Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Damian Fleming on Rethinking One's Own Early Work ... and Scholarly Change

by J J Cohen

Damian Fleming has a not-to-be-missed post on "ethel sweet ethel-weard: the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript" in which he revisits his first publication ... and prevents its emphasis on love of German culture being facilely deployed by medieval-loving white supremacists. He also suggests, quietly, that we think more seriously about the possibility that the Beowulf manuscript was composed by two women. I love especially this section, about change over time:
Since writing that paper over a decade ago I have read and reread and taught Beowulf many times. I love the poem more every time I read any portion of it, but my understanding of it has changed significantly. I no longer imagine reading Beowulf as a celebration of germanic pre-Christian culture. I read Beowulf as similar to the majority of extant Old English poetry: deeply melancholic, explicitly Christian, and critical of the pre-Christian culture it presents. In teaching Beowulf I try to guide students to see the tragic triad of women—Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Grendel’s mother—whose suffering epitomizes the destructive nature of the violent culture they are caught in. At the most recent Medieval Academy of America meeting, a series of panels on Feminist Approaches to Old English literature, organized by Robin Norris, Rebecca Stephenson, and Renée R. Trilling, included a paper by Stephen Yeager who presented a thoughtful reading of Beowulf as a poem written potentially for women and potentially by a woman. His reading, which drew upon the work of generations of feminist scholars before him opened my eyes to possibilities I am shocked I had never considered before, since they are so consistent with how I had already be reading the poem.
It's a beautiful piece, and well conveys how our attitudes towards our own scholarly work ought to be open to revision and reflection. Thanks for offering it, Damian.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro


This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here's what's undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I've found easiest to navigate:
British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings.
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the 'Devonshire Chaucer').
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the 'Delamare Chaucer')
If you're reading this, I trust you're already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook's Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk's Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you'll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight's Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has "Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia," and where Hengwrt 25v has "Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda," Christ Church 152, 26v, has "the ordinaunce of lystys that thesyus ordaynyd" [corrected]. Does the Knight's Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of "ordaining" the divisions of the plot?

Or here's the Reeve's Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v:

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself ("Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale" -- note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes "Prologue" in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath's Tale start?

Harley 7334 89r, with a red "Narrat" in the margin.
In at least one case, in Harley 7334 89r, her tale - or one of them anyway - begins after the Pardoner interrupts her, where we have a red "Narrat" in the margin. Here, then, the Wife's prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her "experience."

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife's Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here's my (crowded) slide:

Is it just "words between" the Friar and Summoner? It is an "interpretation" of the Wife's tale? An "interruption"? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife's prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar's Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r
Should the carter be taken down to hell? "Nay q[uo]d þe deuel," he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda's story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v
The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin's Tale -- not the Merchant's -- begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire's Tale. They've clearly "sought in diuers places" for the "the reaste" but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn't get changed: in red, "The Prologue to the Merchaunt." Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant's Tale ("Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight"). No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn't bothered by variance in Tale order. If you're having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than "fragments."

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


by J J Cohen

Dear friends,

Stacy Alaimo and I have been nominated to run for the next co-presidents of ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). Please read our statements at the link below (I hope that you will agree with the ethos we try to articulate) and -- if you are an ASLE member -- please consider supporting our candidacy. Thanks!

(An interesting fact: ASLE has never had a medievalist lead it.)

Jeffrey Cohen (George Washington University) and Stacy Alaimo (University of Texas at Arlington)

I am honored to run for co-president. Over the years no professional organization has meant as much to me as ASLE. Its community has long been a welcoming home, and I am eager to serve the membership, intensify our strengths, and work to ensure a vibrant future. In these times of ecological peril, I look forward to increasing the visibility of its activism as well as our ability to work in tandem with other like- minded organizations to effect social change. I have enthusiastically participated in the ASLE Mentoring Program and am especially dedicated to ensuring that emerging writers, authors and theorists are adequately supported. With Stacy Alaimo, Stephanie LeMenager and Sharon O’Dair I am a founding member of the MLA “Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities Forum”. I am committed to collaboration and believe that ASLE offers a powerful structure for scholars and artists to work across fields and disciplines. My scholarship includes a trilogy of edited collections (two co-edited with Lowell Duckert) that gather more than 50 writers thinking about the future of the environmental humanities, and attempt to bring writers together across time periods as well as disciplinary training: Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green; Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (2015); and Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking (2017). With Stephanie LeMenager I co-edited a special issue of PMLA on “Assembling the Ecological Digital Humanities” (2016). None of this work would have been possible without the inspiration of ASLE conferences (where much of it began) and its congenial community of scholars, writers, artists and thinkers. With planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, I wrote a book on Earth (2017) for a general audience. With Julian Yates, I am currently finishing a book on the myth of Noah’s Flood and climate change. Finally, my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (2015) was awarded the René Wellek Prize for best book in comparative literature this year.

I am honored to run for co-President of ASLE. The nomination provides the opportunity to give back to an organization that has long been such a vital intellectual community for me. There are few scholarly organizations with such a strong sense of community, comradery, mentorship, and shared ethical and political orientations. I became a member of ASLE soon after the organization was formed, participating in listserv discussions in the early 1990s, while writing my dissertation on topics that would become “ecocriticism, “ecocultural studies,” and “the environmental humanities.” I’ve served as the ASLE Liaison to the SLSA (the Society for Literature Science, and the Arts) from 2004-2009, organizing panels at both of their conferences to promote more cross-fertilization between environmental studies and science studies. I have also served on the Book Awards Committee and as an official Graduate Student Mentor from 2004-2008. It has been exciting to see the organization grow and the field flourish. With Jeffrey J. Cohen, Stephanie LeMenager and Sharon O’Dair I served as a founding member of the MLA “Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities Forum,” and as its first chair. At the University of Texas at Arlington, I served as the co-chair for the President’s Sustainability Committee--working on everything from food services to landscaping to academic programs. I also established (with two colleagues) a cross-disciplinary minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, which I then directed for five years. My own scholarship includes about 45 scholarly essays, as well as the books Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000); Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010), which won the ASLE book award for ecocriticism; and Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (2016).

Among the issues we would like to work on as co-presidents: how to ensure that at time of dwindling institutional support our membership can still access ASLE conferences, events and resources; fostering more intense collaboration between ASLE’s humanists and natural scientists; finding new ways for our artistic and scholarly branches create things together; ensuring that the work of our membership finds as wide a public as possible (because what we do matters); working with institutions to ensure that a diverse cohort of emerging scholars and artists is being cultivated so that the future of the field will be a more heterogeneous one; ensuring that the biennial conference is site-specific, meaning memorably and tangibly part of the place in which it is held. We share a strong ethical and political commitment to environmentalism, environmental justice, and social justice. Even as the environmental humanities are flourishing nationally and internationally across fields and disciplines, it is important to support ASLE as a vibrant and distinctive organization that has been invaluable for the development of environmental and environmental justice scholarship, practice, and activism.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times

by J J Cohen

ITM readers may be interested in this new book, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times, just out from Penn State Press. Edited by Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor, this collection provides something missing from most meditations on the Anthropocene, the era during which human impress is readable on the geologic record: historical depth. Well, it provides a whole lot more than that -- every essay in this collection is really wonderful -- but Anthropocene Reading includes a medievalist (yours truly) and an early modernist (Steve Mentz). Plus it's blurbed by Jan A. Zalasiewicz, my favorite palaeobiologist/geologist. Contributing to this collection was such a pleasure: the editors were so good at forming a sense of community around the project and challenging their contributors to be at once lucid and inventive.

My essay is called "Anarky." (with a period like that) and offers a meditation on what stratigraphic reading could mean in action; what an archival unconformity might look like; how periodization is a spiral not a series of linear segments; and why the voice of Noah's wife matters as continues to cross the centuries. Riffing on the Chester Play of Noah's Flood, the essay is interrupted several times by Noah's wife "own" voice as she chooses drowning as a way of making things-to-be-lost endure.

If you are interested in the book enough to want to purchase a copy for yourself, you can reduce the price by 30% with the code TMJT17 when ordered through psupress.org. And no, the press doesn't pay me for saying that. Books just want to be read.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

How We Read

a guest post by Kaitlin Heller and Suzanne Akbari

We’ve been thinking about how we read.

About four months ago, the two of us planned to write a blogpost describing our own reading practices. Our goal was not just to share our own experiences, but to elicit responses – via comments on the blogpost, sharing the post on Facebook, tweeting it – that would allow us to learn more about the reading practices of others. We began by writing a few Facebook posts back in June to do some preliminary exploration along these lines: we learned about what kinds of books people are interested in, and we were surprised and delighted to learn about the commonplace books – some elaborately and beautifully decorated – that several of our friends and acquaintances keep. And then terrible things kept happening, all through the summer and into the fall, and it never seemed to be the right time to ask the ITM bloggers about the possibility of doing a guest post.

But now the time suddenly feels right, because our collective conversations have turned toward self-care, and the care of others. We both believe that the crucial context for this undertaking is the way that reading is not only individual and private, but also communal and shared. This sharing can be actual, in real time (reading a book out loud to others, online blogging a book), or it can be virtual or imaginative, a community of readers linked by love of a particular book, or by a set of reading practices. This seems to us to be a potentially vital place for self-care and care of others, two impulses that seem to be contradictory but are in fact intimately connected.

Reading practices can be part of a shared pedagogy, directed toward the ways we can begin to combat the injustice and harassment in our field and our world; we’ve been reading about the damage done by that injustice; we’ve been reading about the work of repair. As medievalists, we have been deeply moved to witness how that work of shared pedagogy is simultaneously a work of repair, as the community is forged and nurtured by the process of compilation and sharing, seen so vividly in the crowd-sourced bibliography led by Julie Orlemanski and Jonathan Hsy. This may be a moment to explore more widely the ways that our reading practices inform who we are – as individual readers, as members of a shared reading community, or members of several overlapping communities.

How we read informs how we work and live. We see this as a space in which repair can happen. Below are our particular two histories of reading: one, a meditation on mental illness; the other, a consideration of time. Both are stories of loss and recuperation. We hope that by making these histories visible, by thinking about reading as self-care and as care for others, we can make a space for others to share their personal histories and practices: to be visible and validated in the ways we are all changing how we read.


Kaitlin Heller:

I’ve been a fan of the series A Song of Ice and Fire since I was a young teenager, when it first came out. I have a first edition of A Game of Thrones, signed by George R. R. Martin (and yes, I got that signature in person, trembling hands and all). When book number five came out, it was the summer of 2011, I had just passed both my Latin exams, and I was about to begin my comprehensives. I’ve been waiting for that book for at least six years, since the previous book came out in 2005; but really, it was more like eleven years, because, as all fans of the series know, books four and five were actually two halves of one whole. So I’d been waiting catch up on many of my favorite characters since before I went to college, and now I was in grad school. To put it mildly: I was excited for the book to come out.

And yet, the day I finally got my hands on that beautiful book and took it to Christie Pits Park in Toronto, I wasn’t able to read it.

That was probably the point at which I should’ve known something was wrong. But I’d been through feelings like this before: I had just finished four years in the publishing industry, working at a rewarding but demanding editorial job that required an immense amount of reading. Then, I’d often found it difficult to read for pleasure when I got home, and so I’d spent much of my leisure time talking to friends, watching movies, or singing karaoke.

But this proved to be far more severe. I spent an entire summer trying to read that book, the book I’d looking forward to for more a third of my life, and I couldn’t do it. So it probably won’t surprise you that I also found I couldn’t do my comprehensives reading.

For months, I tried to read my way through that list of two hundred books by brute force. I would hole myself up in a library or coffee shop, or if that didn’t work, I’d try reading while I was talking to someone in the Center for Medieval Studies common space or in the grad room at the History Department. But I was simply too slow. I’d find myself rereading a single paragraph over and over, or puzzling out every single footnote, or listlessly staring into space.

Eventually, the only solution I found was to write while I read. I made myself a schedule of the books and time I had left, worked out how many books I needed to get through per day, and sat myself down in the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies Library with a notebook and a pen. I would take notes while I read, do a summary at the end, and then ruthlessly move onto the next book. I went through something like four notebooks that way, and eventually, I did pass my comps.

Since that time, I’ve heard other people—especially other grad students, especially other women—talk about similar things happening to them. How we read is not simple. It’s as complex and anxiety-ridden and idiosyncratic as anything else we do as academics, and no one talks about it.

But since the publication of the beautiful How We Write collection a couple years ago, I’ve been thinking about how we can talk about it. I want to know how we read, if nothing else for the sake of that other future grad student somewhere who finds herself totally unable to do her reading, personal or professional, and needs a way forward.​

Some excellent Facebook threads this spring got me thinking about how a volume on this subject might look, including one started by Brantley Bryant and one by Suzanne Conklin Akbari. Here is an incomplete list of the kinds of reading we do that I want to hear more about:

Goth(ic) reading, anxious reading, queer reading, intersectional feminist reading, speed reading, slow reading, reading in translation, reading for translation, not reading, transitional reading, required reading, preparatory reading, reparatory reading, reading for pleasure, punk reading, rebellious / resistant reading, professional reading, (eco)critical reading, monstrous reading, audio as reading, accessible reading, inaccessible reading, reading in transit, affective reading, fannish reading, amateur reading, nationalist reading, international reading, reading without borders, reading against borders, identities of reading, reading as justice, reading for work, reading as work, hierarchies of reading, prestigious reading, “trashy” reading, camp reading, performative reading, religious reading, reading together, reading alone, reading things that aren’t meant to be read, reading between the lines, digital reading, analog reading, impoverished reading, reading spaces, reading practices, reading histories.

Suzanne Akbari:

Responding to Kaitlin – initially, in a real-time conversation about ‘How we read’ earlier this year, and now, in written form – I want to mirror what she’s written above. I’d like to begin by seconding the call for your accounts of multiple kinds of reading, and then move on to say something about my own perspective and private experiences of reading, in the hope that this account might stimulate others.

For me as a child, there was a very special pleasure in reading fast. My fourth grade classroom had a strange kind of projector device that was meant to improve our reading speed: it projected a single line of text on the wall, moving more or less rapidly (you could set the speed), until the passage was finished. Then you would complete questions designed to measure reading comprehension. I gamed that machine until I could read (or at least skim) about 1200 words a minute. It was a kind of trick, but it also produced a certain kind of flavor of reading pleasure: a highly superficial, super-fast, super-shallow engagement with language.

In some ways, this facility turned out to be valuable. As the years ticked by, the ability to read a lot of text very quickly, retaining only what was essential, was a crucial strength. I encouraged others – first, peers; later, students – to develop this same skill, believing that it would help them as much as it had me, making it possible to manage very large amounts of text in a short period of time.

But as you will have guessed, and as is always the case, there was a necessary trade off: could it be possible to have that facility for quick reading, and also muster up the ability to slow it down, to read in a deliberate, careful way? Up to a certain point, it was absolutely possible to maintain those two modes. But like Kaitlin, who describes in moving terms what it was like to lose (terrifyingly) the ability to read for pleasure, I also came to a point where I could no longer hold these two modes in tension. It became extremely difficult to read deliberately, slowly, closely.

And the painful poignancy of this lay in the fact that those moments of deliberate, slow reading were among the most precious moments of my intellectual and, I would say, spiritual formation. To read highly compressed, distilled language – whether poetic verse (Whitman; Stevens) or sacred scripture (Leviticus; the Qur’an) – is to exit linear time, if only for a moment, to be in a separate in-between place where chronology stops mattering and you fully inhabit the single moment. Losing – or, at least, almost completely losing – that ability was terribly painful, and I am still working, right now, to try to get it back.

One thing that has helped me to do so is remembering what it was to read slowly. These remembered experiences include the time of learning, both in college and in grad school, how to practice close reading (both times with a focus on seventeenth-century English poetry and prose), as well as older, more primal experiences of reading. In particular, I have been remembering what it was like to read as a very young child, including both my own memory of learning to read, and my memories of teaching children in my family to read. These are stories I would like to tell at greater length: healing memories in themselves, they might also be stories that are good for sharing, and good for thinking with as we reckon with our own histories of reading, and our reading practices.

In our recent conversations, both in person and online, Kaitlin and I have already learned quite a bit about how our own histories of reading – both our deep histories and our proximate, urgent histories – inform our teaching and research practices, as well as how they have shaped us on a deeply personal level. Do teaching and research inhabit a different environment within our sensibility, totally divided from our pleasure reading, or are these domains contiguous or even overlapping? Is reading a fundamentally passive act – made visible in that strip of words flowing through the projector’s light – or is it active? Is reading an act of consumption or an act of creation? Is it even, sometimes, an embodied form, as manifested in our vividly illuminated and lovingly scribed commonplace books? Please share your own histories of reading, and let’s discover together the shared pleasure that lies in this most solitary of acts – which is also, paradoxically, the act of most complete plenitude.

[Share your thoughts! Comments welcome here at the blog, on Twitter (#howweread), and in the Facebook ITM Community group]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Where do we go from here?


My last post here, about racism and what I think of as ‘medievalfail’, I ended with hope because of what N.K. Jemisin had to say about similar events in science fiction and fantasy fandom (and scholarship): good came of them because the status quo doesn’t change without major disruption.

The past couple of weeks have seen an extraordinary backlash against progressive moves in medieval studies, aimed initially at Professor Dorothy Kim (again. See Quod She for an account), and now a smear campaign against Professor Adam Miyashiro. Both are shocking in that the attackers have turned not to other academics for support (although social media shows there is some within our disciplines), but to right-wing outrage machines, drawing in actors with no knowledge of our fields, no allegiance to scholarly integrity, and a history of organising harassment so bad he has been permanently banned from Twitter.

I’m still reminded of SFF, and I’m still hopeful because I’m reminded of SFF. In that sphere, after the initial turmoil of RaceFail09, there were – and still are – concerted backlash campaigns of harassment and abuse and attempts to ‘game’ the Hugo Awards perpetrated by groups calling themselves the ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies.’ Their particular (although not sole) targets were women of colour (sound familiar?) who they claimed were successful because of ‘political correctness’ rather than talent. Damien Walter suggested the opposite in The Guardian last year: “I say it [the Puppies’ campaign] is to sponsor awful writers.” Although they did manage to disrupt the Hugo Awards for a few years by ‘slate stacking’ nominations, a process that was within the rules but against common practice and community ethics, they’ve lost and are becoming increasingly irrelevant. And as I wrote last time I posted, N. K. Jemisin – one of their main targets – has won the last two Hugos for best novel. So, I am hopeful.

But if the various unpleasant Puppies have lost some momentum, they’ve also been actively resisted. SFF hasn’t gotten better *just* because of social media campaigns and discussions and fights, although they matter and can important ways of resisting. The disruptions are important but they don’t have lasting effects if that’s all there is. The disruptions matter because they make people, more people, pay attention and care and act.

Not everyone can do the same thing to make medieval studies less racist. As Kathleen Kennedy pointed out on Twitter, 70% of medieval studies scholars are in the precariat. Not everyone is in a position to take a public stand, for many different reasons.

Change happens because we make it happen, but we don’t all have to do the same things and we’re not all able to. If you’ll forgive me the swerve over into early modernity, John Milton wrote in “They also serve who only stand and wait.” We can’t all, to keep borrowing from Milton, “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest.”

Many of those taking a public stand are not in a safe position to do so, and become less safe when they act and speak.

White medievalists, we need to do more, we need to care about our own feelings less. We didn’t earn our privilege – that’s the whole point – and if we didn’t ask for it we’ve still benefited from it. We’re playing the game on a low difficulty setting. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe. We may become less safe, but we are not targets just because of who we are, by our existence.
So what do we do? What can we do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some general ideas that I’ve learned, mostly again from SFF fandom and scholarship and the collective work of many people there:
  • Accept and acknowledge that medieval studies has a racism problem and that it’s not just a ‘few bad apples’ or whatever. Our whole inter-discipline was built to bolster whiteness and justify colonialism and imperialism. Literally, European cultures got interested in the Middle Ages right at the time biological concepts of race went mainstream. If we can’t even acknowledge that how can we be sure we’re not still doing the same things, standing on the shoulders of racist giants?
  • Listen to people of colour and believe them when they talk about racism they have experience/seen/noticed in your syllabus
  • Do your research! It’s not up to people of colour to educate you if you don’t know what to do/ if something is racist (here’s a tip, if you’re not sure don’t say or do it or like it on social media).
  • There’s a good chance that a person of colour has already answered your question/ talked about the issue online generally, even if not in direct relation to the particular text or context. Try finding out before you ask for that work to be done again.
  • Don’t assume that your minority friend/ fellow faculty member is there to do the diversity work. They have experience as a person of their own identity, but it’s not necessarily their scholarly field of expertise (I know next to nothing about queer theory). A single minority faculty member does not equate to diversity.
  • Do your research again! If you don’t know what to do or how to do it then find out. You have excellent research skills, use them
  • If you’re white and feel uncomfortable talking about racism, stop to think for a minute about how people of colour feel because of racism. And they don’t get to just not talk about it.
  • Think about racism, think about structural and systemic racism and how to change it.

Many people have been putting together resources and doing other really practical things that can help us change our field. Here are two places that resources have already been compiled:

I don’t have all the answers and I know others will have practical suggestions, resources and general ideas that I haven’t thought of or don’t know about. If you have something – a syllabus, an idea, a reference, I hope you feel safe to share them here in the comments. If you don’t feel safe DM me @heyouonline and I’ll post them for you (with a note saying it’s not my idea). If that doesn’t feel safe then if there is anyone you trust (doesn’t have to be in medieval studies) get them to pass it along.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

4 thoughts about vulnerability and community

by J J Cohen

1. Regarding our co-authored Statement of Support for Dorothy Kim, you may find some background to what unfolded via Quod She, as well as the account published yesterday by Insider HigherEd (there is also a piece in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education but it's behind a paywall). Here too is a Statement of Commitment from some medievalists at the University of Chicago. But to really understand the stakes of what unfolded -- and to take some wind out of the "but both sides!" argument that would posit a tenured professor is being attacked rather than an untenured scholar is being supported -- read this piece by David Perry on the actual content of Milo Y's "livelier style" and this piece by Bryan William Van Norden on what unfolded, the power imbalance, how race matters, and the potential harassment being incited against Professor Kim. That her friend Milo Y was repeatedly tagged in her Facebook posts and that Professor Fulton Brown placed an article about herself on his website are of consequence here -- and it has become clear to me that some people do not understand why.

2. Did you not the sign the various letters of support for Dorothy Kim? Did you refrain from making any public statements at all? That's ok. No one ever should feel pressured to place themselves in a position of vulnerability: as the links above make clear, the risks are real. Scholars work to bring about a better field in different ways, and many of those modes are not publicly visible. Each person commits to doing the work that they can as they can, knowing their own limits and vulnerabilities. That's how community works: some of us step in to support those who need help, and know that the situation changes over time. And note that you are likely a member of a group that advocated on your behalf: New Chaucer Society, Medieval Academy of America (the trustees of which also wrote a personal letter to Professor Kim), the International Piers Plowman Society, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. That's a powerful commitment on their part to speak out for members who may be in too vulnerable a position to do so themselves. Onwards.

3. Let me share something I posted on Facebook yesterday. It's disappointing to hear that Professor Fulton Brown is now identifying me as the "mastermind" (her term) behind Dorothy Kim's writing and actions. This maneuver deprives Professor Kim of her agency, intellect, and accomplishments, and sets me up as the Jewish Svengali behind her actions, mobilizing (intentionally or not) another alt-right as well as a medieval narrative. I have never met Professor Fulton Brown and I bear her no animus (even if she will never have my respect for the actions she has undertaken against an untenured scholar of color). Everything that I have written has been not to attack Professor Fulton Brown but to support Professor Kim. Everything Dorothy Kim has written and posted and urged is hers. No one requested that she research and write what she did, and should be attributed to her genius alone. To make of Professor Kim a puppet or a pawn is demeaning. It also mistakes my own interest in Professor Fulton Brown and her career, which is zero, except when she uses her position against the vulnerable. And let me also make clear that neither I nor any other member of "In the Middle" ever contacted (and have no influence over) the New Chaucer Society, the Medieval Academy of America, the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, or the International Piers Plowman Society. We did not compose or have any input into the the letter sent in support of Professor Kim to the U Chicago History Department (though I did share links). I also want to make clear that I did not ask anyone in any social media to post anything about Dorothy Kim or Professor Fulton Brown. But let me also state: I remain grateful to anyone who did. You make me proud to be your colleague.

4. What has unfolded over the past few days has been frequently reported as exposing a rift or divide in medieval studies (if not the humanities writ large). What I take away from these events is just opposite: the IPPS statement has garnered 1136 signatures, the open letter to the U Chicago history had something like 1300. The Medieval Academy and NCS and SMFS and many other organizations have demonstrated exemplary leadership and made clear that they support Dorothy Kim. This sense of community is wonderful to behold: I have never witnessed the field so united in an effort to bring about a better future. That is what I am holding onto from these terrible past few days.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Recommended Reading

by J J Cohen

It's been hard to keep up with what has been unfolding. Read this please, among the most important posts the six of us have written for In the Middle. We want a more diverse Middle Ages. We want a more diverse medieval studies. We want both to be empty of white supremacy in all of its forms. We acknowledge the troubled past of our discipline and we strive together with you for a better future.

And, if you need some background, read this excellent overview on stakes and repercussions and moving forward at Quod She.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

In Support of Dorothy Kim

by the ITM Bloggers

Rachel Fulton Brown, a tenured white medieval historian at the University of Chicago, has recently used her blog to attack and disparage Professor Dorothy Kim, an untenured medievalist much her junior. The post foregrounds Dorothy Kim's body as a scholar of color (including the use of a photograph of Professor Kim lifted without attribution and published without consent) and the post belittles Professor Kim's training and intellect  that is, her license for intervening in the field's most urgent conversations. The post ends with the command that Professor Kim "Learn some fucking history." This is not normal scholarly exchange. This is unprofessional discourse by any standard. Just as disturbing is posting pictures of scholars of color to score rhetorical points or to serve the aims of doxxing and harassment. This post irresponsibly misrepresents Professor Kim's work and is woefully under-researched when it comes to both the history of the formation of the discipline (see, among other sources, the work by Professor Kim), the active and inclusive role of the Medieval Academy in the field, and the history of race and its relation to color in the Middle Ages (we have a helpful bibliography here that might serve as a start for those who wish to conduct initial work on the topic, and we highly recommend this essential post by the Medievalists of Color as well).

Rachel Fulton Brown's blog post is ostensibly framed as a response to a guest post on "In the Middle" that Dorothy Kim composed recently about white supremacy and the classroom. Professor Kim's ITM post "Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy" was published with the full support of all six of us the "In the Middle" co-bloggers. Each of us looked at the post in draft and approved the final form for publication with enthusiasm. A renowned scholar of histories of medieval Christian-Jewish enmeshment, Early Middle English literary and cultural studies, critical theory, Digital Humanities (including manuscript studies, sound studies, and media theory), Dorothy Kim is a frequent guest contributor here at "In the Middle." We will continue to welcome her at this blog and do what we can to support her work.

We stand with Dorothy Kim and we recognize that medieval studies is a far better field for her presence.

Karl Steel
Leila K. Norako
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Jonathan Hsy
Cord J. Whitaker
Mary Kate Hurley

Thursday, August 31, 2017



Many if not all who follow this blog know that in the past several months racism and other forms of prejudice in the discipline of medieval studies have been variously and manifoldly made evident, and fought against. The mishandling of the theme of Otherness by Leeds IMC organisers (despite the best efforts of some on the committee) were a catalyst, but not the cause. Centuries of structural racism in the field of medieval studies is the cause. We work in a field which, at least until WWII, was used in overtly and deliberately racist ways to attempt to justify European imperialism, colonialism, and attendant white supremacy. Despite the best efforts of some (even many), those legacies remain.

And it’s not just legacies or habitual whiteness in the field. The tactics of internet racism are playing out in our field, particularly in and around the Facebook Old English group (currently migrating) and the Anglo-Saxon Studies group. Harassment of medievalists of colour and their supporters by individuals within the discipline has include:
  • Banning Dorothy Kim and removing all her posts from the Old English group, including posts directly related to the focus of the group, and claiming when questioned that her account was mistaken for spam
  • Abusive language (“racist bitch”) and the dogwhistle of the racist far right including the relatively recently emerged “Stalinist”/”Maoist” (actual quotes).
  • Doxing – gathering personal information through internet searches, in this case Google and academia.edu, with the intention or possibility of releasing it to others to cause harm or targeting
  • Sending emails (to more than one scholar) seeking to discredit medievalists of colour and their supporters by questioning their academic credentials and even identities
Martin Foys, the outgoing Executive Director of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists published a statement as I was beginning to draft this post, which also summarizes recent events (link here accessible if you are a member of the AS group, but variously circulating publically on Facebook if not).

In the past day some of those involved in some of the above actions have made partial apologies (it’s not always clear who was doing what, and I don’t suggest that those who have publically apologised were responsible were doing those things they have not mentioned). As a result they have been constructed by others as victims of bullying rather than as individuals facing consequences for their actions. In any case, as the ISAS statement says “apologies for individual incidences do not efface ongoing issues of systemic racism or prejudice in our worlds.”

The people who have apologised publically are a small number of those who are responsible either directly or indirectly because of lack of action. They have not been made victims by anti-racism activists, but rather hung out to dry by supporters who either will not take responsibility themselves or who fail to understand their consequences of their own actions. This ongoing harassment has taken many forms: from white-anting of scholarly credentials and authority (I can’t count how many people demanded Dorothy provide exact quotations for ‘alterity’ being a preferable term to ‘Otherness’ to the extent of refusing to even read the references she gave for themselves); to creating ad absurdum arguments (‘they want us to destroy all Celtic crosses because some white supremacists like them’); to arguing that we should empathise with the feelings of white supremacists, and allow them at our conferences ‘because they don’t go to papers anyway;’ to dismissing the fears of those who know more and are targets; and by being silent bystanders in places of privilege and safety to all of the above.

This is not a ‘there was violence on both sides’ situation any more than Charlottesville was.

The harassment tactics are familiar to anyone who has spent any time with internet trolls, but the dynamics that I’ve seen across many social media posts in the past few months remind me of things I saw studying racism in fan communities including RaceFail 09, and of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies attempts to choke off moves towards diversity in science fiction and fantasy. Both were flare ups which resulted from much broader structural and systemic habits of racist whiteness in those genres (texts and communities). Which is also what is happening in medieval studies.

The details of RaceFail 09 and the Sad/Rabid Puppies are beyond what I can cover in the length of a single blog post, but, like events in medieval studies in past months they:
  • Mainly occurred between small groups or individual who were part of much larger communities that watched on bu t did not engage
  • The larger community is in the habit of seeing itself as powerless and under threat from wider society (we are used to having to argue for our existence in the academy as a whole) and therefore oppressed
  • That wider community doesn’t recognise its own history of misogyny, homophobia, and racism (and more) well.
In that context, where we think in a defensive frame, it’s easy to see anyone who suggests that there is a problem in our field as attacking us, as an enemy to be fought not an ally and advocate for improvement.

There’s more at play, and I’m going back to the work I’ve done on fan communities here. We invest some of ourselves in our work, our professional identities as medieval studies scholars are personal as well. We are embedded, online and offline, in networks of other scholars in our field; embeddedness is one of the major concepts of sociology which in essence states that people tend to be influenced in their actions by personal connections, i.e. networks, because we tend to trust those that we know. When most people in our networks are either silent or seem to be defending our community from criticism or attack, we’re inclined to let them do it at the very least.

I speak from personal experience when I say that we don’t want to hear that the field we have invested out time, effort, thought and parts of our identities (professional and otherwise) in is structured by racism and has been since its inception. One of the first articles I wrote after completing my PhD essentially argued that Lord of the Rings (which I still love) wasn’t racist; I don’t recommend looking it up, I was wrong (for my perspective after learning what I didn’t want to know see this blog in 2014).

But just because we don’t want to hear it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

We’re scholars, we’re supposed to be better than that, to be critical, reflective, and open to new ideas. Just because something is hard isn’t a reason not to do it however. PhDs are hard and many of us have done or are doing them.

When it comes to race in particular, many of us in medieval studies are not well equipped with critical tools or knowledge. Feminism and queer theory have been making in-roads into medieval studies spaces much longer than race studies. But that only goes so far. There’s now a substantial and growing body of scholarship on race and medieval studies and medievalism (see this crowdsourced partial bibliography if you haven’t already).

Ignorance is not an excuse. Habit is not a justification. We would not accept these from our students (‘I didn’t know the assignment was due, I’m not used to coming to class’), why on earth would we accept them from ourselves?

Consider who has been positioned as ‘an outside attacker’ in past months (and years): medievalists of color and their allies. Dorothy Kim, a woman of color, has been the target of most harassment. Don’t tell me it’s because she’s the most vocal. We were on a panel together two years ago where I and another white scholar talked about race and medievalism and Dorothy didn’t. She was the only one who got trolled. It’s not just that the ideas are new and challenging, it’s that they are coming from people who are habitually understood as not belonging in medieval studies because of our field’s history of propping up and perpetuating white supremacy.

This is not a blanket condemnation or despairing wail.

Many scholars are beginning to try to engage in both their teaching and research if comments and posts on social media are anything to go by.

A year after RaceFail 09, N. K. Jemisin – who was one of the targets of harassment – wrote a post titled “Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF.” RaceFail was bitter and painful and divisive and caused harm to many people of colour, but was also, as Jemisin put “a good thing…a necessary thing” because it made change happen. I highly recommend reading Jemisin’s post in full, but the short version is that systems and structures don’t change by themselves. It takes disruption, sometimes major disruption because that’s what makes people pay attention. @medievalpoc has been thinking along the same lines about what we’re doing in medieval studies being a race fail, and abut Jemisin’s post; her take is here.

I have heard from several people in the past day that they hope medieval studies will improve because of this. I hope so too, and I think not unrealistically. Jemisin just won her second consecutive Hugo Award for best novel (the most prestigious in SFF). She was the first person of color to win one. SFF is far from perfect, but it’s more diverse (not just in terms of race) than it was even five years ago. I hope to say the same of medieval studies.