Monday, May 21, 2012

Activism and the Academy: A Forum

A collation of guest posts.

Jeffrey J. Cohen

If tenure is to be meaningful, then scholars must also be activists. This activism can take many forms: speaking out about unjust policies at one's home institution as well as elsewhere; protecting those who likewise speak out and do not have the same employment security (adjuncts, the untenured, staff); demonstrating; writing; listening; communalizing; deploying social media to bring attention to what might otherwise remain hidden; making appointments with those in authority and attempting to persuade; cultivating the expressiveness of those younger in the field; creating spaces of engaged conversation not limned by fear of retribution; making openings where both desired change and unexpected possibility burgeon; bringing controversial topics into the classroom; forming alliances; being straightforward about what one believes. Activism is supposed to be a fraught topic, but for me activism is a kind of honesty, and honesty is the easiest thing in the world. Honesty's repercussions aren't always pretty, I know, but better to be honest than to hide one's ethics because of imagined repudiations. Activism isn't us against the world; activism is finding what is already good and intensifying it to the point at which its promise overwhelms darker things.

Well, that's my credo at least.

I was happy to see that the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship had sponsored a panel on the topic at the most recent Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. Most of the themes I've researched in my career are inextricable from activism (race, gender, queerness, ecology, antisemitism), and the more I hear people agonize over the question of activism in the academy as if that issue had not been deeply meditated upon since at least the 1960s (ecological criticism is especially blind to its own inheritance this way), well the more I want to think deeply about the topic. I noted that Eileen Gardiner, one of the new co-directors of the Medieval Academy of America, would present. I attended the session, and I was glad I did. We had one of the most engaging conversations I've participated in at Kalamazoo: excellent presentations mostly but not wholly on the MAA and Arizona (more below), but with a significant piece on feminism and environmental studies in the classroom, and then audience members speaking eloquently of their own experience (Cord Whitaker and Lara Farina were especially memorable).

When the MAA decided to hold its annual meeting in Arizona despite the protests of many of its members, I canceled my membership. How could I belong to a professional organization that diverged so greatly from my values? You may remember that we at ITM crowdsourced the composition of a letter urging that the meeting not be held in the state; go here for the letter and its 170 signatures. On the one hand, the MAA decision was a complicated one, balancing potential activism, financial responsibilities, and the  legal repercussions for the executive council (who had no indemnity insurance). On the other, racism is racism, intolerance is intolerance, and there you have it. I recently renewed my MAA membership, though. The MAA has two new co-directors, and I believe that they are working diligently to change the structure of the institution to make its operations more transparent and democratic. I also believe that burning a bridge is a lazy mode: it's harder to work for institutional change, and walking away frees you from that labor. That isn't a good choice. So I am giving my support back on the condition that things really do change at the Academy. From what I saw at Kalamazoo, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Because the topic of activism is at the heart of In the Middle's mission, I invited the session participants to post their remarks here. Not all of them were able to. I also invited some audience members who had been part of the vigorous discussion as well as other scholars who have thoughts on the subject but could not attend. I thank them for sending me their posts, and I invite you to add your own comments below.


Sally Livingston

The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship sponsored a panel discussion on Activism and the Academy at this year’s Kalamazoo conference. The idea originally came out of the controversy surrounding the Medieval Academy of America’s decision to hold its 2011 meeting in Arizona. Although our membership was not in agreement, a strong majority felt that we, as an organization, should not sponsor sessions at the meeting. At the same time, we believed that the issues raised by Arizona needed a forum for further discussion.

The goal of the Activism and the Academy session was not to attack the MAA—far from it. We are heartened by the changes in the organization that are responding to the concerns of the membership. Rather, we wanted to engage in the question of activism productively, to learn from what was indeed a very difficult time, and find ways to move forward in the discussion. Our wish was to focus on the larger questions of the role of the intellectual in society, the appropriateness of an organization to be politically (re)active, and the idea that was so central to second-wave feminism, that the personal is political.

The conversation at Kalamazoo resulted in a lively discussion among panelists Eileen Gardiner, Dorothy Kim, Asa Mittman, and Sara Ritchey and the audience, which both clarified and broadened these issues and introduced new ones. It needs to continue beyond a single session at a single conference, and I hope this forum will suggest ways we might do so.


Asa Simon Mittman

I was pleased to be asked to speak in this roundtable, since I care greatly about the subject, but am often at a loss for methods.  I hope that after the initial posts, here, we can use the comments section to assemble practical suggestions on how to engage our various communities and constituencies in progressive activism.  I was asked to join the panel as a result of an open letter I drafted on behalf of MEARCSTAPA (an organization focused on the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages).  The letter was addressed to the Medieval Academy, in response to the controversy over the annual meeting, then scheduled to meet in Tempe, at a time when Arizona was passing and debating a slate of laws targeting Hispanic populations (native and immigrant, documented and undocumented).  With the backing of the MEARCSTAPA board and, later, many of its members, I pressed for the cancellation or relocation of the meeting.  While this effort was unsuccessful, I remain proud of the effort.

In an effort to clarify the stakes, I have excerpted sections of the Curriculum Audit, Mexican American Studies Department (MASD), Tucson Unified School District, conducted in 2011 – after the debate over the Medieval Academy meeting was concluded – and distributed these at the Kalamazoo roundtable. 

The basic parameters against which the MASD was assessed belie both the perspectives of the lawmakers, and their paranoia:

Arizona Revised Statue 15-112(A) prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program any courses or classes that includes any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
2. Promote resentment towards a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individual
(This passage appears five times:  4, 11, 18, 50 and 68, emphasis added)

The program passed its review, but the audit found “[e]vidence indicates MASD curriculum units contain questionable commentary and inappropriate student text” (34).  The objections largely focused on the discouragement of involvement, of activism among students, with the audit finding “an overabundance of controversial commentary inclusive of political tones of personal activism” (34, emphasis added).    Our nation is hardly plagued by an overly activist and engaged youth population!  They should be out in the streets, based on a torrent of information about their future prospects.  Below are just a few of many examples of the audit’s findings:

“Questionable” Curriculum Unit:  The Struggle for Ethnic Studies in Tucson: Protection Under the 1st and 14th Amendments
“This unit centers on the investigation of HB 2281, specifically on its implications for the first and fourteenth amendments constitutional rights of our students and teachers… The commitment to combat the aggressive dehumanization of our community culminates this unit… students will take action to promote and defend ethnic studies courses and curriculum” (35, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Social Reproduction Theory:  Contemporary Manifestation in Education and in Arizona State Laws/Bills
“Our State Superintendent is often maligning the Mexican American Studies Department with many criticisms one of which is that we are creating ‘Revolutionaries’ intent on the overthrown of our government by going out and protesting… Our Mexican American Studies students are indeed engaged in this political process of problem solving, public speaking, petitioning, and yes protesting in hope of creating a more just, humane world for all” (35, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky” (2001) Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings
[E]ncouraged Chicano youth to get involved by: encouraging them to lead marches, to organize demonstrations, to plan conferences, and to get involved with politics” (40, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Martinez, E.S. (1990) 500os Del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures
“Because it is a political book, with an activist agenda, it does more than tell a story. It emphasizes the ability of people to fight against their oppression. While this may be one way of skewing the truth, it is also a way to mobilize and organize in a community” (40, emphasis added).

The Medieval Academy has made serious changes to its leadership in the wake of the controversy, and these are most welcome.  Moving beyond this individual instance, it is my hope that we can fine ways to encourage students (and colleagues, and ourselves) to get involved.  I have too often taken the easy route (“I’m a medieval art historian.  I can’t work that material into my courses.”), and am frustrated by others, who do not engage in activism out of fear.  To all my tenured colleagues out there (and to myself, as well), I say, What are you afraid of?


Eileen Gardiner, Co-Director, MAA

Rather than re-present my Saturday remarks, there are a few points I’d like to make again about learned societies. Then taking these into consideration, I’d like to ask for your thoughts about future directions.
Learned societies like the MAA are given tax exemption and the right to self-governance in exchange for fulfilling a social role, as defined usually by the organization’s charter.
The MAA charter is very similar to those of other learned societies. It is based on its Articles of Organization (23 December 1925) and states that the purpose of the MAA is "to conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication and instruction in Mediaeval records, literature, languages, arts, archaeology, history, philosophy, science, life, and all other aspects of Mediaeval civilization, by publications, by research, and by such other means as may be desirable, and to hold property for such purpose."
The MAA’s actions do need to be guided by two considerations:
1.     According to Federal Law, the exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
2.     On the other hand: In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status. Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies. An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.
So while the current leadership has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to protect the status and survival of the institution entrusted to it, it can and should also speak out on issues when it can bring its particular expertise to bear. To do this effectively and consistently, other learned societies have adopted advocacy policies — endorsed by their memberships — which guide the leadership in responding to different situations and requests.

For instance:
The American Historical Association (AHA) states that it is an advocate for historians in the nation’s capital and beyond. The association’s current advocacy initiatives include:
·      Supporting open access to historical records
·      Protecting academic freedom and the free movement of scholars
·      Promoting the profile of history and the humanities in public culture
·      Preserving federal funding for libraries, archives, historical sites, and K-12 history-teaching initiatives
·      Assisting Ph.D. candidates and their doctoral institutions in thinking widely about the career possibilities open to them

The Modern Language Association (MLA) advocates on the following issues:
·      The Future of Scholarly Publishing
·      Graduate Education and the Job Search
·      Publishing, Teaching, and Scholarship
·      Staffing, Salaries, and Other Professional Issues

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), because its discipline specifically engages in questions of diversity, has a broader range of advocacy (, including:
·      Statement on Disabilities
·      Statement on Ethics
·      Statement on Laws and Policies Discriminating against Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Persons

The policies of other societies, if they have one, can usually be found easily on their websites.

Considering the MAA’s mission and expertise, what are the issues that it can and should be engaged in? To support the study and teaching of the humanities is surely one. Does the MAA (and do other learned societies) have a broader mission in contemporary society? And if so, how do we define that?

Or do we already have a major task, demanding all our skill and creativity, with our struggle to support the humanities in contemporary society. And, if so, how can we better do that?


Dorothy Kim
Diversity and the Medieval Academy of America”
On August 8, 2010, my colleague posted a letter I wrote to the Medieval Academy of America about their decision to go forward with the annual conference in Tempe, Arizona on her blog: Quod She. I am “the general” who penned that letter to the MAA. All of this protest, discussion, and anguish was over SB 1070. Today, things have not gotten better in Arizona; they have gotten much worse. There has been an insidious attack on ethnic studies and on the state’s education curriculum. And though many originally felt that this controversy did not really impinge on the research and pedagogical areas of medievalists, I believe it is impossible to utter that sentiment today. When a state has decided that it’s political mandate allows it to rewrite the history of Christopher Columbus, our research and curricular voice as medievalists (and the MAA as the country’s oldest medieval organization) must be heard.

But beyond the political discussions occurring over the various laws, banned books, banned curriculums, exiled programs happening in Arizona, the most wrenching effect of the Medieval Academy of America’s decision was that it made the annual Medieval Academy of America meetings into an uncomfortable and inaccessible space for medievalists today who have a non-standard American accent and/or skin that is brown, black, yellow, or something in-between. Though our field is international and has scholars from around the world, medieval studies is not an ethnically-diverse field. But that profile is changing with the prominence of multiple senior scholars in the field (Sharon Kinoshita, Bill Jordan, Geraldine Heng to name a few); newer scholars who have joined the tenure-track ranks; and up-and-coming graduate students in programs across the country.

Beyond Arizona, my question to the MAA is what will it do now to encourage faculty and student diversity within its membership? How will it make minority members feel welcomed, safe, and equal in its organization? These questions not only speak to the MAA’s current situation, but also to its history and legacy. I would like to speak about the MAA’s legacy specifically in the example of the first Pierpont Morgan Library director, Belle da Costa Greene. Belle Greene was the child of Richard Greener and Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener. Both her parents were mixed-race; her birth certificate identifies her as colored. Her father was the first African-American man to graduate from Harvard. When her father left for a diplomatic post in Vladivostok, she and her mother changed their name to Greene and began to pass as white. She created a Portuguese grandparent to explain her complexion and exotic facial features. Her history speaks to the presence of American minorities in medieval studies, but also to the difficulties of being let into these lofty circles. While working at the Princeton University library, she met and became J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian in 1905. She helped him amass one of the most important medieval manuscript and rare books collections in the country. She is quoted as having said that her goal was to make his library “pre-eminent, especially in incunabula, manuscripts, bindings, and the classics.” She laid the groundwork for the research library that it is today. She became director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1924 and she retired in 1948. Under her 24-year directorship, she made numerous forays to Europe to buy and consult with some of the most prominent manuscript librarians in the period: including Sydney Cockerell at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Eric Millar at the British Museum. In Francis Wormald’s review of the volume dedicated to her retirement—Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. Dorothy Miner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954)—he writes:
When Miss Belle Greene was retired from the Directorship of the Pierpont Morgan library an old friend wrote to her: ‘Your long rule has been one of unexampled brilliance’; and indeed she may be compared with the two greatest librarians of the last 100 years: Leopold Delisle and the Cardinal Ehrle. For she created the Morgan Library and by her wisdom and enthusiasm made it the great institution it now is.
She was also one of the first female fellows of the Medieval Academy of America; a fellow in perpetuity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a consultant to the Walters Art Gallery Board of Trustees; and a trustee of the Art Foundation; a board member of the College Art Association; a member of the Library Advisory Council for the Library of Congress; a member of the Index Societyand on the editorial board of the Gazette de Beaux Arts and Art NewsShe had to pass as white for most of her life in order to become one of the most important medieval manuscript librarianin the last century. 
The problem with Arizona was that it made medievalists of color feel as if they too needed to hide their ethnic identity to be part of this academic meeting. My question to the Medieval Academy of America today is what will they do to change this dynamic? 


Sara Ritchey

I should be honest and express first and plainly that I found the “Activism in the Academy” panel, sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, to be a rather frustrating experience.  So I will: I did. 

We all agreed, didn’t we?  Everyone reading this blog and attending this panel agreed, with our most wrenched hearts and aching guts, that Arizona’s SB 1070 and the bill to ban ethnic studies are racist policies that must end.  These sentiments are obvious, shared, clear.

What was not clear, and remains unclear, is how, as a medievalist collective, to respond to such social injustice everywhere among us. 

The K’zoo discussion was stifled by the mistaken premise that boycotting Arizona was the only satisfactory response that the Medieval Academy of America could have adopted.  And by fixating so intently on the MAA’s failure to boycott, we never managed to address practices or principles for medievalists seeking to engage the world as activists, activists seeking to bring our academic credentials and specializations into conversation (and action) with the present.

When the MAA voted not to opt for a boycott, many medievalists turned to the Academy and launched a boycott against it by withdrawing memberships.  The collective medievalist activism that took place in the Summer of 2010 and the months to follow and that, according to the conversation that took place in Valley II, is still happening today, is directed against the Academy, not against Arizona’s heinous laws.  It is an activism that petitioned the councilors to agree not to attend, that published these pleas on blogs and circulated petitions, and that, after members of the Academy voted to proceed with the meeting, withdrew memberships.  These were not acts and voices that rallied against Arizona’s repugnant legislation.  Instead, they rallied against a geriatric organization that boasts the perfectly saccharine mission of promoting education and scholarship on matters medieval.  I find this approach to activism misplaced and misguided.

So I represented a lone position on the K’zoo panel: the one that said go to Arizona.  Go carrying banners and flaming torches, go naked through the streets, go with an arsenal of cellphones programmed on speed dial to KNXV-TV, the Arizona Republic, and the State Press, go with prepaid bail bonds, but go.

And here’s why: by boycotting the state of Arizona we boycott all of its people. All of them. Including the millions of people of color who live there, raise families there, and cannot just ‘leave’ or ‘boycott’—the people who work in the hotels where these conferences take place, or attend the schools where ethnic studies programs have been targeted or, miserably, eliminated. Boycotting is one tactic, but is it the most useful, the most appropriate, the most powerful weapon in our arsenal?  When we boycott the people most directly affected by such legislation, we fail to learn from them, to deepen our histories and our understanding, our ability to be responsible activists.

What do I mean by responsible activism?  If there is anything that I’ve learned from teaching history at a public, regional university in Louisiana it is the importance of witnessing.  For me, that means confronting the realities of certain laws, polemics, policies and cultural persuasions firsthand.  It means asking of the people directly affected: what can I do?  How can I show my solidarity?  How can I help?  It means denying myself the academic privilege of voice and authority for a moment simply to be present, to hear stories, and to bear witness to the ways that legislation affects individuals and families. Taking a stand from the remote comfort offered by air-conditioned campus office space and expressed through our multiform word processing gadgets and web-based connectivity might make us feel good, and affirm our ideals to each other.  But it assumes too much.  It assumes that our ideals are not in need of revision.  It assumes that our ideals accurately reflect a very distant lived reality.  It assumes that we already know, that we’ve already witnessed, that we’ve already heeded the call, the cry.  I’m not willing to assume these things, and I don’t think that our collectivist organization should be willing to either.  Instead, I believe we should allow ourselves to be remade by those voices, those cries; to rethink our role, our place, and our practice in light of those needs.   

In terms of my own academic writing and teaching, this principle of present witness has resulted in long, extraordinarily un-academic conversations and involvements.  I am a member of the board of directors of Faith House of Acadiana, a shelter and resource center for survivors of abuse, where students enrolled in my “Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages” course volunteer their time and labor as part of a service learning requirement.  In that course I seek to demonstrate for students how the medieval emergence of romantic love and sacramental marriage continues, and powerfully so, to shape dastardly feminine ideals, cultural prescriptions of heterosexual desire, and sexual policing particularly of the female body.  It is one of two service learning courses that I teach.  The other, “Histories of Nature,” involves students in a project to adopt locavore vegetarianism while working in a low-income community garden.  It offers medieval models of the natural, material world as sustainable alternatives to contemporary discourses on nature as an abstract Other existing in opposition to humanity and its culture.  My rationale in so aggressively linking the present to the premodern is that we can’t understand the quiet undercurrents of past injustice and oppression, or even beauty, without recognizing political and social failures in the faces of the present.  In addition to teaching, I have written opinion pieces and letters to newspaper editors from the perspective of historical religious studies in order to lament certain Vatican decrees and, moreover, to outline how the misogyny and fear-mongering institutionalized in the medieval Church continues to exert influence over contemporary American policy in schools, healthcare, and marital laws.  I have been criticized privately and publicly for drawing too direct a line from the silencing of voices and erasing of persons in the medieval past to similar though more subtle silence and erasures today.  But I stand by my methods: we cannot be responsible activists without witnessing and listening, and we cannot be responsible medievalists without making present meaning.

The Medieval Academy is now, laudably though late, refining its mission and updating its by-laws in light of these concerns.  That is: the MAA is reinventing itself as a result of its own act of witnessing.  I am tremendously grateful to Eileen Gardiner for her attendance at the K’zoo session as part of this act of aggiornamento.  Eileen listened patiently to our grievances, she asked what she could do, what we needed, and by her willing presence showed her solidarity with those who felt elided, unrepresented and hurt by the Academy’s decisions.  In doing so, she has renewed my hope that there is indeed a place for activism in the medieval academy, and that we carve out a place for our voices and actions by coming together in frustration, in concern, in celebration, but most important, in open conversation.


Reflections on Activism and the (Medieval) Academy
Cord J. Whitaker

During the panel on Activism and the Academy, I was struck by the mention of “safe spaces.” Those who brought up the phrase were referring to just how unsafe the space created by Arizona’s current political climate is for persons of color. While Tempe, Arizona could have been a perfectly safe space for some members of the Medieval Academy, it could not have been safe or comfortable for others. It occurred to me that while many of us may think of an academic organization as a safe space for its members, it is not a foregone conclusion that this is or should be the case.
Is a safe space the ideal space for productive scholarship? For that matter, is any space in a ubiquitously political world uniformly safe, or does safety in one area require the sacrifice of safety in another? Is it possible that creating a safe space for members within the organization sometimes requires that the organization itself assume an unsafe position within the wider world?

These questions, it seems to me, can be consolidated into the question of whether activism is, or should be, within the purview of the Medieval Academy of America. If the organization’s mission is indeed “to conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication and instruction” in medieval studies, then the organization’s membership must ask how their collective can best achieve these goals. In order to act in the best interests of medieval studies and its scholars, then the organization should act in accordance with the modes that produce the best intellectual work in medieval studies. Indeed, the mission is to be carried out “by publications, by research, and by such other means as may be desirable.” To what extent might those “other means” be political action that may expose the organization to economic, legal, or other undesirable repercussions? In my opinion, being open to and prepared for such exposure is required in order to operate within the modes that also produce the best medievalist scholarship. Earnestly studying the middle ages is never really safe. It always has the potential to disrupt the fictions of progress that make the “modern” possible, medieval studies always threatens to uncover disturbing origins of current social and political processes, and at that it is often maligned by scholars in other fields no matter how progressive medievalists’ scholarly approaches actually are. In short, the medievalist organization’s ethical imperative may be to seek not to work in safe spaces. Forming a risk-taking organization may, after all, be the best way of birthing an entity that ultimately represents its members’ interests by challenging head-on the threats (to the organization as a whole as well as to individual members and groups of members) that lurk in the world outside. When a group’s members are willing and prepared to face fear and anxiety collectively in order to defend one another from the threat of injustice—that group will have created a space in which I want to be, even if it is only safe in that its members are ready, willing, and able to be unsafe together.


Richard Newhauser


One of the topics David Hollinger mentioned in his opening remarks on activism at the OAH/NCPH meeting was the importance of assessing the chances for any chosen form of activism to achieve a significant effect. Clearly, this issue must be addressed before anyone recommends that an institution be involved in political activism. For the discussion surrounding the MAA meeting in Arizona, this concern came down to the question of whether boycotts can ever apply enough pressure to make them successful. Those of us who urged the MAA to move last year’s meeting from Scottsdale in order to honor the call for a boycott of Arizona businesses until the offensive parts of SB 1070 were revoked heard constantly that boycotts are not an effective form of activism. As it turns out, however, boycotts of Arizona businesses have a history of being effective, and the boycott begun in 2010 is no exception. It might be worthwhile, then, to review some of the results of the boycott to be able to document that at least in this case (and perhaps for similar situations should they arise elsewhere) the MAA could have helped apply pressure to end a racist policy in Arizona.

Just prior to the MAA meeting in March of last year, and as a direct response to business losses due to the boycott, the Arizona legislature voted down five bills meant to make life more impossible for anyone appearing to be an Hispanic immigrant. The business community in Arizona estimated that SB 1070 had cost the state anywhere from $50 million to $150 million in lost revenue in the tourism sector alone since 2010. Business leaders urged representatives in the Arizona State Senate to vote against the bills so as not to encourage more organizations and tourists to join the boycott. More information can be found here:

There is, in fact, something of a history of effective boycotts of Arizona. In 1990, the citizens of the state rejected the recognition of Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday. A boycott of Arizona was called and even the National Football League decided to move the Super Bowl that had been planned for Tempe in 1993 to Pasadena. It is estimated that for the two years of the boycott the state lost around $350 – $500 million in tourism revenue and projected revenue from hosting the Super Bowl. This pressure helped motivate the business community to support the recognition of Martin Luther King Day in 1992. More information is here:

Finally, there is the recent story of Russell Pearce, the mastermind of SB 1070. In November of last year, he became the first sitting state senate president in American history to be recalled from office by the voters of his district. He was defeated by another Republican who rejected the harsh methods called for in SB 1070. No one can argue that the boycott led to the removal from office of Mr. Pearce, but the effectiveness of the boycott certainly brought notoriety to Mr. Pearce and loss of revenue to the business community he represented, and these factors encouraged his opponents to seek his recall.

We can hope the need for a boycott never arises again, though these days that seems a distant hope. But we can at least put to rest the claim that boycotts are not effective. Intolerance may play well to extreme elements in American society, but profit trumps bigotry here, and this is one reason why boycotts are effective.


Larry Scanlon

Ubi Potestas Ibi Refragatio
            Some are born activists; some become activists; and others have activism thrust upon them.  Like it or not, I think the third predicament is the one in which medievalists will increasingly find themselves for the forseeable future.  They will find themselves there partly because they are medievalists, but mainly because they are academics at a time when higher education in the United States finds itself facing intense, untenable and unprecedented financial pressures.  In addition to the usual challenges non-profit enterprises confront during sluggish economic periods, higher education currently is also being expected to absorb a precipitous decline in public subsidies while making itself more accessible to students of limited means.  If this expectation seems like magical thinking, that is because magical thinking is precisely what it is.  And this expectation comes from what now counts as the political center in our increasing polarized and rightward shifting polity, large segments of the Democratic party (including, lamentably, the Obama administration), opinion leaders, corporate philanthropists, and the more responsible corporate leaders themselves.  In addition to this broadly shared but impossible desire for a magical transformation, higher education also faces the unremitting hostility of the country's other national political party, which, in its current quest for ideological purity, has honed itself down to a mysterious, but highly effective alliance between ultra-wealthy, free-market dogmatists and religious extremists.
            Readers will forgive my apocalyptic tone—I am a medievalist, after all, in case any of you had forgotten!  But however one wants to quibble with the details of the sketch I have just presented, or question its severity, the fact is that higher education in the United States (and elsewhere, mutatis mutandis) is under pressure to make major structural changes.  Whatever strategy we decide offers the best way of resisting this pressure, ignoring it does not seem like a very viable option.  It is in this sense that I am arguing that Medieval Studies has had activism thrust upon them.  A few facts seem to me beyond dispute.  There are very powerful political forces in our society who firmly believe that all acamedic research which cannot be immediately fed into profit-making is a complete waste of money, as is any academic degree that does not confer a specific, immediately employable qualification. One may object that this group does not constitute a majority, and that is probably true.  But it is also true that they are setting the agenda.  They are very determined, and no amount of rational discourse is going to dissuade them from their goals.  Those who do not find a way to resist are likely simply to be rolled over.  As for the possible modes of resistance, most of them are too obvious to need rehearsal here.  They begin with exercising all of one's relevant constitutional rights as vigorously as possible.  As Occupy Wall Street has just illustrated, the right to free assembly is often more important even than the right to vote.  (In this context, it is also worth noting that one of the immediate forerunners to OWS was the "occupaton" of the Wisconsin State Capitol in reaction to Scott Walker's draconian union-busting legislation.  According to some reports I have seen, those demonstrations were catalyzed by the UW-Madison TAA, the teaching assistants' union.)
             The current situation also brings with it a big conceptual change.  Academic activism has traditionally had a certain penitential cast.  Activist academics generally conceived of themselves as acting from a certain position of privilege. To be sure, that privilege has not yet disappeared.  But acting from a position that is itself under assault is much different than acting from a position that is secure.  Academic activism of the more traditional kind no doubt will and should continue.  But now activists will need to act on their own behalf as well.  As is true in many other ways, progressive thinking about academic activism has been shaped by Marxist tradition.  It is worth recalling a chacrateristically severe comment by Louis Althusser, made in passing in his most famous essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses": "Like every ‘intellectual,’ a philosophy teacher is a petty bourgeois.  When he opens his mouth, it is petty-bourgeois ideology that speaks: its resources and ruses are infinite."  (The irony that it was teachers rather than—God help us—the communist party who made this essay famous is one I do not have time to pursue here.)  In the 1980's Barbara Ehrenreich and others tried to update or supplement the classic notion of the petty bourgeoisie with the notion of the professional/managerial classes (PMC), classing teachers and academics with lawyers, doctors, and corporate managers, rather than just shopkeepers.  But either way, it is striking to note the fate of teachers in contemporary political parlance.  At the same time that the pseudo-hagiographical figure of the long-suffering taxpayer has replaced the citizen as the sole subject of civic concern, the figure of the small business owner and the entrepreneur have become the sole agents of civic virtue.  Meanwhile, teachers are routinely vilified; their greed and their incompetence taken as so self-evident that it needs no particular demonstration.  The symbolic drive to separate teachers from the PMC has accompanied concerted and so far largely successful attempts to reduce their compensation and restrict their professional autonomy.  If, as many have argued, we are witnessing a fundamental restructuring of our economy, will one of the results be a deprofessionalization of teaching, including college teaching?
            At the risk of breaking my own apocalyptic mood, let me add that I do not think the answer to that question is yes.   In spite of the fond fanstasies of the neo-Randians and their fellow-travellers, advanced economies, however they are restructured, cannot do without well-functioning educational systems, and such systems, like any valuable commodity, cannot be priced at the whim of the buyer.  Most of the current, completely misnamed "market solutions" to social costs of higher education are only slightly more rationalized versions of the same impossible basic fantasy.  Thus, for example, the idea that universities could be pared down to STEM fields will work only if scientists can learn to communicate both among themselves and with non-scientists using mathematical symbols exclusively.  (By the same token, I reject the view, expounded recently by Carey Nelson in Academe, that the brunt of the current assault will be taken by humanities disciplines alone.  In fact, the effect is likely to be much more fractured and mediated.  Thus, physics is in more danger than either English or History, and only slightly better off than foreign languages and classics—which really are in a very perilous state.)  At the same time I think the academy is in for a rough time for quite a while.  Quite how rough will depend on how hard we are willing to fight back, and how robustly we are willing to draw on the power and privilege we actually possess, however limited in scope they may be.
            For make no mistake about it: we do have power.  As a great man (and medievalist manqué) once said, "Where there is power, there is resistance."  Everyone has power, and if the power of the academic is generally more symbolic than material, it does not therefore follow either that academics have no material power at all, nor that their symbolic power cannot be put to material effect.  Case in point: the 2010 Medieval Academy imbroglio.  As I understood it, one of the reasons offered by those in favor of ignoring the boycott, and going ahead to hold the annual meeting in Arizona as planned, was the claim that boycotts don't work and that no one was going to care what a group of medievalists did in any case.  I found, and still find, this view frustrating; partly because it was demonstrably inaccurate, but mainly because its pretension to world-weary pragmatism amounts to very little more than gratuitous self-marginalization.  As we all quickly discovered, in these days of all internet all the time, no one flies under the radar.  Articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Education brought the conflict to the attention of the rest of academia; but they also caught the attention of conservative trolls who wouldn't know the Investiture crisis from second base.  As result, the MAA managed to get bad PR from both sides.  To the rest of academia, we fulfilled the stereotype of the clueless medievalist, so wrapped up in his own arcane little world that he is unable to recognize the political urgencies of the present.  To conservative bystanders, with their usual lack of interest in the facts, that the MAA was actually breaching the boycott made no difference.  These conservatives were only too happy to dismiss the MAA as yet another left-wing outfit up to the usual PC hi-jinks.
            In case anyone needed it, this spring has brought startling new evidence of the power of the boycott:  Komen, Limbaugh, ALEC.  In each case, some very determined activists—all of them, I would warrant, possessing less personal prestige or resources than the average tenured academic—managed, through the skillful use of social media, to stop a powerful right-wing initiative dead in its tracks in a matter of days.  (Additional retrospective sidelight on the MAA mess: the corporate advertisers and sponsors who were the targets of these boycotts knew bad PR when they saw it.  They did not bother to debate first amendment rights, fiduciary responsibilities, or budgetary commitments.  They just hightailed it.)  I am not suggesting boycotts are the political be-all and end-all, still less that scholarly societies all need to develop standing boycott policies.  I am only suggesting we need to start doing a better job of standing up for ourselves.  Like any human social activity, scholarship has always had a political dimension.  For the immediate future we can expect this dimension to be front and center, and that has very little to do with the internal influence of politically inflected scholarly approaches.  The Republican party and its conservative allies is in the midst of staging its own demotic, right-wing version of the Cultural Revolution.  It is trying to politicize everything.  Those seeking the insulation of some neutral scholarly cloister are bound to be disappointed.  


Unknown said...

i am bookmarking this to read repeatedly. There is so much here.

Our smallest acts matter deeply; that's what I bring away from JJC's back-to-back posts yesterday and today, and from the richness of the perspectives represented here. It is so hard for collectives to act, and then to act rightly is harder still. But these discussions ennoble and empower each person to hold up a small light to the world-we've-agreed-to and read what's
inscribed on the cave wall--or better yet, to be brave enough to douse one's own light for just a moment and take in all the other light to maybe find a path out.

I have been considering a pedagogical technique--which this post now confirms I will use--of sometimes submitting an important element of a class or lecture to a vote, then surprising the class by going with the minority. This is a revolutionary thing in a culture that has enshrined majority rule as the ultimate expression of democracy.

In the words of poet Marvin Bell about a different matter altogether (or was it?), "it's a small thing/that slows time/and steadies.and gives me ideas of becoming."

Thank you for these large and small things today, that have given me ideas of becoming.

Paul Halsall said...

I have been an activist ever since I came out in 1982.

I worked for the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group.

I was one of the main (i.e. main ten) committee members organising London Lesbian and Gay Pride in 1986 and 1987.

In New York I took part in Dignity?NT, ACT UP, Queer Nation, and Gay and Lesbian Americans demos. I was at ACT-UP's demo at the CDC in Maryland. I outran the police at the ACT NOW demo in Times Square. I stood up in St. Patrick's Cathedral with "Another Gay Catholic" pinned to my chest; I was one of the organisers of an opposition protest during the visit of Pope John Paul II (and was in fact arrested at that event).

I have been an activist.

But what is, in way, more interesting, is the occasion I was arrested. There was actually a gay history conference going on at CUNY Grad school the weekend the protest against John Paul II took place. I literally left the morning sessions and went to help marshal the event. (I was arrested for usinga bull horn in public).

No-one else at the academic conference thought it worthwhile to actually show up for a demo on that day.

So I have very limited tolerance for "academic" claims to activism. Althusser was wrong (and murdered his wife).

The only way you can be an activist is by joining activist groups and taking action.

Now, don't mistake me. I think academic work can have an activist aspect. For example, in creating the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, I made sure to include specific streams of primary documents for Women's history, LGBT history, and Science history (another of my interests).

There are academics who are/were activists: of my NY generation I suggest Sarah Chinn and David Robinson.

But I don't really recognise any of the people whose comments are posted above. It is quite possible that is my fault, but I suggest that to be an activist you need to get on the frontlines.

Protesting by email one organisation for one conference in Arizona (and then rejoining when your friends get jobs get jobs) does not count.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

My own philosophy is that one's "limited tolerance" should be reserved for the injustices of the world, NOT to enforcing some litmus test for who counts as a true activist. Policing a boundary that is in fact porous strikes me as a waste of energy -- as does belittling the efforts of those who could be your allies and affiliates. Activism takes many forms; action unfolds via multiple modes.

Unknown said...

Paul, in the time it took you to compose your comment, several rare endangered species became extinct. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?!

Lara Farina said...

Thanks all, for continuing this conversation post-Kalamazoo, and to Jeffrey for hosting it on ITM. After the Activism panel, I find myself ruminating on our discussion of institutional “slowness” or intractability when confronted with a need for action. Jeffrey noted that we ARE the institution and are therefore able to enact change, but of course I want to respond with the classic English teacher line “yes—and no.” So I offer a story about activism and the academy:

I teach at a public university (WVU) in a state rife with political corruption, exploitation by energy industries, and severe economic disparity. A few years ago, we were “given” a new University president, whose main qualification was that he was a friend of the Governor, who, in turn, had appointed the members of the Board of Trustees, who, in turn, were responsible for choosing a President. See how that works? Oh, and the cherry on top is that they were all beholden to the coal industry. The faculty objected, but initially to no avail. The message was that it was not really “our” University to run. Yet, when a scandal broke (the Governor’s daughter was somehow awarded an MBA she did no coursework for—go figure!), faculty were able to both get news media involved and lobby alumni to speak up. We voted “no confidence” in the President, but the involvement of alumni really tipped the balance. As soon as they entered the conversation (publicly) things moved VERY quickly indeed. The President was ousted, the Board was dissolved and reformed to include more varied representation, and I have never felt so proud to be part of an institution. But this institution wasn’t the same one that I started with: this was an institution that included people outside the academy, who normally don’t have much say in its operations but who nonetheless care about its well-being AND its ethics.

Reflecting on this event, I think it’s necessary to be anti-institutional, or at least deserve that tenure by actively resisting institutional governance as usual (political cronyism, corporatethink, alignment with the agendas of exploitative industries) and seeking out sub-institutions or counter-institutions. These latter affiliations can be more fluid and capable of quick response.


Alison Walker said...

Thank you so much for providing those few of us who couldn't attend K'zoo this year with a chance to catch-up with this panel. Now I need to reread everyone's remarks and digest...

ASM said...

Jeffrey, thank you for the chance to talk this all out, and in the public sphere. To your credo, YES.

I am inspired by much of this, and make a vow to follow Sara's example by writing letters/opinion pieces to popular outlets. I had read with great enjoyment her NYTime piece ( and I often use medieval evidence in political debates with friends, but have never tried to get one of these into the public sphere. So this is my first next step. Write at least one of these each few months, in the hopes of landing some in print. Sara, any recommendations on how to get them published would be most welcome!

To Paul, I've protested, particularly when I was in Arizona, where I marched, carried signs, and shouted at Bush's motorcade, and where I usually stood with colleagues from Arizona State, where I was then teaching. But you are right: I have not done enough. Working on it, and eager for more ideas.

Chris said...

I love people who demonstrate whole-heartedly, but if that were the only way to actively make change, the world would be in an even sorrier state than it is.

Thank you for posting these (and thanks to the contributors for writing them).

Paul Halsall said...

Jeffrey, I am not imposing a litmus test, but a porous boundary (a cliche to avoid choices it seems to me) does not mean no boundary

I do think I would see an authenticity test for activism. I think for a an academic who aspires to be an activist being active OUTSIDE the academy is necessary.

Paul Halsall said...

@Lisa Schammass. As person with Aids for the past 25 years I have some energy limits. In the past week I have taken part in an action an meetings, connected public officials, and tried to save the confidentiality of a collapsing AIDS social service organisation in Manchester.

I also also been involved in a bunting make workshop for my local tenants and residents association, in the aid of Jubillee street party, a long term working class tradition.

I remain convinced you can not be an activist without doing a lot of local ground level activism.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Does this responsibility to be an activist extend to those of us who are activists (would the verb be "act" or "activate"?) for causes less dear to the left? If we truly believe in the sanctity of human life, should we stand up for it? If we believe that sex before marriage is immoral, should we stand up for that?

I ask because, in all of the statements in this post, every single example of "activism" was of a position valued by the Left; one writer even explicitly identified the "activism" under discussion as "progressive".

But if we feel that it is our responsibility to create "safe spaces" and to stand up for what we believe in, shouldn't that include safe spaces for people who disagree and stand up for what they believe in?

Or would someone who fights to preserve the sanctity of human life and marriage be persona non grata in this activist academy?

Maggie Williams said...

It’s great to see such a robust discussion about activism among medievalists! Thanks to Jeffrey for continuing the discussion beyond Kzoo and thanks to the roundtable organizers and participants for starting the ball rolling.

I’ve also been an on-the-ground activist. In fact, my good friend and colleague, Martha Easton and I spoke about our experiences as academics and activists at this year’s conference. (Look out for the transcript and video as an upcoming post on What strikes me about all the posts here is passion. I find myself agreeing with everyone: yes, we should all get off our asses and march in the streets for what we believe in; yes, we shouldn’t belittle each other about the forms our activism takes; yes, as teachers, we need to speak truth to power, and also understand the limitations of that; yes, we should WRITE WRITE WRITE (op eds, books, blog posts); and, yes, our safe spaces should allow for difference of opinion on some issues. Can’t we accomplish more by using ALL of those tactics?

Lara Farina said...

I should have also mentioned a different example of "sub-institutional" activism at my institution. My colleagues Katy Ryan and Mark Brazaitis are responsible for the Appalachian Prison Book Project:

The fantastic work they are doing is not really supported by the University in an official way, but has utilized the institution's networks to recruit volunteers, offer internships, invite speakers, visit classes, etc.


Anonymous said...

I am going to use this thread to shamelessly seek help, advice and suggestions (and even publicity!).

I am currently putting together a new team-taught MA in Public History to start this Autumn/Fall. (and featuring grwh among others).

What would you most like to see in such a programme? What events, activities and readings would you suggest?

So far the outline description is as follows:

"The core module for the MA in Public History will provide students with an advanced level examination of many of the key issues that go into the production of history in the public domain. Taught by a range of historical practitioners both from the University of York and a number of external organisations, the module will examine both the role of historical meaning in the creation of values in society and the methodologies and practices of public history. This should provide students with a thorough theoretical and practical grounding in the discipline and practice of public history."

Eileen Joy said...

There are quite a few things I'd like to say in response to all of these rich statements and responses to them, and I can't do much today with so much hanging over my head as I finish some writing work and also pack to return home to Ohio tomorrow morning, where I will then start re-packing for our move to France this summer [yes, I'm lucky, but I'm also tired!]:

1. Thanks to Sara Ritchey for being brave enough to take a different position on this panel at Kalamazoo and in her remarks here; I mainly want to second her plea for listening, but I also want to say that the statement that boycotts harm EVERYONE in whatever state the boycott is occurring in is a gross exaggeration [here's what's really harming everyone: our terrible economy and the xenophobic hatred and intolerance we can't seem to ever fully quell that actually even helped found this country]. Also, while actually listening to people "on the ground" in Arizona, one of the things I heard was, "please boycott my state." I know we've rehashed this here on the blog, like, a gadjillion times, but I'd really like for us to maybe try and see that we do what we can, from the positions and places we inhabit, and a boycott is one way to draw attention to and also put pressure upon a situation that it is *hoped* will change through these efforts. It is done, not from a position of not listening to what people in Arizona might need and want, but from actually listening to them. It is not done at a distance and from a place of supposedly liberal bourgeois privilege that always thinks it knows what's best for others whom it is supposedly not listening to, although I understand that, yes, sometimes people are not listening and activism can be misguided, and those are salient points on Sara's part, for sure; I merely want to point out that, um, yes, many of those being harmed by Arizona's laws did want the boycotts and were rooting for them, too. So, boycotting the state was not really boycotting ALL of Arizona; I don't think that's a fair thing to say at all [it's just too hyperbolic and not accurate].

But Sara's more salient point [in my mind] and one I am really glad she made here, is that boycotts are not the only way to go--there are other things to be done, and maybe boycotts are even too easy [although when done collectively as part of a larger institution, company, etc., they can be powerful agents for change and are not necessarily "easy"], because we just say, well, I'm not going there, and sometimes "going there"/being there really matters, too. It's a great point.

BUT, having said that, I also have to say, and strenuously [and this is in response to Paul's comments mainly, although I sense the presence of this idea in many of the comments here] . . . .

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


Could everyone please stop saying/thinking that there is an INSIDE of a place called an university and everything else is OUTSIDE. There is "activism" and then there is whatever the hell else it is you do for your day job? One of the really marvelous things about Maggie Williams and Martha Easton's "duet" at BABEL's "Fuck This" panel at the Kalamazoo Congress was their joint and publicly avowed refusal to any more parcel out the supposedly singular pieces of themselves as scholars, teachers, activists, mothers, friends, and so on, daily risking a vertiginous chaos of identity, and the occasional suffering attendant upon the [false] idea that we have multiple selves that can only each operate in separate contexts and should not "mix."

So, to the point made by Paul Halsall that in order to be a activist you must be on the OUTSIDE of the academy: are we really going there AGAIN? [And Hi Paul: I still have my original Act Up t-shirt, I was there when Larry Kramer poured blood on the steps of the Capitol, I helped a friend take another friend down from the noose he hung himself with in his bathroom rather than die of AIDS, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah fuckety-fuck blah blah blah, etc. etc.]. The university iself, in its best incarnations [and which incarnations form rhizomatic structures that includes teaching, writing, conferences, late-night bull sessions in bars, etc.], IS activism. There is no inside/outside: the university is IN the world, and the world itself is IN the university. The portals for all of the inbetween activities that make it difficult to see where university and world touch and mix, etc. are the bodies [human and otherwise, textual, biological, machinic, technological, chemical, atmospheric, etc.] that come and go through different gates and nodes of exchange: architectural, intellectual, somatic-affective, psychological, etc. Writing is an activity that takes place in the world and even if you only ever had one person that read your work, even just yourself [!], bodily change has been wrought, thinking has happened, and small movements of thought and action are always afoot [and underfoot]!

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


So, as to "local ground-level activism," the university just happens to be one of those "local grounds," and let's be serious for a moment: what is the non-local, exactly? So, my university, located in the fairly agrarian wilds of Edwardsville, Illinois is not "local" and somehow separated from Cleveland Heath restaurant on Main Street in Edwardsville where many of my students and other persons, who are not students, work and where many of my colleagues and students and I hang out and mingle with everyone in there on both side of the kitchen and both sides of the bar and close down the place [as we often did this past semester on Monday nights] with the owners and staff and whoever is still at the bar and talk about everything from life to love to Shakespeare to campus politics to local politics, etc.?

As someone personally very committed to the university itself as an activist venture [a venture which has to continually re-invent itself in relation to local contingencies and situations -- with everything, btw, being "local," I'm talking about a global polis, dudes! -- and also in relation to the ways in which the institutions becomes loaded down with managerial-bureaucratic structures of power that become occasionally antithetical to better angels of the mission of the university], I and a group of other medievalists have formed groups, founded journals, a press, blogs, new conferences and symposia, etc. and also forged alliances and connections across and between disciplines and fields, sure, but also across and between what might be called traditional and non-traditions "sites" of a so-called "higher" education. We have to stop self-castigating ourselves because somehow the intellectual life is not also an "active" life.

This calls to mind that someone in the audience after GW MEMSI's "Ecologies" sessions urged us to reflect on the division in the Middle Ages, in the monastic context, between the contemplative and the active life, and she also urged us to choose action over contemplation [or something to that effect: sorry, dear questioner, if I got that wrong!], and I was so happy for this prod because it helped me formulate something that's been nagging at me that I couldn't quite put into words before: that is a FALSE binary! The so-called active life would be worth nothing if it was not also contemplative; likewise, contemplation itself is an ACTION undertaken IN, and not outside of nor against the world. Fuck that division. I'm over it.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


Here is what I do: I think, I write, I teach, I organize [with others] bodies within and outside of the university "proper" to "come together" in new, more joyous somatic-affective-intellectual endeavours, I work hard [with others] to create new spaces for such assemblages to gather and breathe more easily, I create [with others] new modes and organs of public-ation [cadging from my friend Paul Boshears] so that we can profess what we think, ruminate, and believe in more creative and open ways that are more accessible to more people and so that more people can have a voice in this thing we call, the intellectual life, which is a life lived in and not outside of the world. And that matters, and that is activism.

And that's what I believe and I'm so tired of always apologizing about that or always trying to meet people "in the middle" of everything [apologies to Deleuze and Guattari and even to this blog!] or always hemming and hawing about it, self-castigating all the time because, somehow, scholarship pales in comparison to actually "doing things" in the world. My vision of this is one that tries to be kind and generous and caring and loving to all whom I meet, wherever they might be. Look to those on your right and left, to what is most intimate and close by: how can you help them? Do it and shut up about how "doing it" is significant or insignificant according to your narrowly-conceptualized and meagre and ungenerous measurements of "what counts." Do anything, anything at all. And do it with optimism. What have you/we got to lose?

John Walter said...

I see Eileen has already addressed the point I really wanted to make in response to Paul's initial post—the false dichotomy between "the world" and "academia"—and has done so far more eloquently than I would have. So, let me take another tact instead, and in doing so addressing, Nathaniel's question.

As an academic I am, as much as you can pin me down, a rhetorician. While my favorite definition of rhetoric is I.A. Richard's "Rhetoric is the study of misunderstanding and its remedies," much of this discussion bring to mind Lloyd Bitzer's definition of rhetoric as "a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action." As a rhetorician, I do believe rhetorical activities—discourse—can be activism.

Okay, so I am going to address some of Paul's original post as well: Paul suggests one isn't an activist if one isn't on the front lines. The place where one goes toe to toe with the opposition and bashing heads or having your heads bashed in is a front line, and while it can change reality, it has a high cost and creates ill will as well as good will. Another front line is in the realm of discourse, and here I will toss out one more definition of rhetoric, this time one from Kenneth Burke, who has argued that in our pluralistic, democratic society, the goal of rhetoric is not persuasion but identification.

Let me repeat that: the goal is not to persuade but to foster identification: you work to identify with the other and work to have the other identify with you. Sure, there are others with which this won't work, but most people—people who are focused on what they perceive is at stake for them—can be engaged in open, civil discourse. Changing hearts and minds doesn't always mean bringing them to your way of thinking but brining those hearts and minds on all sides into mutual understanding and respect.

I just returned from the Computers and Writing conference, which was held at North Carolina State U. Our first evening, I was at a local pub near campus with a group of friends. A first-time, attendee, a lesbian activist, thought that three men sitting next to a group of us were part of the conference and she started talking to them. Turns out, they were Republican state senators. She got into a deep discussion and debate with them over NC's just passed Amendment One. It was civil. It was based upon mutual respect. And while none of those three senators changed their minds, it was clear that she raised issues and concerns that they'd never considered before and they were mulling things over. What they did do was invite her, a Chicago resident, to drop by their offices Thursday or Friday for a personal tour of the NC Capitol Building. To suggest that she—acting as rhetorician—was not engaged in activism is silly. To suggest that she wasn't on the front line that evening she was sitting at a table drinking beers with those senators is to engage in willful ignorance.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for these further thoughts, John, which, of course, I am very much in agreement with.

I just want to also add here [and this is partly in response to Nathaniel's comments as well] that I do also understand that separation and difference inhere in everything, and there were always be persons, objects, groups, institutions, cultures, etc. from which we are separated by what often seem like very huge gulfs. At the same time, I do believe that everything is, on some level connected to everything else, but on the more practical everyday side of things where most of us [try to] live, I would have to admit that I don't really know what is going on in the hedge fund business most days or in illegal garment factories in parts of Asia and elsewhere or even just down the street in the police station or high school. All bodies in the world [human and otherwise] are in need of some sort of attention and care, and it often gets tiring to hear that one's attention to endangered turtles or animals used in medical experimentation means that one is not focusing enough on, say, *human* subjects in Sudan, Palestine, the worst neighborhoods in American cities, etc. Everything is in need of care, and we might do well to consider extending the bounds of what we think we should and can care for [i.e. beyond the boundaries of our most intimate partners, family members, best friends, etc.], and we might think of that in terms of adjacency [bodily or otherwise: Paul's activism strikes me as being grounded in what matters to him in terms of his own sexuality but also in terms of the neighborhoods he finds himself in, and that is admirable] OR in terms of what feels most remote and distant [hence, George Clooney travels to Sudan, or as Sara suggests, you actually go to Arizona and protest on the ground *there*]: we must be allowed to choose these locations of our activist care, but we should choose somewhere. Once you have your location, you do everything you can, hopefully without cynicism that someone, somewhere else, is not doing enough because they are not doing what you are doing. What Paul and others are right about is that care should not be "empty" [to borrow Jonathan Kozol's terminology]: it should not just be speech about caring, but should actually entail doing. I define this "doing" very broadly to include writing and any other activity [mental, physical, or any combination thereof], that is aimed and pitched with the intention that something, or someone, might be bettered by it and that its "capital," whatever that might be, is not considered to be "owned" or only for the benefit of the doer. As Aranye Fradenburg has been arguing recently, the humanities teach us how to do "everyday" sorts of thinking:

"When it comes to talking, listening, courting, negotiating, playing basketball, playing the violin, making peace, leading an organization, the humanities teaches us how to live successfully—how to adapt to, and (re-)create, our circumstances, by seeing more keenly, hearing more polyphonically, interpreting more humbly, richly and carefully, speaking to each other more persuasively, and much, much more." ["The Liberal Arts of Psychoanalysis," The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 39.4 (2011): 589-609]

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


So, for those of us working within and behalf of the humanities, the work we do is not disconnected to the "life" that all of us are engaging in together *in the world*. More pointedly, then, to Nathaniel, I would just say that, of course, any activities he engages in that help him to profess what he believes and to maybe convince others to believe these things with him and to work on behalf of these beliefs count as activism. But I would be dishonest, too, if I didn't say that I find more "progressive" and valuable those beliefs and activities tied to advocating for those beliefs that are aimed at enlarging the well-being of as many people as possible and at making the world more liveable for more persons, animals, and other "objects," animate and inanimate, in the world. I do not find "progressive" those beliefs which tell people who they can and cannot love, where they can and cannot live, what they shouls or should not be able to "profess" in public spaces, and so on, or that consign some people to "hell" for believing the wrong things. At 49 years of age, for most of my life, rhetoric on the conservative Right [Christian or otherwise] has often rung the tones and bells of "we will take X away from you," "we stop you from doing X," "we will condemn you for doing X," "we will restrict your rights," "we will punish you to the Nth degree for doing X," etc., and what I hear on the liberal Left is "how can we help everyone get what they need" and "how can we ensure more freedoms," "how can we provide more social buffers and safety nets." etc.?

What would be ideal right now would be for everyone on the Right *and* the Left to work together on causes that do not seem to carry as much ideological freight as same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the like, such as any cause that helps to increase the general well-being. I learned that from Jesus, Dickens, Levinas, and Frank Capra, among other "teachers."

Eileen Joy said...

Another thing: since quite a few of the panelists here also asked openly for specific suggestions of how to move forward, vis-a-vis, say, the MAA conceptualizing a possibly broader mission with regard to its role in social life, or Asa's plea to consider specific things that can be done in light of specific events/issues [such as Arizona's recent legislation to ban certain texts in the public schools] that may or may have anything directly to do with our job as medievalists and yet call upon the intervention of those with, let's say, *longer* historical perspectives, it seems that Sarah's comment here, asking for suggestions relative to a new MA in Public History seems a good place to start. I would ask, Sarah, first, how are defining "history in the public domain"? What are the "domains" of that domain: museums, historical television programs/documentaries, public art displays devoted to historical events, etc.? Law codes? Etc.?

Anonymous said...

ej, enjoying your train of thought as usual but I'm also sympathetic in these tense times (yes, I know that they are always tense) to claims that we should consider/test how effective our modes of caring are (not in any rigid way) in relation to the public states of affairs local as they may be, perhaps some variety of "reader" response-ability

Anonymous said...

ear Eileen,

Thank you for asking. I would say any domain in which people create and tell stories about the past for some purpose – so institutions but also the 'general public'.

Here are some of the ideas that have been suggested so far – and I would emphasise that this is an evolving and group project – this is not my work – I am just the coordinator. The team is very large – upto two dozen people from different ‘professions’ using and telling stories about the past in different ways.

I Meanings and Values in Public History
• The Past in the Present: What is Public History?
• History, Authority and Knowledge in Society
• Nation, Identity and Belonging
• Memory and Society, Commemoration and Anniversary
• Trauma and Suffering
• Efficacious History: Using the Past in Politics
• Nostalgia
• History and Imagination
• History and Ethics
• History and Public Policy

II Methodologies and Practices in Public History
• Museums in Society
• Archives in Society
• Co-curation and Participation
• Living History: Popular Festivals and Public Events
• The Past in Television and Film
• The Past in New Media
• Oral History
• Grassroots, Local and Participatory Histories
• Project Design
. Future Careers in the Past

Eileen Joy said...

Hi [again] Sarah:

I think it would be interesting to hear what the historians have to say, but since my dissertation was in intellectual history [not literary studies, believe it or not] and since one of my focuses in my research that did *not* make it into the dissertation was on memorials/memorialization, especially in relation to traumatic history [and I would encourage a "node" or "unit" on the public memorialization and curatorship of traumatic histories in public sites], here is some of my bibliography on that that I found really provocative:

Richard Cole. Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold. Routledge, 2000.

Andreas Huyssen. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. Routledge, 1994.

Andreas Huyssen. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford UP, 2003.

Jay Winter. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge UP, 1995.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Google "Historians' Debate, Germany," and you will also find some very rich material having to do with debates in Germany in 1980s about how to best memorialize/remember Holocaust. A really cool book relative to this, which is very short, is W.G. Sebalds's "On the Natural History of Dresden": what does it mean to navigate the issue of publicly "remembering" Dresden when we are not allowed to think of the Germans as themselves tragic "victims" of WWII bombing campaigns?

Just some thoughts; I'm sure I'll think of more.

Eileen Joy said...

Oops: not "On the Natural History of Dresden," but "On the Natural History of Destruction."

ASM said...

I'd like to thank John for his eloquent comments. I have long argued that there is no "real world" that is separate from another place, be that "the Ivory Tower" (really, anyone arguing that the CSU system is an ivory tower hasn't spent time here, in the trenches) or just somewhere *nice.* It seems that the definition is something like the "real world" = everything bad in the world, and where one's rhetorical opponent lives and works is a fictional place. It is all real, the boundaries are porous, and we are all, should be, and must be mearcstapas -- walkers of the borders.

When I talk with my students about racism, I am practicing activism. When I talk with them about sexism, anti-Semitism, economic injustice, religious intolerance and so on, I am practicing activism.

It is insufficient, but it is real.

John Walter said...

I didn't actually address Nathaniel's questions, which I intended to do. Ideally yes, conservative activism should be acknowledged and accepted as legitimate activism as well. (Although I agree with much of Eileen says above on the issue.)

While I think that conservative activism should be accepted, I'd also suggest that all activism should be held to standards and subject to critique. And for me, as one committed to a pluralistic, democratic society, the *ability* of activists to engage in civil, respectful discourse is key. Can you sit down with the opposition and have a open, honest, respectful conversation over drinks? One in which both parties—reasonable people of good will—walk away from that conversation believing they were heard and treated with respect regardless of whether or not consensus was reached? If so, regardless of whether or not I agree with you, I would welcome you at my table to hash out ideas and I would support your right to engage in activism for your cause.

As Eileen notes, a good amount of progressive activism focuses on inclusion and on creative less restrictions on civil liberties. A good amount of conservative activism focuses on telling others what they can and can't do.

In sayiing this, I do realize that the above characterization isn't across the board or some readily black and white. A Pro-life activist doesn't seem his or her self as restricting others but on saving lives. And this, again, is where civil discourse and mutual respect—rhetoric, in short—will save us or fail us. It's not an issue many people are ever going to see eye to eye on, and so understanding is the only way we're going to find a way forward together.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks very much, Eileen!

There are a couple of people who might lead this session so I'll pass your suggestions on to them.

Of course one of the sites we can use locally is Clifford's Tower - and we'll have the new 1190 book with essays by Anthony Bale, Hannah Johnson and others ;) to help us there - but the programme is predominantly delivered by people who are neither medievalists nor local historians.

I am excited to see what they come up. The first years of new programmes are so often exciting, aren't they, as you forge new ground you have so many conversations and new ideas. This is fun, but serious - serious fun.

Anonymous said...

And just to add also - that I think much of what you cite counts as History, Eileen - many of my History colleagues (and possibly even on occasion my tired empirical self) have gone through so many post-post-modernisms and interdiscipinary this and thats that they have long worked in fields such as intellectual and cultural history, material culture, narrative and fiction, to name but a few. So collectively our conception of History and the Past is very broad - and (whisper it quietly) there are even several non-historians who work with the past involved.

Paul Halsall said...

"To suggest that she—acting as rhetorician—was not engaged in activism is silly. To suggest that she wasn't on the front line that evening she was sitting at a table drinking beers with those senators is to engage in willful ignorance."

It is a shame you had to be so insulting here. What we have in fact is a difference in opinion. I do think academia forms some sort of ivory tower. This may be less so for state schools with broad social intakes. It definitely is the case for the top 20 or so universities in the US. It is also almost always the case in with academic conferences, places of the most intense navel-gazing.

By denying this observation you effect *let off the hook* most academics who can convince themselves, it seems, that by practicing rhetoric in a bar they are engaging in activism.

We will have to agree to disagree.

Anne said...

Academe has its own insides and outsides, and teaching medieval art history in the wilds of Indiana has presented an urgency for activism I didn't feel in Chicago during graduate school. Campus protests and campus situations where I teach are vividly real and confrontational to the students and faculty engaging in them: there's no ivory tower, it's where we live and are, it's what we're accountable to every day. The scale and publicity of activism may vary, but the reality is present _every_where.

Ben said...

I have a question about methods. It starts with the premise that the greatest positive effect that we as academics can have is in the classroom, a point Asa made above. If we do believe that knowledge is power, and that ignorance leads to subjugation, then teaching of any kind is a form of activism. And I have also tried to connect classroom discussions to contemporary topics, but here is where I stumble. What is the line between teaching and preaching? How do I open up the classroom as a place to examine questions of politics and ethics without shutting down the diversity of opinions? I'm thinking here of Nathaniel's perceptive, and largely ignored, question about how we privilege (naturally) our own ideologies, and also John Walter's story about the bar. I don't, at the moment, feel like I know how to facilitate that open exchange of ideas without ultimately using my position of power (as captain of the classroom) to endorse one or the other.

I suppose this is something that I just need to work at. But I suppose this is also something that is also a function of my employment status over the past few years: as an adjunct, I haven't wanted to step on any toes. Here, Paul, is where the seemingly low stakes of on-campus activism get raised: as more and more of the faculty is made contingent, fewer and fewer will be willing to teach controversial topics, to oppose political power plays (as at WVU), to get arrested. Some, perhaps braver than me, will still do it, but the trend will be (has already been) towards safe and compliant.

Unknown said...

haven't an awful lot of revolutions started off with people practicing rhetoric in bars? Just a thought.

Unknown said...

and if more and more of us may lose our jobs, well, i suppose more and more of us will be practicing rhetoric in bars.


Anonymous said...

the question of "real" vs unreal is a bit nonsensical but the question of actual/enduring (across settings) impact is a serious one.
Anecdotes and affect aren't enough when one is thinking about how to invest public resources.

Eileen Joy said...

But "we" are also a "public resource" and "we" shall invest ourselves; that will be embodied, affective, economic, risky, and material. We [well, some of us, and ME] will aim for big visions that hopefully *will* have actual impact across broad institutional and para-institutional domains. This work will have to be collective; it can not do without affective, enjoying propulsions, partly hard-wired, partly lubricated through some who are willing to charm and seduce and cajole and love.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't understand what cognitive dissonance allows someone to write "It is a shame you had to be so insulting here" and then to follow it with "By denying this observation you effect *let off the hook* most academics who can convince themselves, it seems, that by practicing rhetoric in a bar they are engaging in activism."

I don't understand people who instead of forming as wide and effective an alliance as possible -- with multiple modes and numerous ways of catalyzing change -- decide they would rather police who counts as a true activist, according to a definition by which they become the truest of the true.

Too much activism disintegrates into internecine squabbling, thus dissipating whatever force it possessed for actually achieving something.

Here's what I believe: if your focus is upon sorting the true activists from the false, the inside from the outside, then you have the wrong focus. There is too much to be done, too many friends and confederates to energize, too much that demands contemplation as well as action.

I find John's words about what unfolded in a bar more full of promise than the scolding comment it elicited.

medievalkarl said...

Agreed! And thanks for this discussion. I find Paul's comment interesting as a breakdown of rhetoric, and also interesting in terms--as Paul himself notes--of the way words can go awry.

On another note, perhaps more personal, I'm at a school where a lot of the colleagues I talk to are very political: Moustafa Baymoumi, in my department, who wrote How Does it Feel to Be a Problem: On Being Young and Arab in America, or, in political science, Corey Robin. My colleagues who teach 20th-century lit tend to be very active in our faculty union (as am I, to a degree, in that I'm on the executive board and follow instructions pretty well), and my friends who are labor historians, sociologists, and in one case a philosopher, tend to be politically active, and to talk politics, in a way that's, well, recognizably activist.

To put this another way: they have a natural opportunity to transition from doing politics and/or activism (which are not quite the same thing, of course) to doing their work, because this is their work, or something close to it. Whereas when I'm doing union stuff at Brooklyn College, I feel as though I'm cutting time out of my medieval scholarship.

This may sound like whinging! It probably is, particularly when I know at least one medievalist who has been VERY active in the Occupy movement.

While teaching critical animal theory or ecocriticism easily transitions into activism, and it really can feel like you're making some kind of intervention in the classroom to get people to notice things they wouldn't otherwise notice, it doesn't feel so political or activist when I teach, say, how to read Middle English. Or the finer points of the comma. Or how to tell a reliable Internet source from one that's silly.

On occasion, I have worked my politics into the classroom, but not in a way that my students would notice, I hope.

In large part, then, I'm also concerned about power dynamics: I'm the professor, they're the students, and I am enabling, or impeding, their future success. I will intervene, publicly or privately, if a student says something nasty about Jews (this has happened), white people being descended from lepers (likewise!), or women (likewise and depressingly often). But for reason for power dynamics and because my subject's not political except in the sense that everything's political, and every cultural object is political, politics and activism don't fit into my professional life easily.

In some sense, I'm exploring the divisions between academic and nonacademic life, between political and nonpolitical studies, that some of us have been discussing. I think the questions themselves are good. The trick is not to pose them, peremptorily, as though they've already been answered.

Anonymous said...

ej, agreed i'm not trying to make hard and fast rules or other prejudgments about what should or should not be done just begging for a little reflection and reality-checking in a realm often ruled by an ironically unquestioning valuation of the the good with one's particular/insular interests, your many fine and pioneering efforts are more prototypical than typical.

Rick Godden said...

I am in sympathy with Ben's concern about stepping on toes. As a grad student, then adjunct, now postdoc, I've been torn often between my desire to do good in the world and my innate caution. My financial situation is precarious enough that I need to be mindful (I don't think I'm alone in this). But, inevitably, whether I am "activist" in the classroom or not, my choices I make as a teacher reflect who I am. My classes often engage with questions of gender, power, race, which are often taken as code for lefty professorism. These choices don't come directly from my lefty politics, though, but rather from what I think is the power of literature, its ability to engage us, to speak to us from subject-positions we might otherwise never hear from. We need to be made uncomfortable sometimes in order to grow, and I want others to experience that.

Many others have already addressed the false binary that Paul sets up, but let me just say this: I want to stress the "active" in "activism". I think that the most important thing I do as a teacher is prepare my students to be active in their own lives (public, private, professional, all), to always take an active stance toward information and ideas. I want them to think and to engage, to combine the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. I want them to have discussions of rhetoric in bars. And more.

This is not the only strain of activism for the academic of course. Much happens and can happen inside and outside the classroom. But I'm weary of people telling me/us there's ONE way to do it.

Just a final thought: And while my politics are left, I don't think this has to exclude the right. One of my most meaningful student encounters was with someone who interned for a Republican congressman. I didn't agree with her politics, but I didn't have to.

Rick Godden said...

Karl, yes. I too share your concern about power dynamics. Well put.

David Perry said...

Having read through this thread, I'm struck by a general focus on individual action as an activist member of the academy. This seems good to me, I agree that teaching can be read as activism, and change does happen through thousands of conversations, readings, writings, and other kinds of individual actions. I wonder, though, about the academy as activist.

My tiny slice of the academy is, it seems to me, fundamentally activist as a whole. We’re a small Catholic school on the edge of Chicago. The order at the heart of it, Dominican tertiary sisters, remains present in the heart of the school. They have set us a task not to indoctrinate or proselytize, but to "prepare students to pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world.” They really mean this, and you don’t get hired here (in my experience) if you can’t respond to the “mission question.” What does this mean to you? How will you put it into practice? Surely such a mission requires faculty to be activists.

But it goes beyond the classroom. Our president has spoken out about educating undocumented students. We stop, as a community, once a year, to contemplate the motto of “caritas et veritas.” Like the mission statement, the cynical academic may regard such things as trite. I was tempted when I began here. But caritas requires, in our tradition, activism, not just love (hence the play between the modern terms of charity and love in the Latin word). Veritas requires pursuit of truth in service of the creation of a better world. “Service Learning” or “Experiential learning” is now trendy and I have heard many friends groan about it. Here, the connections between service and learning are more organic. The College of Arts and Sciences has, as one of its core learning goals, to push students to “take a stance” and to participate, to act.

All of this comes as something of a surprise to me. I’m the son of reasonably secular academics. My maternal grandparents were Jewish, ardent communists, activists, and artists (albeit blacklisted one). My paternal grandfather was a conscientious objector, a universalist minister, rode the freedom buses, and preached non-violence. I took part in clinic defense as a younger man. This is what activism looks like to me, much like Paul Halsall above I suppose. But driven by caritas, I’ve encountered reshaping of the academy as active.

I’m not sure what conclusions, if any, to offer. My school isn’t perfect and we certainly don’t all live up to the ideals we set even most of the time. I think, though, that most of the comments above come from people at either state or secular-private institutions. The religious schools are activist. Some are activist in ways that most here would find objectionable (Liberty, Ave Maria?), whereas the generally liberal values of Catholic social thought are easy to defend among academics, if hard to live up to. But I do want to present this as an alternative model, one that’s been ongoing for generations.

The question I ask myself is how do I, as a medievalist, unite my study of the past with the mission to act in the now. I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day, as this is quite long enough.

ASM said...

A minor footnote to Karl's comment: "Or how to tell a reliable Internet source from one that's silly." I can think of few things we could do that would better prepare our students to make good decisions than teaching information literacy. It is not activism in the sense that it does not advocate for any particular position, but telling reliable information from dross, and honest rhetoric from deception is foundational to the process of deciding one's position on issues. It is therefore fundamental to activism!

Anonymous said...

The question I ask myself is how do I, as a medievalist, unite my study of the past with the mission to act in the now. (David Perry)

Although it is very early days - organising a course on Public History (all about the past being active in the present) is forcing me to do this. This is particularly true as I negotiate to bring in teachers from outside the University into a University context (when not all have done anything like this before) - and ultimately I believe it will be true with the students themselves. With my colleagues it is less necessary/possibly immediately - both because their views and actions are reasonably well-established on this (it tends to be the more obviously 'activist' who have volunteered for it - far from all of them modernists) - and because right now we are fiendishly busy marking finals. But it will happen, I believe, as alternative pressures decline and the programme starts. I agree with Karl though that we are opening up spaces in the classroom to actively consider activist uses of the past rather than promoting a particular type or focus of activism.

Cord Whitaker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cord Whitaker said...

Good. I’m glad to see this thread has not become a “safe space” that engenders only responses that a contributor imagines would be acceptable to most others. Thanks to Jeffrey for creating this space, and for everyone who has offered such a variety of responses. For my part, I’m stuck on what Lisa says in the very first comment above: “our smallest acts matter deeply.” I don’t entirely agree—the acts I think she’s referring to aren’t actually small. In the same vein, to Karl’s comments “it doesn't feel so political or activist when I teach, say, how to read Middle English. Or the finer points of the comma,” I respond, it may not feel activist but it is, because it facilitates future activism. One cannot be properly activist, IMHO, without understanding—or at least trying to understand—the perspective of the other side, even if only to identify it and tear it to shreds. Teaching students how to read Middle English or how to properly use a comma (and to know when others are not doing so correctly) means creating readers and writers who can manipulate language to their own ends and who know when others are doing the same thing. In short, teaching people how to be rhetorically savvy. Whether one uses her powers for what any other individual considers good or evil, rhetoric backed up with a mission is the meat and potatoes of activism. Getting pepper-sprayed and arrested means nothing if there is no catchy slogan/sound byte that gets your message across. At that, it’s got to pack a punch in less than the 30 seconds any audio-visual news outlet is likely to devote to it. In addition, when someone learns to read in Middle English (and in other languages, past and present, not native to him) he must also come to terms with a new expressive lens through which to see the world. Thus, learning Middle English and letting it affect one’s mind has just as much activist potential as reading and deeply engaging with Amiri Baraka or James Baldwin.

Now, having invoked Baraka and Baldwin, I finally have to admit that my O about the importance of teaching and learning rhetoric (and medievalism) is not really all that H. That is, my opinion is not that humble. The IMHO was simply me affecting humility in order to get you to buy into my claim—which I stand by, but which I also recognize could be vehemently argued against—that rhetoric is necessary for activism. But then again, I’ll bet you already knew that because you know rhetoric, whether you run into it in online abbreviations, on MSNBC or Fox News, or in scholarly work. Without the knowledge of rhetoric, activism would not be possible. Nor would this important conversation about what activism is and is not. So even if you never leave the classroom, or the bar, if someone has listened and learned then what you have done matters.

ASM said...

Just a note that there is an interesting article that deals with SB1070 in the May New Yorker:

Anonymous said...

My career in activism is very limited, though not non-existent, but there are three things that have been said here that strike chords and that I want to resonate with. Two, which I suppose could be expected just by virtue of word-count as well as brilliance, were said by Eileen and one by Cord, and I'll take Cord's first just because I can answer it with data:

Getting pepper-sprayed and arrested means nothing if there is no catchy slogan/sound byte that gets your message across.

This is sadly completely true, but getting pepper-sprayed and arrested is still better than not doing so, and in this Paul might be right, albeit I think not (just) for the reasons he adduces. I posted on Cliopatria a while back about the last big round of student protests in the UK, for two reasons: firstly, I was shocked by the radicalisation of Cambridge students compared to my day, but secondly, I was dismayed by the fact that they, who got clubbed and beaten by the police but had provoked the police considerably, got reported all over the papers for days, whereas the Oxford group, whose occupation was civilly carried out, whose eviction from University premises was managed quietly and simply by the police, and in whose cause no-one got hurt or arrested, simply vanished from the radar. No violence, no story. If you want to get reported people have got to get hurt, and that means that people are, well, going to get hurt. And where Paul does have a point, and I don't mean to say this to Cord specifically but to the discussion as a whole, is that the morality of equipping people to make the criticisms, see the flaws and plan action against them, is decidedly dubious when we have to face that they will get hurt, and it will stay dubious unless we are also willing to stand down there on the street and get hurt with them. So please, when you say you're equipping people to protest, consider whether you may just have said, "I'm going to get others to do the dirty work for me".

Eileen's two remarks, meanwhile, just called up parallels in my mind that seemed worth making:

Also, while actually listening to people "on the ground" in Arizona, one of the things I heard was, "please boycott my state."

From a UK perspective this reminds me immediately of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's repeated pleas for sanctions against South Africa in the years of apartheid, even though he was of course pastor for a flock who would be hurt by them. I remember this especially because the arguments we have seen here against boycotts compare very well to those raised against the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Iraq before the Second Gulf War began. And then lastly:

There is no inside/outside: the university is IN the world, and the world itself is IN the university.

Some day I hope to be able to get all my students to take on board that the same was true of the medieval Church and the world, and there also there might be useful parallels I'm not quite sharp enough to draw.