Thursday, August 26, 2010

MEARCSTAPA: An Open Letter to MAA

(reprinted from here)

As the executive committee of MEARCSTAPA, an organization with more than fifty members, focused on the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages, we wish to speak out both against the recent group of laws passed in Arizona (primarily the now-infamous SB SB1070, but also HB HB2281 banning the teaching of ethnic studies and also the AZ Department of Education's new move to bar teachers with "heavy accents" from teaching English). We also wish to voice our opposition to the Medieval Academy's refusal to relocate the conference from Tempe, despite these offensive laws. We draw the name for our organization from the Old English for "Border-Walker," a term used to confer monstrosity on Grendel and his mother. We are troubled by the intensification of the rhetoric that is applied to the peoples living on both sides of our own borders, and on the rampant use of terms to dehumanize these people ("illegals," "aliens," "anchor-babies," etc.).

We specialize, as a group, in the study of the construction of otherness, and our collective examination of history shows all too clearly the tangible, bodily effects that this process inevitably has. Once a group of people has been repeatedly depicted as not quite human, their mistreatment is to be expected. We cannot stand silently while these acts occur, as to do so would be, through our silence, to voice our implicit consent. The history of assaults on Jews, Muslims, Africans, Indians, women, and on, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, begins in each case with dehumanizing language and laws.

Despite an understanding of the financial ramifications that a full boycott might have had on MAA, we feel that matters of conscience are of greater significance. We also feel that the numbers of the recent poll have been misinterpreted, and their presentation misleading. That 32.7% of poor academics were willing to to give money to NOT attend a conference, in order to voice their solidarity in opposition to the blatant racism of these laws, speaks to the depth of their conviction. This is quite a high number, and probably overlaps with the 42% who voted to cancel the meeting altogether. Three-quarters of those who voted to cancel are willing to put their money where their mouths are, and that certainly should count for something. We are in a very homogenous field, and this collective action taken by MAA reinforces this. MAA had an opportunity to send a message to students interested in the field that the medievalist community is inclusive and welcoming. Instead, it has sent the opposite message. For a strong letter on this, see "The General's" guest post on Quod She.

What is at issue both in these laws and in the responses to them is perception. Otherness -- monstrosity, even -- is, of course, entirely a matter of perception: The idea that anyone "looks like an immigrant," or than there is anyone who does not speak with "a heavy accent" is rooted in the idea that the perspective (or appearance or accent) of the dominant group is not a perspective, at all. But so, too, all of the good intentions of those who argue that attendance of the meeting in AZ is the more helpful, ethical choice does not impact the perception of those who see this as an expression of unconcern with the rights of minorities.

If the Medieval Academy of America persist in holding the conference in Arizona, we the executive committee will boycott the meeting, and those of us currently members will withdraw our membership in the Academy, though we shall do so with regret, as we find the Academy's meetings to be excellent venues for the discussion of scholarship. With this letter, we voice our solidarity with those members of medievalist community in Arizona who have spoken out so eloquently about the need for this boycott. We will encourage our membership to do the same.

Asa Simon Mittman, Chico State
Jeff Massey, Molloy College
Larissa Tracy, Longwood University
Derek Newman-Stille, Trent University
Renee Ward, Wilfrid Laurier University

The following MEARCSTAPA members also asked to be added as signatory:

Frances Auld, University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk Co.
Robyn Cadwallader, Flinders University
Jeffrey J Cohen, George Washington University
Spyridon Gkounis, Ionian University, Corfu
Ana Grinberg, University of California, San Diego
Diane Heath, University of Kent
Marcus Hensel, University of Oregon
Norman Hinton, University of Illinois-Springfield
Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Lisa LeBlanc, Anna Maria College
Dana M. Oswald, University of Wisconsin-Parkside
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Debra Higgs Strickland, University of Glasgow
Kevin Teo, University of Calgary
Rodger Wilkie, St. Thomas University
Mary Williams, San Jose State University
Diane Wolfthal, Rice University
Aimeric Vacher, International School of Geneva

[Note: This letter has been forwarded to the Councillors of the Medieval Academy of America.]


Anonymous said...

The General said:
Thanks for this great letter. This highlights the problem of using fiduciary responsibility as the go to reason to stay in Arizona. What should have been weighed more heavily is the fiduciary consequences in staying. The withdrawal of a large block of medievalists who are members of MAA means several thousands of dollars in lost revenue. The financial fallout is starting to creep up towards that 20,000 amount that was discussed. The withdrawal of membership and its financial impact should also been considered in light of the board's fiduciary responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right that the fiduciary consequences of going to AZ may be VERY high -- and you/we can all say, I told you so. But I don't think there is anyone who can sue the officers and council for NOT deciding to leave. So from the viewpoint of individuals with kids in college or nearly as expensive as college daycare, with careers to make, and who are finding all this almost more than can be borne with each passing day, not to decide is to decide, not to do is to do too. Or two suits of clothing?) are not better than one, or if we're thinking about the organization maybe we could have a more transparent review process for Speculum.

Why when JJ Cohen goes to Maine is the weather beautiful, the drinks cool, and he has a relaxing time, while my trip to Maine was a heat wave? Why have my classes already been going for a week? Only fourteen or fifteen to go, so I guess that's the good news. Why do I still get upset when perfectly anonymous students drop my class after the first two lectures although the classroom is overcrowded? And I know I gave a couple of good lectures?

Summer was miserable, and a brief trip to a big city relaxing, but fall looks no better despite moving towards the end of the semester. Depressed about it all already, or still?

Aunt Pansy