for still more on demons, see here, by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi at The New Inquiry]. I directed them to particular pages (212, 214, and 225). No surprise, 10 minutes turned into 45, easily, especially as students started supplying other passages from their own extracurricular reading of Wilson's testimony (have I told you recently how great it is to teach at Brooklyn College?). I let the students run the discussion as much as I could, though I did observe that I'd seen what happens to a face when it's punched at full force twice. This was when I was 16 and rescued from a mugging on a city bus. The rescuer smashed my mugger's face, transforming it with two great blows from a face-shape into a quasisolid mass of mucous, blood, and spit. The brokenness and swelling endured for ages, long enough for me to spot him -- a fellow student! -- at my high school several days later. So let's just say that in my experience Wilson's face doesn't look like the face of someone who was punched hard twice by a giant.
Students focused on the "demoniac" and animalized Muslims of the Song of Roland; they talked about how they mocked Gerald of Wales and Mandeville for their superstitions, and how they then found themselves gaping at Wilson's comparison of Brown to a grunting "demon," wondering what the future might say about 2014; brilliantly, they compared the 6'4" Wilson's grotesque self-infantalization to the Prioress's own (But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse), which we then connected to the "child" as a grotesque core form of the "normative body," at once innocent, helpless, perfect, and useless, the opposite of the excessive giant body. In this body politics, we wondered where there could be space for an adult body, the full subject of rights, obligations, and care all at once?
One student referenced the following passage from Heng:
Medieval time, on the wrong side of rupture, is thus shunted aside as the detritus of a pre-Symbolic era falling outside the signifying systems issued by modernity, and reduced to the role of a historical trace undergirding the recitation of modernity’s arrival.
Thus fictionalized as a politically unintelligible time, because it lacks the signifying apparatus expressive of, and witnessing, modernity, medieval time is then absolved of the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative, without modern meaning, because occurring outside the conditions structuring intelligible discourse on, and participation in, modernity and its cultures. (263)
Linking this to other comments about time and the medieval over the course of the semester, she observed that recently (even today?), she had been told she belonged "in the Middle Ages" because she wears a head-scarf. I then built this into the way that religion -- a "racial" category in the Middle Ages -- continues to be raced, with many people unable or unwilling or uninterested in distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims, as if they were one and the same. I remembered how I've heard some people render the title of my colleague Moustafa Bayoumi's book as On Being Young and Muslim in America.
Perry writes:
One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.
My students -- many of them teachers themselves -- jumped at the chance to talk about this in class. I know yours will too, and I can only hope the conversation goes as well. I made a point of thanking them for talking about it with me, and loved how this turned into an inadvertent, and melancholy, review of the course readings. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Creating Alternative Communities (finally)

by Mary Kate Hurley

[Before you read my (very, very long) post, check out Jonathan's post about Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Exciting stuff.  I also want to take a moment, in this pre-preface, to thank Lynn Arner (Brock University) for giving me the opportunity to be on an absolutely fascinating panel on Institutional History. Moreover, I want to thank all of my (anonymous) respondents, who spent time and energy being thoughtful about BABEL, and especially Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman, who took the time to respond to a number of my questions at great length while being very, very busy.]

After quite a long time – and as part of a three-part series of posts, including both my paper from BABEL Santa Barbara (it was COSMIC) and my reflections on the conference itself  (eventually) -- I wanted to finally post the material of my talk from New Chaucer Society, now four months in the past. Time does funny things in academia: one of them is the way that the fall semester rolls over everything like a wave, picking up speed through syllabi and name-learning, until suddenly with a crash it is midterm, then Thanksgiving, and it’s hard to say why or how so many months have passed. That’s another way of saying that I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get this up on the blog. In any case: these were the things I was thinking in Iceland. I’m looking forward to writing, as I once did for Boston, about the moments that caught the light for me a few weeks ago in Santa Barbara.

So: what appears below is a transcript of the paper I delivered at NCS, which people respectfully did not tweet. I was and am grateful for that, #medievaltwitter -ati! Another thing this transcript cannot really contain is the lively q & a period, where multiple people addressed some of the concerns I raised in the paper. Most importantly, the concern about how BABEL participation might affect graduate students’ academic careers was called into question. I’ll let others name themselves in the comments if they so choose, but it was pointed out that many BABEL-affiliated graduate students, including myself, are now BABEL-affiliated faculty members across the country. So perhaps it’s not an either-or situation any more than academia as a whole is either-or. And I at least would like to think the lines are not so clearly drawn: I spent a great deal of time at NCS just talking to people about my paper and about BABEL, and I’d like to think that what BABEL puts front-and-center—friendship allied with critical inquiry—is not unique to BABEL, and is in fact an important part of the profession as a whole. But I’ll leave that to the side for now, and focus on the blogging before me: my long-awaited blog post of my NCS paper: “Creating Alternative Communities.” You can see my Prezi, which I learned to use just for the event, here.  I've reproduced a few screenshots from it below.  I apologize if there are any infelicities or typos -- I've done my best to eliminate them.  I should also say that there's a short afterword that you should check out too, at the end.  

Creating Alternative Communities (July, 2014)

The organizing principle of this paper might well be best described as precarious: I asked questions without really knowing in advance what I would find. In fact, my own position giving this paper is somewhat precarious: BABEL has been and continues to be very close to my interests and projects as a theory-minded Anglo-Saxonist with post-Conquest tendencies and soft-spot for manuscripts and philology. Yet, and I think we can agree on this at least – BABEL is a group that inspires (or provokes) at least as many feelings as it does thinkings. In my informal survey, I asked a number of questions, some of which I wasn’t sure I would want to know the answers to, in the hopes that taking a good hard look at the group would help me to better understand where the group has been, and where it is going, and what might help the group continue to survive and thrive in our precarious institutional world. I also believe that the criticisms leveled at the group should be heard and considered carefully, especially as it relates to the increase in adjunct positions in the university at the cost of tenure-track ones. This precarity is something within which we must all now live, BABEL members or not.

A few preliminary pieces of information will contextualize my remarks today, and will help demonstrate the admittedly informal methodology that I attempted to employ. I received 46 responses to an informal survey I posted, from a representative sampling across both professional levels and relative levels of involvement in the group. To help create a broad base of data, I did recruit some people who do not feel that they are a part of BABEL in a classic sense. If there is a bias in terms of who responded to my survey, it’s that I did ask a lot of people I know personally, and with whom I have ties over social media including Facebook, Twitter, and the blog In the Middle. Thank you to everyone who responded, anonymously or not. Although my initial survey asked for names and affiliations to go with responses, I have chosen to excise all names in favor of anonymity for sources. My reasoning in doing so takes its impetus from BABEL’s own attitude toward hierarchy: all views, positive and negative, should have the same weight.

My questions are focused on respondents’ experience of BABEL as well as its perception in the field. [note: you should look at the slide reproduced below to understand these points] In particular I want to draw out three points about them. First, I separated the positive and negative perception questions, in the hopes that this separation would encourage reflection on both sides of that particular coin. I asked questions specifically about graduate students and their place in BABEL. I also addressed one question as a reflection on the problem of adjunct labor in the university. I cannot speak to everything that has been said in this survey, but what I will do is assess broad trends in how people perceive and respond to BABEL. To begin, a brief history of the group will contextualize survey responses. I will follow with representative ideas from responses to my informal survey, and then think about ways forward. So, to history.

The mission of the BABEL working group is one that intersects a number of critical questions, narratives, citations, ideas, and ideals. At the center of the group is a commitment to theoretical lines of inquiry as one way of engaging in humanistic study, and to the idea that medieval studies can be and is central to the ongoing humanities. The online BABELegend puts it thusly: “It has to be stated unequivocally that BABEL has NO coherent ideology, only a passion for certain questions–as in, what is the future of the humanities, and what is at stake in either having or not having a humanities in the future? If we have one philosophy at all it is to devote ourselves endlessly to proposing all the possible answers without ever exhausting the political energy of the questions.” The group was created around 2004, and the main “leaders” or “organizers” are Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman. Myra describes their work in the following way: “I'd say Eileen was and remains the Primary Visionary, while I was and remain the Earliest Adopter. In other words, she tends to throw out ideas that at first sound quite unlikely, however desirable, and in many (certainly not all!) cases, I leap right on board and fully commit to making it happen.” The group has engineered a number of endeavors in the past ten years, including a biannual conference (its third iteration taking place in Santa Barbara in October 2014), a vibrant new journal, Postmedieval, and a slew of panels at conferences. BABEL has, in Eileen’s estimation, “helped level the playing field of who ‘counts’ within medieval studies, such that the PhD student and early career researcher is on an equal footing with more senior scholars when it comes to advancing the field (you never know where your best ideas might come from), and also has been successful in fostering and making more public/established (via conference sessions and publications) more creative approaches to the field of premodern studies.” Eileen’s characterization of the group’s accomplishments resonates strongly with the responses I received to my survey of the field, the results of which I will turn to now.

My findings in the survey came to some particularly interesting trends and conclusions. Importantly, I think, the positive and negative views of the group are densely interrelated, and I think that from this particular conjunction we can begin to see a pattern emerging around the current state of the field – both intellectually and in terms of the precarious state of the university.

According to the survey that I’ve done, the consensus seems to be that BABEL’s positive contributions to medieval studies seem to be largely grouped into: support for junior scholars and graduate students, community formation, and intellectual innovation. A number of respondents noted that the group “brings young scholars to the fore.” Most notably, the group has a real affinity and affection for graduate students and contingent scholars: moreover, it succeeds at “offering a supportive environment for graduate students and younger scholars who can interact with senior/more established scholars in ways that are more informal and less rigidly hierarchical.”

The question of community is a particularly important one to medievalists, especially as many of medievalists find themselves, in one respondent’s words, “starting out as the lone medievalist in my current job.” This person found that “BABEL was a lifesaver. The sense of fellowship, support, and intellectual discovery that all members provide for each other is remarkable.” Another respondent notes that “BABEL has a myriad of positive effects, most notably [that] it has fostered an inclusive and dynamic community of scholars across rank, discipline, and country.” I think that these dynamics can be seen particularly well in the composition of the group’s conferences, which include everyone from medievalists to theorists to planetary ecologists.

A repeated point that I found in the survey responses is that BABEL creates space for different kinds of scholarship, for “intellectual projects that don't quite ‘fit’ anywhere else.” Another respondent notes that “At its best, BABEL fosters a sort of academic catholicism, giving air-time (as it were) to many different theoretical or methodological priorities. It can be methodologically inclusive. And obviously fostering that sort of discussion is an important thing, lest we end up falling into theoretical camps a la 80s/90s and fail to see what we can learn from one another.” The marriage of theoretical interests with the quirky or inventive projects that might not otherwise find a home was a repeated refrain – seen most clearly in one response which averred that “The idea that there is more than one way to "do" academia and academic work is extremely valuable.” This value, I think, stems in part from the difficulty our field continues to face in a contracting market. If even the most solid work might not be quite enough to secure a job, then maybe experimentation can be more meaningful, because “playing it safe” doesn’t guarantee a home anymore, if it ever did.

  These positive traits come with their negative counterpoints. These can be grouped broadly as a perception of the group as engaged in “cliquishness,” the potentially superficial nature of the scholarship done within it, and more concerningly, the effect it might have on the very graduate students it tries to support. One respondent puts it quite bluntly, saying that “It's become a clique. The cool kids are in; those who practice old fashioned sorts of things like philology are out.” This problem of the idea of “cool” seems to be based in large part on the prominence of critical theory in the group. One respondent gave a particularly interesting response to it, noting that “While I am perfectly comfortable talking theory and enjoy learning from my theory-minded colleagues, I generally feel that I am not welcome in BABEL conversations. It may be that my non-theoretical work does not easily fit within the group's larger discussions, but I also get the impression that my disinclination to do theory for theory's sake makes me and my work uninteresting to the group.” Another colleague writes, “They generate conversation, which is a good thing. They generate angry conversations, which is not a good thing.” This sense that only “theory” counts can also be read as an investment in theory itself that eschews the medievalist origins of many of the groups’ members.

The question of the nature of the work done by the BABEL group is a particularly sustained criticism of the group. As one respondent put it, “I'm not always sure the work presented in Babel sessions is serious. I don't mean that it's on unserious topics, but in the sessions I attended a number of the papers sounded rhetorically wrought, but not necessarily based on deep, sustained thought.” Importantly, the prominence of rhetorical sophistication at the cost of less “flashy” coherence seems, simultaneously, to be a product of the experimental nature of some of the work -- Such work, as another colleague pointed out quite presciently, “will necessarily have failures. The problem is that those failures are likely to give people of a more traditional mindset pause about the value of most of the work that is carried on by BABEL.” This problematic relationship to the “traditional” work of medieval studies has a particular affinity to criticism of the group’s effect on graduate students. Although many of the responses suggested that BABEL is quite good for graduate students because allows them to take a central role, there was a repeated if oblique concern on the part of the respondents that BABEL might make getting a job more difficult for graduate students, especially as, as one respondent put it, is that “grad students may be encouraged to publish too early and also falsely led to believe that their work is of higher quality and more polished than it is in fact. Grad students may be led to put too much emphasis on modern theory and to overlook some of the basics of medieval studies or literary studies in general, such as close reading, manuscript or historical or cultural context.” Interestingly, this response in particular seems to touch on the precarious nature of the market in which we function, in which a student’s public persona can be a help or a hindrance to their eventual place within – or increasingly, outside of -- academia.

The stresses of a market that is in almost constant decline – for the humanities and elsewhere – is a particular concern of many respondents, and I want to segue to that now.

The non-traditional mode that BABEL promotes emphasizes an experimental aura, one that seems to mark a departure from traditional approaches to scholarship. However, despite the radical inclusivity of the group, the perception is that it doesn’t always make room for people who do not share its interests or participate in its conversations. To borrow from one of my respondents, “Every We-system is also a They-system" (a quote, I understand, from Gravity’s Rainbow). The structure of the group seems – and this was a point brought up by both people both involved in the group and outside it – to have an “inside circle,” as one respondent put it, which is unfortunate “since that's what Babel sought to remedy in the profession.” Although inevitably, I think, BABEL will never be everyone’s cup of tea, several of my respondents suggested that there is an “apparent lack of transparency in terms of process,” which leads some people to feel excluded. This resonates with points that both Myra and Eileen brought up in my email “interview” with them – because they are perceived as the only people through whom all ideas must go. Perhaps a greater structure to the group, with more transparent decision-making processes, and – I think importantly – open calls for papers for sessions and issues of postmedieval, might help to break up some of the vision of the group as a only “for” a select set of medievalists or scholars. Moreover, I think that distinguishing between BABEL itself – the big umbrella – and more niche groups that have emerged within and from it (Material Collective, GW MEMSI, eth press, In the Middle, etc) might help to ameliorate the sense of tacit exclusion so many of my respondents spoke about. The group could also do more to find new faces, as a number of people suggested – actively seeking to find people who are not coming from the same ideological or theoretical background, who might push the group, or parts of it, towards different ideas.

The second critique that I find particularly trenchant is related to the graduate student and early-career scholars. Anecdotally at least, there is a perception that a new journal like Postmedieval will not carry the weight with hiring committees that more established ones do, and moreover, that the perception of the group as a clique will make those publications less valuable to other hierarchies that judge our scholarly worth and productivity. With the growing concerns over adjunct labor in the university and the precarity of the very members that BABEL can put front and center, these two pressures have the potential to become catastrophic for careers that deserve to have a chance to succeed. As another respondent put it: “The experimental, the para-academic, is all well and good for people in jobs or with tenure, but is more dangerous / risky a mode for grad students or those on the market. The market - rightly or wrongly - still largely recognizes and rewards strong publication records in traditional venues. As a hiring committee member, I know my colleagues will favor an article in, for example, Medium Aevum, over a piece in a crowd-peer-reviewed BABEL publication.” This, I think, is the most specific pressure that increasing contingency can put on our profession. The stakes have never been higher for young academics, and anyone in a position that is no longer precarious is, I think, obliged to also think about how we help our younger colleagues find roles either within or without the academy. BABEL can play a role in these conversations – the spotlight it has granted to certain graduate students, myself included, is undeniable. But the group must continue to push its youngest members to produce work – theoretical or not – that stands up to the rigors of critique by members of our own field, and the university at large. Although being playful is important, and as BABEL so often reminds us, the work we do is *fun* -- I think we also have to emphasize that there can be such a thing as rigorous play, or playful work – and I’ll end with the criticism I found most haunting, in a certain respect: “Taking questions of academic merit seriously isn't always and only about ‘gate-keeping.’”

Afterword (November, 2014)

As I edit this document, it creates a telescoping effect in itself. I wrote this in July, and it is now November. The weather is eerily similar, but that’s because I wrote most of it in a rather rainy England, and gave the paper itself in Iceland.  But one thing that I haven’t stopped thinking about is the role of discourse communities in this conversation.  That really useful distinction called up by one of my respondents – that every we-system is also a they-system – really matters to me, because I think there’s always an exclusion at stake when “we” say “we”, whoever we are.  And I wonder, too, about critique and its place in the profession:  how do we respond to it, how do we work within its strictures to make the entire enterprise of scholarship better and more effective?  And most importantly, can we make room for conversations that aren’t just about what works, but also about what doesn’t?