Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Bonnie Wheeler Is My Hero

Figure 1. Bonnie Wheeler with Marty Shichtman at the 2008 Kalamazoo Congress


Driving home this evening after teaching my undergraduate Chaucer class, I started thinking about Bonnie Wheeler and how singularly important she has been over the past decade or so in the transformation of the field of medieval studies, especially with regard to her labors in assisting younger scholars to establish themselves in the field (and thereby also secure tenure -- I am one of those scholars) and in securing significant space for creative, theoretically inventive, and even risky scholarship and writing that otherwise might have never found a home. I don't know why Bonnie crept into my thoughts after collecting my students' papers and then letting them leave early so they could watch the fifth game of the World Series [the Saint Louis Cardinals are playing the Texas Rangers, and for my students, let's just say that their devotion to the Cardinals borders on religious fervor], but somehow, as I was passing the Cahokia burial mounds in the gorgeous velvety dark of an almost summer-like evening and listening to the old Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide" [which has the line, "Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?"], it just made me think of Bonnie -- why, I honestly don't know, but perhaps because the line got me thinking about the difficulties we all navigate in our careers and personal lives, and how our culture is heavily invested in the idea of the heroic individual who succeeds, or fails, completely on her own merits and labors (or supposed lack thereof). As Zygmunt Bauman once wrote, being an individual in modernity is no longer a choice, but a fate. We need help to sail through those changing ocean straits, and Bonnie has helped an immense number of people in our field, not only as the founding editor of the journal of Arthuriana, but also as the instigator and director of Palgrave Macmillan's New Middle Ages series, and even in her other non-medieval studies leadership roles, such as her stint as President of the Council of the Editors of Learned Journals [CELJ]. As Jeffrey once wrote, and it is worth repeating,
Few have had such a positive impact upon Medieval Studies as Bonnie Wheeler. Her special mission throughout her career has been the cultivation of young scholars, fostering their intellectual growth through mentoring and their professional possibilities through guiding their research. She is and always has been an inspiration, a catalyst for change, and a fairy godmother for those working on nontraditional projects.

Also -- and this has been weighing on me for quite a while now -- I missed two opportunities in recent years to publicly toast and thank Bonnie at the Kalamazoo Congress when events were organized to honor her contributions to medieval studies. In one case, in 2009, a party organized to honor and celebrate Bonnie's career coincided with a moment of complete exhaustion on my part [unusual for me, I know], and while others were feting her and engaging in other social events, I was alone in my hotel room engaging in some much-need sensory deprivation. The second time [last year, when the first award of the Bonnie Wheeler Fellowship was announced], I had another obligation which I could not duck. I have felt terrible about this for a long time, because I don't think we can pay enough public tribute to what Bonnie has done for so many of us, and for what she has made possible in our field, and so I want to do so now, here, in this public space.

I want to say, first, that I am in awe of Bonnie's indefatigable energies when it comes to seeking out younger scholars for the New Middle Ages series. If she thinks you have an interesting idea, even if it is half-baked and in dire need of further development, she will encourage you to do just that [with much-needed criticism] and assures you simultaneously that she will back your project when it is completed [and if it is good -- and thanks to knowing Bonnie is in your corner, by god, you make it good]. I have personally benefited from Bonnie's stewardship and encouragement so many times, I barely know where to begin. For example, when the BABEL Working Group did not yet exist except in a very early proto-manifesto version that only a few of us [Myra Seaman, Betsy McCormick, Kimberly Bell, Mary Ramsey, Tim Spence, Cindy Ho, Anne Clark Bartlett, and a couple of other people] had seen, Bonnie came to a session we organized [under the name, Group for Postfeminist Scholarship] at the 2004 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association on "Remaking the Middle Ages on Reality Television," and afterwards she followed us to a cafe for coffee and said she would love to see the session developed into a book. She insisted that only untenured assistant professors be the editors, thereby helping some of us to secure tenure. She then told us she would only help us if we got rid of the name "Group for Postfeminist Scholarship," which she frankly told us was insulting to all feminists and maybe stupid, too. We sheepishly mentioned we were batting around the name, "BABEL Working Group," at which point she asked to see our little "manifesto" [never brought to light anywhere, I might add] and told us to add her name and email address to our list of "members," which, at that point, was the six or seven people who were sitting around that table in the cafe, and we hadn't exactly made it "official." Some of us had jobs, some of us did not, and except for Anne and Cindy, we were all worried about long-term job security. In short, Bonnie breathed wind into our sails and gave us hope that -- maybe, just maybe -- we could publish a book together and also launch, if even tenuously, this new group we were "dreaming" at the time. She was literally the first person to say, make me a member of BABEL. In all reality, we had no official "membership" at the time. Guess what? That was Bonnie's idea -- to even have a "membership," and also a list-serv. So, it was like Bonnie ran into a group of vagabonds loitering together on a corner, who had some good ideas but no definite direction, and with a few sharp prods and gestures of welcoming, she ignited us. And she published our book, which was only became a book because she suggested it could be one [Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages].

I could tell more stories, but another one I want to share has to do with postmedieval. When I and other members of BABEL were batting around the idea for a new journal, we initially wrote up a brief prospectus and sent it to Blackwell Publishers. They declined to even submit it to a full review because medieval studies is not a "growth area," and the readership for such a journal would be too small to make the venture worthwhile for them, especially at a time of financial austerity and a general shrinking of library budgets and the like. There are all sorts of plot details regarding how we eventually came to convince Palgrave Macmillan to publish this journal [and which involved writing up a very detailed vision statement and prospectus for external review, assembling an Editorial Board and the like], but only one detail really matters: because of the success of the New Middle Ages book series, which Bonnie has directed so successfully, the powers-that-be at Palgrave's Journals division in the UK had decided at one of their board meetings that medieval studies would be a good area within which to develop a new journal. So basically, Bonnie opened that door, and we walked through it. Whatever happens with the journal will be our fault [or success], but we wouldn't have it at all without Bonnie's vision and hard work to clear the ground for the possibility of its arrival.

I don't know if it's possible to ever express my gratitude for the gift of Bonnie Wheeler to our profession with words that would be adequate to how much she has blessed my and others' careers. What I can say is that, for those of us situated in university careers where we are often made to feel as if we must swim or sink on our own, and where a terrible level of anxiety and fear and self-loathing is the result of that professional zeitgeist, Bonnie Wheeler has inspired and orchestrated endless spontaneous acts of the fostering of individual [hopes and] careers, but more importantly, of a collective good will that has been infectious and spread to many dark corners. Tonight, after midnight, with a martini poured by my friend Sheryl Meyering sitting on the table next to my laptop, I raise all of my virtual and real glasses to Bonnie, who shines the most stylish and searching lights upon the often tumultuous and dark seas of our studies. Bonnie: we thank you ever so much; you have our undying devotion.


Sally Livingston said...

One way we can all honor Bonnie's spirit is to support the fellowship that has been established in her honor. Every gift, no matter the size, enables her work to grow. Here's the link: http://www.bonniewheelerfund.org/content/case-giving

Michael Widner said...

Eileen, would you mind if I added an excerpt from this post to the Bonnie Wheeler Fellowship site, along with a link to the original post? Thanks.

Eileen Joy said...

That's no problem at all, Mike!

Eileen Joy said...

Something else I feel compelled to add to my post here is that it is very rare to find in our profession someone who has decided to devote a large part of their career to developing other people's careers--that is the primary reason I admire Bonnie so much: her generosity. Also, she's charismatic as hell, so, she gets things done. Charisma doesn't get praised enough, and it isn't just window dressing--it's an agent for change in the right hands, which in Bonnie's case, it has been.

Wend said...

You put into words how so many of us feel! Bonnie continues to inspire, encourage and mentor me - 24 years after my freshman year at university. Thank you for this article; it reminds me how fortunate I am to know this phenomenal woman.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for this well deserved tribute to Bonnie, Eileen. As you know I've posted about her impact here before (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2010/11/bonnie-wheeler-summer-research.html) but it is worth saying again and again: she has had such a good effect on medieval studies through her nurturing of the next generation of scholars. She is, simply, amazing.

Viator said...

My wife and I recently retained a new financial adviser here in St. Paul, who got excited when I mentioned (as I do) that I am a medievalist. "Have you heard of someone named Bonnie Wheeler?", he asked me. "She's my aunt."

He seemed to have a pretty good idea already of what a cool aunt he has, but I think I'll go ahead and send your lovely panegyric to him, anyway.

Rachel said...

I would not be where I am today were it not for Bonnie Wheeler - her enthusiasm for students is amazing.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful site in honour of a wonderful person. As an undergrad in the 70s I was intimidatedly in awe of Bonnie. In grad school, I was not only in awe of her but inspired by her scholarship, friendship, humour, and convictions. I've not told her this, so it's high time. Thank you Bonnie from Mary.