Friday, September 05, 2008

On behalf of a reader: Defending medieval studies

by J J Cohen

Ken Tompkins writes:
This isn't exactly of concern to you and the "Middle Folk" but I have heard echoes of it from time to time. I hope you -- and others -- will respond.

Finally, attempts to eliminate teaching the Middle Ages has hit Stockton. Because I am entering our retirement program, my Program (read Department) is thinking about my replacement. The administration of the college has not so subtlety suggested that we should hire someone to teach more modern theories of literature and represent more modern approaches (not a direct quote but close). The Program prefers to replace me with another medievalist -- and will resist administrative pressure -- but eventually may be forced to agree.

A bit of information. As I said, I am in my 43rd year of teaching and am in the process of retiring. I have taught both Medieval and Renaissance literature here for 37 years. My classes are always full so, unlike other colleges, our enrollments in the Medieval courses is not declining. We have felt fortunate until now not to be faced with pressure to replace Medieval studies with something more "current".

I have volunteered to provide material about other, similar colleges and to come up with a list of justifications for keeping the Medieval position. I am, then, turning to you and the others on "In the Middle" for any leads to documents or statements that colleges have produced when faced with similar pressures. Who, out there, has successfully defended continuing Medieval studies? What were their justifications/defenses? Etc.

It would help us if I could be pointed to resources I might include.

One last point: this is NOT a crisis. It is the beginning of a long discussion between our Program and members of the administration. We are likely to be able to hire a Medievalist in a year. It's just that we want to write a thorough, researched, conclusive document on the present state of Medieval studies and why we must continue them here.

Thanks, in advance, for any help you and others may send us.

ken tompkins
professor of literature
richard stockton college of nj
So there it is, the existential question: why must we be?


Karl Steel said...

Great question, and always important.

My first answer, before I give this more thought, is that the students are interested. Ken's classes remain well-subscribed; so are mine (last year's medieval courses, for example, were anywhere from 95% of capacity to a few students over). The culture is interested too: the Middle Ages, understood fantastically (as it is in medieval romance), is the setting for what are currently the most popular (non-sports) games; Medieval Times is a successful business; Renaissance Fairs remain popular; and there's no sign of flagging interest in Tolkien. Not to slag on our colleagues, but, barring musicals of 19th-century European literature, there's no period in (past) literature more popular.

That's reason one.

As for "teach[ing] modern theories of literature and represent[ing] modern approaches," well, no reason a medievalist can't do that. When I'm not stuck teaching English Comp, I teach (as I am this semester) medieval lit and literary theory. No doubt people who can do my job are a dime a dozen.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The number of ways to approach this issue are overwhelming.

At GW, we used a burgeoning institutional interest in globalism / internationalism to persuade the Powers That Hold the Purse Strings that (1) the English Department needed another medievalist (we had always, from the dawn of time, possessed only one) and then (2) that a Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute ought to be funded. It took a lot of groundwork, and a lot of good interpersonal relations that enabled important conversations to unfold, but both initiatives created something new.

That is, I realize, something rather different from Ken's situation, where the desire is simply to hold on to what is in place already. Still, I think a similar strategy might be effective (depending on the gatekeepers): make the argument in language they know, touching upon topics they already recognize as worthy, so that you can bring them to a place at which they would not have anticipated arriving in advance.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS Hear, hear to Karl's suggestions as well. I don't think I've taught a course with empty seats in on, a decade. And that includes a medieval course with room for 80! Medievalism is a medievalist's friend ...

prehensel said...

Here's where I sound like a starry-eyed naif: I recall reading that even Einstein and Faraday didn't know what their discoveries would lead to.

I've always focused on coming up with an interesting question, then looking for a compelling answer. If I find something fundamental, I have faith it will be fundamentally valuable (even if I don't know how at the moment).

Having to defend my existence seems unsavory to me--like being on an episode of Survivor and trying not to get kicked off the island. I'm just afraid if we try to compete in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment, we'll lose the argument every time.

Of course, I may be trying to close the barn door too late on that one.

dan remein said...

As for "teach[ing] modern theories of literature and represent[ing] modern approaches," well, no reason a medievalist can't do that.

A medievalist may be, sometimes, in a privileged place to do just that.

2 examples:

1. Heidegger couldn't have gotten far without John Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Without Heidegger, we have no linguistic turn as we know it in continental philosophy and eventually lit.crit.. Another 'modern approach' to lit., the history of the representation of reality in Auerbach, relies, for a great deal of the book, on medieval texts.

2. How many high Modernists can be read without an adequate knowledge of the Troubadours, Dante, Chaucer (April is the cruelest month...)--heck, you'll miss MOST of early Auden without having read some OE poetry. I think maybe Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore are exempt. But Eliot, Pound, al. are so less rich without the middle ages. In fact, one might study Eliot and Pound *as* medievalists (a pet project of mine to someday take on fully).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Prehensel: I agree with you wholeheartedly. If we know in advance the answers at which we'd like to arrive, why bother undertaking the work required to get there? The future of our scholarship and research projects has to be open and -- to use an ugly word, but an appropriate one -- unpredetermined.

I always advise grad students, for example, not to get hung up on their thesis prospectus: how can you describe with certainty territory as yet unmapped? You send out something that is provisional, and you know that if all works well you'll find out that you were wrong about a great many things, and that your project has taken you to rewarding new areas.

But in order to get projects funded -- in fact sometimes just to keep a position or project alive -- you have to speak with a certainty about the future that you don't actually possess. And you have to do what Dan Remein just did: freely and generously fill in the facts about how the present depends upon the past.

prehensel said...

That's true. I don't want to believe it, but I think you're probably right. So here's my 2 cents: Foucault needed the Middle Ages. The highly-anthologized "Panopticon" relies heavily on a plague narrative, and Madness and Civilization bases the historical trajectory in the medieval period...

Eileen Joy said...

Ken's letter touches upon so many things that I think and write about all the time, that I don't quite know where to begin. I would say that the defense of premodern [including classical but also, obviously, medieval] studies as vital to modern life and thought [aesthetic, social, political, what-have-you] has formed a kind of raison d'etre for all of my work, and I never stop thinking and obsessing over it. As regards my own institutional context, I am fortunate to have a College Dean whose background is in Theater, an Assoc. Dean in charge of curriculum who is a classicist, and another Assoc. Dean. in charge of travel funding and other budget matters who is a cultural geographer. Our new Provost is a science guy [chemistry, I think] but has been known to say he will support anyone who is an active researcher, in whatever area [and he has actually put his money where his mouth is]. Finally, our Graduate School Dean and his Assoc. Dean for research are both historians. This is all just to say that, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, there is no animosity either toward the humanities more broadly or toward medieval studies more narrowly [there are, further, two medievalists in my Department: me and a hybrid medievalist/classicist, and for an M.A. granting institution, that's not too bad; the History department, moreover, has a Carolingian historian and an art historian who specializes in ancient Assyria]. I should also say, following one of Karl's comments, that when I was hired, the job ad SIUE wrote requested a specialist in Old and Middle English literature *and* in critical/cultural theory, and that is because our M.A. students are required to take a two 500-level theory seminars and it was decided that the best thing for our students would be if these were taught on a rotating bases by all the different literature specialists, thereby affording students the broadest possible ranges of primary and secondary materials. Our History department also has a two-semester theory sequence that is required for their M.A. students and which is taught by three professors: Carole Frick, an Italian Renaissance scholar, Eric Ruckh, who does French intellectual history [he studied with Derrida at Irvine], and Michael Moore, the Carolingian historian. Now, reflect for a moment upon *that* mix!

Indeed, now that we have Bruce Holsinger's "The Premodern Condition" and Erin F. Labbie's "Lacan's Medievalism" and Amy Hollywood's "Sensible Ecstasy" in hand [all of which demonstrate how dependent certain important modern theorists were upon the work of medieval authors], there are some very strong arguments to be made about the vital *necessity* of medieval studies to modern/contemporary theory. In addition, the attentive reader will note that, in the very visible and strong area of contemporary queer studies, the leading work in this field includes quite a few classicists, medievalists, and early modernists [some of whom, like David Halperin and Carolyn Dinshaw, can be considered, alongside figures such as Eve Sedgwick, Judith, Butler, and Michael Warner, to be the *founders* of the field]. Consider, also, that the most interesting work being undertaken in contemporary queer studies now by theorists who are not medievalists is concerned with the "affective turn" [Heather Love, Lauren Berlant, Elizabeth Freeman], for which "turn" Dinshaw is the important predecessor. It is also no accident that the most important work being done now in postcolonial studies has been energized by a renewed attention to longer historical perspectives [and by medievalists' collaborative efforts to *intervene* into this field that, historically, has not always taken the premodern into enough account: JJC's "The Postcolonial Middle Ages" is one such important effort, as is Ananya Kabir's and Deanne Williams' "Postcolinial Approaches to the European Middle Ages," and also Michelle Warren's "History on the Edge," David Williams's "Premodern Places," Kofi Campbell's "Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic," and I could go on and on]. The recent book by the Anglo-Saxonist Kathleen Davis, "Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time" directly addresses modern and contemporary historical, social, and legal issues and is partly a result of an active dialog between Davis and important postcolonial thinkers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty [who provided a blurb for the book!]. A new book [a collection of essays] is coming out from Duquesne University Press that traces the influence of the medieval in the thought of one of the 20th century's most important philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas: "Levinas and Medieval Literature" The "Difficult Reading' of Texts, English and Rabbinic," edited by Ann Astell and Justin Jackson [full disclaimer: I am in this book, as are some other ITM authors and readers: Daniel Kline, Valerie Allen, and James Paxson]. So, there's that. Which is to say: one important component of the argument that Ken and his colleagues can make to the administration at Stockton is to compile a kind of narrative bibliography of the increasingly important role that medieval studies is playing in important contemporary fields such as queer studies, postcolonial studies, and Continental philosophy, as well as in the *historical* development of critical and cultural theory more broadly. Also, as Karl has already pointed out [and JJC has seconded], there is the issue of the significant role of medieval studies in relation to understanding popular culture, which means medieval studies is important, on a vital level, to that vexed [yet I would argue *very* important, and certainly *healthy*] academic field of cultural studies.

It is good, in Ken's case, that the department seems to agree on the importance of having medieval studies in the mix, and therefore, they can at least present a united front, although the necessity of having some arguments ready to hand to present to the administration should not be dismissed too lightly or brushed aside as an annoyance [and yes, we can be insulted, certainly, and even aghast at the anti-intellectualism/anti-historicism of it all, but let's definitely fight a little, too]. I think the strongest argument to be made, in *integration* with the ones I outlined above, would be for *all* departments of English [Ken's included] to work together more collaboratively on creating innovative cultural studies programs that would integrate all of the literary periods--ancient through modern--in relation to a variety of what we might call pressing contemporary concerns: theoretical, global, aesthetic, social, etc. And then, somehow create linkages between those programs of study [which could be designed as "tracks" within, say, B.A. and M.A. degree programs, or could even be structured as required components within existing B.A. and M.A. program requirements] and courses being offered in other departments. In my own department, I and a few other faculty led a charge about five years ago to revise our B.A. in English in order to, simultaneously,

1. strengthen [and actually make a bit tougher] our students' grounding in the more full oeuvres of "major authors" [broadly defined, by the way];

2. add a global literatures component;

3. rejuvenate the teaching of older literatures in new, cross-temporal literature courses;


4. [and this will be the horror moment for some medievalists, I know], get rid of periodization as both a factor in which particular courses are required [we used to require an early Brit. Lit survey because it was believed students would never get Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton otherwise] and also as organizing principle for any of our survey or upper-level courses [instead, surveys will all be themed courses at the 200-level, representing an integration of all sorts of different literatures, early and late, American, English, and global].

So, for starters, in addition to our stand-alone courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton, we added Morrison. Then we created two new "Major Authors" courses, "Shared Traditions" and "Crossing Boundaries," which will feature 2-4 authors who share an historical period and/or genre and 2-4 authors who normally would never be taught together in a gadjillion years yet can be conceptualized to have connections [so, for example, in Fall 2009 I am teaching a course titled "The Question of Sin in the Work of John Milton and Neil Labute, and another colleague is doing a course on Ibsen and Tony Kushner]. It took five years [and a lot of fighting, but it helped that a medievalist--me--was an advocate, although our Miltonist and 18th-century person definitely let me know they disapproved, while the Shakespeare person was on board with it, but that's kind of a no-brainer, anyway, since Shakespeare always retains its popularity and portability into multiple other contexts--literary, theoretical, etc.; in a sense the Bard has the ultimate plasticity], this all finally passed, and the new courses start next year. So, some kind of internal departmental effort to revise the curriculum with an eye toward better integrating the disparate teaching areas and literary periods, in a manner that demonstrates the important worth of premodern studies to the study of later periods, is another possible prong in the so-called defense [I would call this an offensive maneuver, actually].

There is finally--and especially for me, personally--the ways in which all of us, situated at different institutions, can work together [through entities such as the BABEL Working Group, but also through "institutes" such as George Washington's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute or Columbia/Rutgers/Princeton/NYU's Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, and also through various conference, symposia, online, and publishing ventures] to forge productive alliances for the further development of what, for lack of a better term at present, I want to call "medieval cultural studies." I cannot claim to know for certain how this "field," let's say first originated and has since developed, but in the process of putting together a formal prospectus for a new journal in "medieval cultural studies" [which, fingers crossed, may be coming soon to a theater near you--more on that later], I had the occasion to reflect on what I believe may have been something like its first [public, anyway] genesis/representation in a small conference held at Georgetown University in 1995, "Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in Post-Modern Contexts," which featured the current work/thinking at that time of JJC, Carolyn Dinshaw, Steven Kruger, Karma Lochrie, Glenn Burger, Vance Smith, Michael Uebel, Robert Stein, Sarah Stanbury, Kathleen Biddick, Claire Sponsler, Martin Irvine, Andrew Galloway, and Paul Strohm, among a few others. This conference--since forgotten by a lot of people, I think, not counting the participants, of course--represented a really important gathering of young-ish medieval scholars who were trying, collectively, to grapple with what a "medieval cultural studies" might look like [the conference proceedings can be found on the Labyrinth site at Georgetown:]. They may not have entirely succeeded [god knows, I didn't, when I tried to pick up their gauntlet in the Introduction to BABEL's Palgrave volume, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages"], but that is, I really believe, partly a function of how difficult it has always been for those who practice cultural studies to define it--both in Britain, where it originated in a more Marxist, materialist mode, and in the U.S. where it has often devolved into rather bland studies of "pop culture." Nevertheless, in his closing remarks [which he later refined and included in his book "Theory and the Premodern Text"], Paul Strohm pointed to a kind of gap, or impasse, that often opens up within cultural studies between cultural studies conceptualized as a form of critique that attends to the discursivity of cultural forms [including texts, and really, this is where everything *becomes* text, and this can lead to difficult problems for historians as regards being able to separate "events" out --see, on this point, the excellent introduction written by Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, in their book "Practicing New Historicism," where they write: "If an entire culture is regarded as text, then everything is at least potentially in play both at the level of representation and at the level of event. Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a clear, unambiguous boundary between what is representation and what is event. . . .[Further], if all the textual traces of an era 'count' as both representation and event. . .then it is increasingly difficult to invoke 'history' as a censor."] and cultural studies understood as being primarily concerned with the *material* effects of cultural objects [including texts]. In his address at the conference, Strohm also said this:

"Postmodernism has been devastating in its critique of the authoritative observer, exposing its feigned objectivity as a construction founded in privilege and supported by social authority. But its seeming obverse--complete disinvestment--is actually its twin, founded in a similar claim of disinterest and no less privileged (in this case, the privilege not to care). A recent Representations article on Lollardy situates our best chance of access to the past in unpositioned inattention--a place where scribal indolence is reciprocated in our own address to the past as diversion, or, when more pointedly motivated, as at best 'cultivation of the soul.' Here we see the posture of privilege elevated to principled status. I associate unpositionality with privilege because history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances which require care, full of people who can't not care. Such historical actors can neither be everywhere nor nowhere; they have no choice but to be somewhere. And this is how I suggest we position ourselves: provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly--but always somewhere. And wherever this somewhere is, that it be an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake."

I, of course, quite this Strohm bit all the time--in the Palgrave book, in various talks--partly because it has acted as a sort of interior mantra for me as regards what I hope can be the vigorous furture development of a medieval cultural studies that would:

1. work strenuously to delineate all the connections as well as fissures and cracks that inhere in various representation-event matrices [this is another way of saying that medieval cultural studies are ideally situated to uncovering the layers and layers of repressed mentalities and other deep historical "structurations" that underlie or are embedded in much of contemporary life and thought;

2. explore the slower and semi-still currents of deep historical time that inhere in present cultural formations, which also means attending to what Richard Johnson [in his famous 1987 essay "What is Cultural Studies, Anyway?"] argued should be the chief object of cultural studies: not the text itself [whether that text be a book or another cultural object], but the "social life of subjective forms at each moment of their circulation in the text" [and I would say, more largely, in the world];


3. enter into active collaboration with scholars working in more contemporary fields of cultural studies and cultural theory [such as a Cary Wolfe, who just inaugurated the new book series at POSTHUMANities at Minnesota] in order to help those studies, in the words of Simon During, examine their own "temporal border[s]: the separation of past from present," and to also ask: what is the role of history [including medieval history] in contemporary theoretical formulations and cultural studies? This questions has remained largely unexamined in these fields. But instead of just writing articles where we point that out [and we have plenty of these already], we should work collaboratively with scholars in more contemporary field--even in "working group" formations--in order to, in a sense, labor side-by-side on pressing contemporary questions.

This will also mean [WARNING! She is going to bring up Bill Readings again!] working toward, not a cross-temporal inter-disciplinarity that would only reinscribe borders and lines [albeit new one, but still lines! around which various forms of sedimenting and settling occur; this is what Cary Wolfe calls "a system of ‘hetero-reference’ that is always a product of ‘self-reference’”], but rather, toward, in Readings' words, a "shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how [our] thoughts fit together" ["The University in Ruins"].

A long-winded comment, to be sure, but one inspired by Ken's letter, to which I cannot say less [and could even say more]. For my own part, and on behalf of BABEL, I would never let the state of affairs at Ken's university be *his* state of affairs and not mine. Just as, after hearing some horrifying news about a recent layoff at the University of Florida of 32 tenure-track faculty working in primarily obscure humanities fields, I cannot say, well that is Florida's problem. Collective efforts are required, ones that go beyond the occasional polemical essay here and there, or the article that demonstrates "best practice" of a virtuous "cultural studies. I hope this all makes sense. And oh yes: join BABEL!

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading Salvatore Settis's Future of the 'Classical', a book that speaks to the classical studies version of this dilemma. I'd recommend that Ken take a look at it.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Eileen, I just have to say how amazing I think your recent post/comment is. It sounds like such an expansive, energetic vision for the field, one that find so vital to finding a way to delimit an intellectual/affective space to occupy. I'm also exited by the forthcoming Levinas book and by the journal prospects. I think you give a very enlivening portrait of medieval studies to which administrators at all our institutions ought to attend. Your comments on how so much of the current discursive energies within our field are directed at/around queer studies struck me as particularly salient, since I'm writing an entry about much of the present terrain [a recent post on my blog details some of that, although in an overly ambitious way]. I also think it's so vital to recall, against certain structures of institutional amnesia, how much queer studies has been dependent on [pardon the language of filiation] the work of Halperin and Dinshaw.

Too often there is a conception of the medieval -- one as much self-inflicted by our fields quick embrace of its own interpellated marginality -- as having now relation to the most pressing and urgent of political/cultural issues. But the work of those whom you name [to which I would also add Mark Jordan, among so many others] does much to trouble this perspective. In some ways, then, it falls to us to bring such excellent and exciting work to the attention of administrators, and, as JJC noted, in a language that they can understand. So the challenges that Ken (and so many others are facing) might, in some respects at least, be viewed as opportunities. Of course, I do not mean to minimize in anyway the brutally material conditions of job loss or elimination. But there seems to be something hopeful in this cultural moment, or at least for those of us joning together in such working-group formations as BABEL, and I want to respect and grab hold of this utopian impulse. Indeed, there is something very queer about that very impulse, about the finding of viable ways of living within apparently intolerable conditions. What remains problematic, of course, is how to negotiate our various longings for recognition, our desire for what the institution desires. That said, we can't discount those desires because of the very material and pragmatic outcomes they effectuate. [Here, i"m obviously drawing on Butler's work in "Undoing Gender."]

Thank you for a wonderful, beautifully inspiring post, Eileen! And thanks to Ken [via JJC] for the opportunity to have this always important existential inquiry.

P.S., I think you mean Wallace not Williams for "Premodern Places" [minor correction for the bibliophiles out there]

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you, Nic, for your comments, but more importantly, for the hope and enthusiasm they express as regards the future of the field and for our collective labors on behalf of that future. Yes, I meant David *Wallace" and not *Williams* in my comment. I am wincing now at all the typos I made there, partly the result of two things: 1) I need reading glasses but don't want to admit it, and 2) two of the keys on my laptop broke in half this weekend, a definite sign that I spend too much time on my laptop!

I want to pause, if I may, on your comment that,

"Too often there is a conception of the medieval -- one as much self-inflicted by our fields quick embrace of its own interpellated marginality -- as having no relation to the most pressing and urgent of political/cultural issues."

I, of course, spend almost all of my time arguing the opposite, and as you yourself assent in relation to my earlier comment, so much *influential* work has already been published in the field of medieval studies that demonstrates otherwise, and YET, as you also point out [and THIS is also the salient point for me and BABEL], we simply have to do a better [even more aggressive] job of getting the word out about this, to our colleagues, to our administrators, and also to those working in other fields who are not necessarily our "working" colleagues. But just broadcasting the news has been done, actually, over and over again, to the point where you wonder if anyone is ever listening, and this is partly why, when I read Jonathan Goldberg's and Madhavi Menon's essay "Homohistory" in PMLA, I almost wanted to puke, and I'll say that, boldly, on behalf of Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie, who later wrote a very polite [too polite!] letter to PMLA gently wondering why the work already done in medieval studies has been left out of Goldberg's and Menon's article, which, to be frank, posits an idea of "homohistory" that is supposedly original to *them* at the moment of their article--sheesh.

But again, if we get upset about all of the times *that* will happen [just as we had to take early modernists to task for inventing the self without us, or the postcolonialists for assuming coloniality and "imagined communities" or ideas of "race" and chattel slavery only happen with the modern nation-state and/or modern capital, etc.], we'll lose track of time issuing all of our statements to the contrary. Better still would be to form new alliances with scholars working in other periods, while of course, we still need autonomous spaces within which to do certain kinds of work.

But this is where it also starts to get kind of tricky, and where I see curricular revision & development, at the department by department level, of absolutely critical importance. That's why getting rid of periodization is so important to me, although I can already hear all the protests and really good counter-arguments and even screams of horror. I know this will sound a bit crazy, but I would love an entire B.A. curriculum built around the idea of deleuzoguattarian "individuations"/"haecceities," and "events." You could still have the idea of important "single" authors and even particular eventful "times," but the idea would be to get away from a curriculum in which you have courses called "Milton" and "Shakespeare" and "Chaucer" [which would be required to force students to take them] and "Poetry and Prose of the Victorian Era" and "Survey of Early British Literature," and so on and so forth. By having B.A. curricula structured in this way [and believe me, we all talk a good game about our cool undergraduate courses, but I had to do a lot of heavy research into other programs when we were revising our own B.A. curriculum and I was aghast at how traditional many programs still are, even at the most innovative schools, such as Bard and Pomona and Rhodes College, etc.], we not only strangulate our potential to create new, cross-period, disaggregated-type courses that might throw *everything* [all periods, authors, and even critical theories] into new, illuminating light, but we also make even deeper the traditional and sedimented tracks [faculty lines] that we keep re-hiring over and over again in the same, old boring ways [how many job ads will we see this year that say, "Medieval Literature, especially Chaucer," or "Old English, preferably someone who can teach History of the English Language"? GWU's ad last year was a rare exception to this rule, but hopefully one we will see more of, but first, we really have to work, at a very basic level, on our curricula. Otherwise the medievalist, like some of her other colleagues, but often even more so, becomes "just the medievalist," and is therefore also more vulnerable when lines need to be cut or there is a clamor for "something different" in the medievalist's usual place.

By continuing to hang on to periodization as the number one way we define our curricula as well as our job hires, we will always run the risk of what I would call the law of diminishing returns as well as planned obsolescence. Now, in case anyone think I'm crazy, I do understand the need for specialization, especially as regards our professional research and teaching, and we will, of necessity, have and need "experts" in very narrowly-defined areas, whether that is Anglo-Saxon pottery shards or 14th-century European economics or Crusades history or Old English poetry and the like, and I think if someone says to me: but all I want to do is think about the coinage of the Roman era, that's fine, but, again collectively, we have to think of ways to both protect that kind of work [what I would call the right to the freedom of intellectual inquiry and historical research] while also better integrating it into new curricular models that don't simply re-inscribe little specialist ghettos. It's not the same thing as arguing for the "utility" or "material outcomes" of what we do, but of re-envisioning the entire space of the university to bring forward new research and learning modules, let's say, or synergistic nodes, within which it would not be possible for any one scholar-teacher to be isolated as "just herself, over there, doing *that* and only *that*." I would also get rid of departments, but now, that really is just crazy! Okay, back to my dilatory book review.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Eileen, thanks again for your stimulating response. I really couldn't agree more with what you say. Behind my comment that you pause over, I was thinking of Lee Patterson's very dated Speculum article, but also Aranye Fradenberg's discussions of the pleasures of being medievalists -- the pleasures of specialization, institutional marginality, and arcane knowledge. The need to self-publicize, as you note as well, remains an important task, but I equally agree that such work alone will not itself suffice. As you write, "just broadcasting the news has been done, actually, over and over again, to the point where you wonder if anyone is ever listening." To which I would add, more explicitly, that acts of broadcasting, which are mostly acts of correction and negation, remain within the very institutional norms that make our professional lives so precarious. This becomes a way of desiring what the institution desires, as I tried to intimate. I agree with your Derridean-Deleuzian embrace of calling/making way for new curricular structures, "form[ing] new alliances"; of "re-envisioning the entire space of the university to bring forward new research and learning modules, let's say, or synergistic nodes."

Here I think your example of an Anglo-Saxonist teach Milton is perfect [Im also a big fan of Milton]. As I've been thinking more and more about dissertation stuff, I did come up with an initial idea that my director loved, but thought, pragmatically, was a better second book plan than a dissertation. The idea was to "trace," within the order of knowledge, practices of discernment through a series of selected medieval [Hilton, Gower, Gerson], early modern [Milton, Bunyan], and colonial American texts [Winthrop, Taylor]. I see discernment as one of those aleatory points, or in your terms "synergistic nodes," that connects a range of cultural energies and phenomenon: to me, discernment links up not only with questions of religious/mystical experience [where the principal scholarly interest has been] but also with a range of culturally prescient ethical, epistemological, and ontological coordinates. To what degree is the human sensorium a trustworthy guide to action and knowledge? How does one know who speaks for God? Who/what does one trust? What do I love if my manner of loving is deemed suspect? I also think there's an angle here to discuss animals and the histories of the confessing subject and tolerance [I have longstanding issues with the Whiggish view of its emergence].

Like your own work, this was a project conceived in the to explicitly challenge claims of periodicity, but also to question tidy distinctions between religious and secular literatures and between continental and transatlantic stuff. Well, I'm not focusing on this project right now, but am opting for something else [that also explains why it's so underdeveloped theoretically here]. What my director loved about it was precisely its challenging of so many accepted specializations. However, she found equally problematic its own specialist natures, and thought it more pragmatic to do something else. The advice here was to choose something more "traditionally" (my word, not hers) delimitable; she did say, playfully but seriously, that I had to have a Chaucer chapter.

I relate this experience because I think, at least for me, it is telling for how it registers desires that many of us here share about periodicity and curricular/institutional reform while equally indexing the material constraints such desires must negotiate. Required, it seems to me, is a strategic engagement with the norms governing our academic lives, norms that have clear material consequences not only in terms of employment [or lack thereof] but also in their ability to govern what constitutes intelligible action. This cartography certainly regulates and normalizes as much as it holds out the hope of finding viable ways living.

[okay, so I'm sure everyone sees that I've been spending much time lately re/reading Butler's "Undoing Gender"].

medievalkarl said...

Finally had a chance to read through these, and, first, thanks for this exciting conversation (and thanks, Nic, for reminding me, through your good work here, to add your blog to my RSS feeds).

In re: Eileen's proposal, unelaborated here, to eliminate departments, I wonder what would happen to funding for the kind of work we do? Science costs so much more than the humanities. Our needs may be only a pittance compared to theirs (and I know you want to do away with this 'ours' and 'theirs'), and thus may be funded as an afterthought; but, because of the very smallness of our needs, they may be only an afterthought. In essence, I think of the dilapidated humanities school in Oryx and Crake, worry that this will be our fate, especially if your proposals are someday realized. To be sure, this isn't a condemnation of your ideas, Eileen: it's (just a?) worry.

But to go at things another way:

but all I want to do is think about the coinage of the Roman era, that's fine, but, again collectively, we have to think of ways to both protect that kind of work [what I would call the right to the freedom of intellectual inquiry and historical research] while also better integrating it into new curricular models that don't simply re-inscribe little specialist ghettos

I think part of what we want here is for our classical numismatist to reflect upon how his or her work and professional interest is always already caught up in desiring networks. That reflection should lead our openminded, reflexive scholar to realize that our scholarship, even at its most hermetic, is already cross-disciplinary, since we ourselves are cross-disciplinary. In that sense, the disciplines could be thought to inhibit the real conditions of our existence, our becoming.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Fascinating comments everyone -- I wish I had more to say that was actually generative. However, I will venture this -- I do think that, for Ken and others in his situation, turning to universities that have been stepping up their medieval program (GW, as JJC points out, and even Columbia, with its Center for Medieval and Early Modern Worlds) would be good evidence.

I'd also second Dan's understanding of the Modernists, and I'd also extend it -- well beyond the Modernists, knowing the medieval was a prerequisite in an English Course.

Finally, to Eileen: I *think* I understand what you're getting at with the idea of a scholar-teacher who studies one thing and ONLY one thing in their little corner. My first reaction was -- well, what if they *want* to be alone? But then, on thinking it through further, I realized that their isolation is fictive at best -- they're already part of a larger network, one which includes their students. I wonder how that affects the way we think of being-together in the academy.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: don't worry, I actually understand all the reasons why we need departments, and we would have an administrative nightmare on our hands without them--I think I would like to see a bit more plasticity in the ways in which they are designed and structured, and I also believe the humanities, like the sciences and fine arts and social sciences, has a *right* to declare and defend its autonomy on certain levels, but I also think that any form of autonomy, held on to too tightly and defended from a too narrow trench, ultimately makes its future viability more vulnerable. Knowledge for its own sake will always be an important mantra and even an end in itself that should be vigorously defended, but when funding is the bottom-line issue, better integration of individual knowledge fields into a heteronomous university is the key. There should also be room within traditionally-structured colleges and universities for experimental/temporary "centers" or "Institutes" that would not solidify into permanent units and whose contours would always be shifting in different directions.

Nic: I like very much your interest in aleatory/rhizomatic forms of scholarship, although your adviser is giving you good advice as far as the dissertation goes. I met a wonderful student of Clare Lees at Kings College London, Josh Davies, this summer who had a likewise incredibly creative idea for a dissertation having to do with crafting a poetics of landscapes and material objects in those landscapes; he and Clare also decided that would be "the second book." Until certain things change institutionally and when you have to enter a job market where most departments will be looking for something like a "straight" medievalist, you have to look out for yourself a little bit. But my real hope is that you really will write that book, and if I and others have our way with the future, so to speak, there will be more than one outlet through which such work can be published. As to reading "Undoing Gender," promise me you'll follow it immediately with Butler's "Giving An Account of Oneself": it's an astounding work, beautifully written, and her most "humanist" work to date.

Anonymous said...

Hi all—

Great discussion. Perfect timing, too, since we are all returning to the classroom, where the medieval is always vibrant.

As someone who works across two fields, without working fully within either (late medieval and early Reformation English lit.), I fully understand Eileen’s frustration with periodization. Early in my career, I constantly found myself defined as the “other” field in which I worked—medievalists said, “oh, you’re an early modernist,” while early modernists said, “oh, you’re a medievalist.” Now I get further circumscribed—“oh, you’re a Chaucerian.” Sure, whatever; read me according to your desire. Generally, such moments are ones of not-so-veiled dismissal, and I get such nonsense (even) from folks who proclaim their disaffection with teleology, period, or author.

Yet, however absurd I find such moments, I also wonder about the possibility of anyone doing otherwise, even for reasons evident within Eileen’s excellent reply: we often conceive of our departures from periodization in relation to those traditional divisions (or don’t we?) When Lochrie and Dinshaw responded to Menon and Goldberg (and then Menon responded to their letter), the most troubling aspect of that exchange to my mind, as someone who could identify with both fields (not periods, or times, in my view, as will become clear), is that both parties were accusing the other of teleologist misprision in ways that bound all to linear periodization. The *linearity* of this view of period (whether or not one "skipped over" the MA) is what seemed most problematic, especially as it works to conflate period, time, and field. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that collapsing these dimensions shuts down some possibilities for thinking and rethinking across different fields.

In particular, the “we were there first” argument doesn’t seem to do much for medievalists; in fact, it seems to give the game away, arguing again, and again, and again (okay, this is perhaps because em stubbornly refuse to listen) that the Middle Ages had concepts of interiority, individuality, selfhood, or subjectivity, before Hamlet ever insists, “But I have that within which passes show.” Are we to assume that the early modern ahd a coherent notion of *the individual*, but that it just happened “before” early modern scholars admit? I hope not, since that seems to flatten the nuance of medieval scholarship on spirituality and affect (not to mention the representational traditions themselves). And, although I strongly sympathize with Nancy Partner’s objection to the implication, certainly given off by some em work, that the Middle Ages was the era of “pre-individuals,” I also think it is wrong to think of medieval interiority, etc., as necessarily that which might be part of any linear conception of individuality (and the same goes, I suppose, for nation and gender). That does not mean that some things about medieval interiority do not contribute to em subjectivity, particularly as these provide (a)temporal conditions of emergence for what we might consider “modern” notions of the individual. In fact, I’m sure they do, and early modernists have really missed an opportunity for thinking about how subjectivity coalesces in a certain form (which moderns seem despeerate to co-opt) by setting up their period as an origin.

I’m rambling now, but it seems to me worthwhile to think about the differences between temporality, periodization, and professional field. Maybe we can abandon linear temporality, but study periodization as an interpretive practice (with a history, no ddoubt). Then we can ask better questions about the professional politics that might result from such practics. That’s all I meant to say...

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: we are never really alone in the university, as you point out, but not everyone will ever want certain forms of *being-together*, however equitably structured [although technically, in Readings' terms, the term remains open and the only thing we're really committed to is continually raising the question of what "being-together" means as *the* question of the university]. I do believe, however, in case it did not come across strongly enough, that part of the job of the humanities, as a knowledge discipline, ought to be to hold open and safeguard spaces within which a scholars can just "do one thing," if they so desire [kind of like the scientists who throw things into particle accelerators, never really knowing the outcome in advance], while at the same time, hopefully that scholars would see that they are part of a larger, collaborative enterprise. But we have to protect our right to the freedom of inquiry, whatever direction it might take, and we must do this strenuously [and that means within medieval studies, too, where we often tell scholars, in the form of rejections of articles and book proposals and grant, proposals, etc., "that's very smart but you did it the wrong way," or "that's not an appropriate subject for medieval studies," etc.]. We may still end up with the horrors outlined in Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake," which Karl referenced earlier, or with the end-of-the-world/post-apocalyptic scenarios sketched out endlessly in fiction, such as Denis Johnson's "Fiskadoro" or Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or Marianne Wiggins's "John Dollar," where the collapse of the whole edifice of learning and education and literature is a significant outcome of events, in which case we just try to have solace in something Milosz once wrote, "One of the honorable traits of men is their will to leave their reports as witnesses." The library, or museum, of Alexandria was sacked, perhaps burned, perhaps destroyed by water, but we still know about Alexandria. It is, in a sense, still with us because of everyone who ever went there and left behind their "report" as a "witness." And that's what we do, to a certain extent; we make reports, and there should never be any restrictions on the types or number or styles of "reports" we desire to make, especially knowing only an infinitesimal portion of these could ever survive for long.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Holly. I'm generally opposed to the 'we were there first' argument, since, apart from the other objections you list, that seems to limit us, and the non-medievalist readers of our period, to the hunt for origins. And any notion of 'first' is at its heart teleological.

I love this:
I’m sure they do, and early modernists have really missed an opportunity for thinking about how subjectivity coalesces in a certain form (which moderns seem despeerate to co-opt) by setting up their period as an origin..

Precisely. I'm pretty sure I've made this point several times here myself in various comments threads. I do think it's much better to think of multiple expressions of this thing we call the 'responsible subject' rather than any simple binary of before and after interiority. The 'modern subject' is not a culmination, but a different manifestation of a set of concerns and interests that might be entirely new, but perhaps which manifested themselves differently at different times, places, and professions in the MA. I think we need a non-teleological history--even a history of a single moment in all its discursive and temporal heterogeneity--of the boundaries of the self.

We may still end up with the horrors outlined in Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake," which Karl referenced earlier, or with the end-of-the-world/post-apocalyptic scenarios sketched out endlessly in fiction, such as Denis Johnson's "Fiskadoro" or Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or Marianne Wiggins's "John Dollar," where the collapse of the whole edifice of learning and education and literature is a significant outcome of events,.

Ah, but the difference with Oryx and Crake is that the sciences are still VERY well funded. Given the threats we're facing--Global Warming above all--I think this is how it should be (although in O&C, science is a corporate wing). Basically, the eschatologist in me has a hard time justifying what I do.

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: thanks for recalling me to what you describe as a kind of hanging on to linear periodization that obviously inhered in the exchange of letters in PMLA between Dinshaw/Lochrie and Menon in relation to Goldberg and Menon's essay "Queering History" [PMLA 120.5], even though all three scholars have worked mightily for what Menon described in her letter as "dechronolization." But I was also surprised by what Dinshaw and Lochrie did *not* say in their letter: that Goldberg and Menon's essay in no way gave proper attribution to significant work already done on their so-called "homohistory" in medieval studies. Instead, Dinshaw and Lochrie focused on what they saw as Goldberg and Menon's exclusion of this thing called "the medieval" or a "medieval history" that would challenge the so-called Renaissance's [queer or otherwise] conception of itself, however defined. To be fair, Goldberg and Menon couched their essay as a direct extension of work in queer *Renaissance* studies, and they were not necessarily looking beyond that [although . . . given their call for demolishing linear periodization, the irony, the irony], and what mainly disturbed me in any case was the complete lack of citation of work on "queering history" already well underway in medieval studies before their essay was published in 2005. This is not a question of whose "period" has more important prominence, or which "period" should be called into question by or have more prominence than the other, but rather, a question of how theory is developed and taken up in and by different practitioners in different fields, and it also gave to Goldberg and Menon's idea of "homo-history" the feeling of newness, as if, with the thought of Chakrabarty, Sedgwick, Edelman, Foucault, Hayden White, Latour, etc. in hand, they gave birth to the idea. That was really my main issue with the article--its lack of what I would call critical generosity, and yes, frankly, a reinscribing of territorial boundaries according to "period." It's a kind of plowing under of the ways in which medieval studies [in the work of Burger, Dinshaw, Lochrie, Kruger, Fradenburg, Strohm, Schultz, Cohen, etc.] had already gone a long way toward formulating a set of methodologies for "queering history." Nobody ever actually gets to any one subject or idea "first" [I really believe this] and sometimes two or more scholars are having the same thought simultaneously in different places and with no knowledge of each other's existence, and theory, in my mind, really develops asynchronously, rhizomatically, etc., and sometimes I wish we had more scholarship that tried, as strenuously as possible, to take account of this [a more full genealogy or archaeology of ideas and forms of idea]--the problem, though, is that I think some really believe that, in order to have a career they have to have thought of "IT" first. No one ever thought of anything "first." Ever. So it's not question of acknowledging who got anywhere "first," so much as it is a question of better efforts on our part to be paying attention to what practitioners are doing on work that we can say we always have "in common," regardless of period.

Going back, also, to periodization and the way it defines the work we do, the job lines we create, and the courses we teach, I agree with Holly that it can sometimes be difficult not to either define ourselves this way or to escape *being defined* in this way, but I think we should likely work really hard to, sure, be "specialists" in particular subjects and periods [we can't know *everything* or even a little bit about everything and the deep study of one language or one subject can yield powerful benefits and knowledges of high value], while also working hard to overcome the too tightly drawn lines of linear histories that, in a sense, will never allow us to reveal all the different ways in which history gets stuck, unstuck, inheres over there, comes undone over here, disappears, reappears, stops short, moves, etc. I'm glad that Holly brought up various notions of the history of the so-called "origins" of the modern subject/subjectivity, because that is one area where I think we could, say, craft a course that looks at the different, (a)temporal, discontinuous ways in which the various contours of the so-called modern subject are shaped, appear, disappear, re-emerge, etc. in different times and places. One would never claim to be able to produce, in such a course, a "whole" history of the subject, but would offer, rather, "fragments" toward such a history. Oh my god: I think I want to teach that course, and maybe I will. I can think of many other such courses, and Nic's initial dissertation idea [now his "second book"] would be another such course. I, of course, am a comparatist and have pretty much never published anything that didn't involve a medieval text/event and a modern one: I can only think the medieval backwards, as it were, through contemporary moments. I like to make connections, but I never claim they are illuminating as regards a "whole" history or even a continuous one. My method has always been asynchronous and anti-teleological and I mainly do it because it's pleasurable [as crazy as that might sound] and also because I've always been partial to the physicist Julian Barbour's idea that, strictly speaking, there is no "time," per se, or even temporal movement; there used to be, in his conception, but everything is frozen in place now--everything that has ever happened or will happen is stuck at some "point" within the static continuum of an eternal, spatial Now, and some areas are more densely populated with points than others--he calls his universe Platonia, and this is one of my favorite quotes from his book "The End of Time":

"In a very real sense, our memories make us present in what we call the past, and our anticipations give us a foretaste of what we call the future. Why do we need time machines if our very existence is a kind of being present everywhere in what can be? . . . We are each just the totality of things seen from our own viewpoint."

Here is another quote:

"The name [Platonia] reflects its mathematical perfection and timeless landscape. Nothing changes in Platonia. Its points are all the instants of time, all the Nows; they are simply there, given once and for all. . . . There are no paths with unique starting points conceived as creation events. Indeed, there are no paths at all. Instead, the different points of Platonia, each of which represents a different possible configuration of the universe at present—as potentialities at least—in different quantities. . . . Imagine that Platonia is covered by a mist. Its intensity does not vary in time—it is static—but it does vary from position to position. Its intensity at each given point is a measure of how many configurations . . . corresponding to that point are present. . . . The land of possible things has one absolute end, where it abuts onto mere nothing, but it is unbounded the other way, for there is no limit to the richness of being. Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung out along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?”

I would love to see a history of the European Middle Ages [or some localized segment thereof] that would take account of all the things/events/persons/ideas that *could* have played a role in "how things turn out," but for whatever reasons, didn't take strong enough root to "last" in any fashion and became the "deserts" over which we pass in static non-motion. That is also history.

Anonymous said...


Though I agree with everything you say, I’m still left wondering, “what to do?” It is funny, but the “Queering History” essay has been much on my mind, mainly in relation to the *politics* it produces, if not pursues.

When I read it, I thought, “about time someone said all this at once, and in this venue.” I fully realized that they were leaving out a lot, perhaps even purposefully (see below), but I was happy to see the stance the essay made, however imperfectly. I was disappointed by the exchange of letters, mainly because it seemed to make the debate into a squabble over quite worn territory. The issue of acknowledging the medieval did not seem in keeping with the kind of forward looking work pursued by *any* of the scholars involved.

So, what to make of this? Were Menon and Goldberg being *ungenerous* simply in order to increase the cache of their own work? I doubt it. If we are to take the line that no one got anywhere “first,” and that each of us might be thinking versions of the same thing, then it would seem inevitable that we are fated to be ungenerous to others in our individual articulations. If I’m writing an essay that proclaims a need for homohistory in *PMLA*, I’m going to make a strong case for the originality of my position. This is in part because I want my argument to be taken up outside of the venue in which it might originally appear. Perhaps I’m taking an overly-generous view of it, but I think Menon and Goldberg were in one sense writing polemic.

That does not mean, however, that they were not being exclusive, perhaps purposefully so (and I would say politically so). While you have a go at them for overlooking the work of medievalists, Mario DiGangi [“Queer Theory, Historicism, and Early Modern Sexualities,” *Criticism* 48 (2006): 129-42 (n.12)] takes a thwack at them for a more infield practice of exclusivity:

“In this regard, *Queer/Early/Modern can be considered alongside the more overt adjudication of inclusion and exclusion from the queer critical canon performed in “Queering History” a 2005 PMLA essay by Jonathan Goldgerb and Madhavi Menon that celebrates the legacy of Goldberg's 1994 anthology, Queering the Renaissance ("Queering History," PMLA 120 [2005]: 1608–17). The essay builds on a session at the 2004 MLA convention called "Ten Years Since Queering the Renaissance," organized by Menon, chaired by Goldberg, and featuring Jeffrey Masten, Richard Rambuss, and Laurie Shannon. As their MLA session title reveals particularly baldly, Goldberg and Menon identify Queering the Renaissance as the privileged origin of truly "queer" approaches to early modern sexuality. As such, Goldberg and Menon can ignore the earlier groundbreaking books of Bruce Smith and Gregory Bredbeck (Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991]), the latter of which first showed how powerfully and brilliantly poststructuralist theory could be brought to bear on Renaissance sexuality. While proclaiming that the recent books of Freccero, Laurie Shannon, and Menon herself have carried on the legacy of Queering the Renaissance, Goldberg and Menon disavow a canon-forming agenda, claiming, "Such work contributes to and demarcates a field but at the same time marks it as one whose boundaries must remain indeterminate" (1608). Nonetheless, the boundaries seem determinate enough to exclude other projects that, despite explicitly aligning themselves with a queer approach, are not acknowledged as contributing to the "field" as Goldberg and Menon officially constitute it. These include Theodora A. Jankowski's Pure Resistance: Queer Virginity in Early Modern English Drama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), Mary Bly's Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage, and my own The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). In light of the explicit efforts of Freccero, Goldberg, and Menon to "queer history," why are we given such partial (and ironically familial) histories of queer criticism? Tellingly, in response to a critique by Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie that "Queering History" ironically upholds the traditional borders between the medieval and the Renaissance, Menon quickly abandons the ideal of queer indeterminacy when she flatly pronounces that "our modes of studying desire have become predictable and boring" ("Forum: Queering History," PMLA 121 [2006]: 837–39, especially, p. 838).

When does overlooking someone else’s work cease to be oversight and take on the political power of exclusion from a professional field? DiGangi suggests that part of what Menon and Goldberg were doing is canon-formation—critical canon-formation—that excludes certain voices based on their own judgments regarding the field of (early modern) sexuality studies. If that’s true, they were also practicing critical canon formation at the expense of medieval scholarship, as you point out (and as Dinshaw and Lochrie demonstrate). But when is that practice something that we medievalists need to redress (because we are being erased from the larger discourse), and when is it simply a byproduct of different scholars asking the same questions in different fields? Can we be okay with other scholars working on parallel questions without explicit acknowledgement? To be alongside one another, do we need recognition, in sum? If so, how do we ask for such recognition without getting tangled up within a dialectic of mastery?

Eileen Joy said...

Wow, Holly. Talk about zeroing in on the most pertinent [and troubling and compelling] questions raised by Goldberg and Menon's essay and the reactions to it, and also related to our larger discussions here. I have to go and prepare for an evening class, but am going to think about this a bit more and come back later.

kentompkins said...

First I want to thank everyone, and especially Eileen Joy, for your comments. I, and my colleagues, have read and discussed them and shortly I will be selecting material from each for the "defense" of my line. You have provided much of what I want to say.

As I said in my letter to Jeffrey Cohen, this is not a crisis and may not ever become one. Our dean is nominally in support of keeping the medieval line. If the higher administration agrees with our defense, there will be no problem. All of us here, of course, trust that that will be the outcome.

I was much moved by Eileen Joy's suggestions about eliminating periodicity. I have been coming to that same place in the last few years. I have imagined all sorts of curricular arrangements which would not have period courses. Actually, putting them into effect, however, is something else again. It sounds as if Eileen Joy's efforts are beginning to pay off at SIU. I hope that she and others will evaluate the new arrangements and report on their success.

Finally, she also mentioned not having departments. I'm sure that none of you know this but at Stockton we do not have departments; instead we have "Programs" which are more like federations of faculty. This is not to suggest that we have faculty from all sorts of disciplines under one administrative unit (though we did have that arrangement when the college was founded in 1970). Everyone in the Literature Program was trained to teach literature. But it does mean that the Co-ordinator (an elected position which rotates every two years) does not have the traditional power of the budget or of hiring. The dean has those important responsibilities.

The positive result of this is that we spend much of our time talking about curricula and teaching. The negative is that the dean makes the decisions usually made by a Department chairperson.

I am the last of the founder deans of the college which started in 1970. I am proud to say that I had a major role in designing the college without departments and though the present administration clearly wishes we had departments with chairpersons, the faculty -- so far -- has resisted those desires.

And absolutely finally, as long as I am sharing a bit of my academic experience, I have wanted to say since the discussion of Carolyn Dinshaw's book that I was a member of the "infamous" Notre Dame Conference on Gender and the Middle Ages.

Many thanks again for your sharings which were way beyond my hopes.

ken tompkins