Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Future of Medieval Studies

by J J Cohen

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My Kalamazoo roared to a most excellent start thanks to Noah Guynn, Theresa Coletti, Donna Beth Ellard, Eileen, Karla Mallette, Deborah McGrady and Zrinka Stahuljak. Noah formed and introduced the Exemplaria panel on "Literature, Theory, and the Future of Medieval Studies: Middle English and Its Others," while all the others gave insightful presentations. Eileen took copious notes -- something I failed to do -- and is going to post her ruminations on the session as a whole tomorrow. Meanwhile, I offer my own short presentation below.


In his session proposal Noah posed a series of trenchant questions for panelists to consider. I’ve been rolling them around in my head since last summer, and they’re still rolling, because the questions were future directed. While I am pretty good at comprehending the past my predictive powers are notoriously lacking. Nonetheless I want to tackle Noah’s queries briefly as way of spurring further conversation – because, in the end, that’s what this session has to be about. No one can declare what the future is going to be: its uncertainty is its promise. What we must commit to undertaking together in the face of this prospective precariousness is the forging of the future that we desire and the humanities deserve.
Because we are not well served by passivity, nor by being in a reactive position, I am going to say that again. What we must commit to undertaking together in the face of this prospective precariousness is the forging of the future that we desire and the humanities deserve.

What [does] the future hold for medieval literary studies in all its breadth and depth, including Middle English studies and the disciplines that increasingly find themselves in its shadows[?]
Without some active and creative intervention, not much that is cheerful. Some resource-rich institutions will continue onward with their various programs preserved in the amber that derives from a healthy endowment and long traditions of alumni support. Less affluent private institutions will likely follow the austere course they have been tracing for some time: not replacing tenure track lines in the humanities after retirements, filling these positions with adjunct and other forms of exploitative labor, leading to dwindled departments that cannot adequately run themselves; subsequent consolidation and even elimination of programs. STEM and vocational training will remain the apple of the post-secondary education eye, with the humanities seen as service rather than research disciplines. Everything about this model is wrong, from the STEM obsession itself to the ways in which Science, Engineering Technology and Medicine are conceived and taught. Under the banner of economic austerity, ideological changes can be implemented that have nothing to do with saving money. Public institutions will follow a similar course, though at a much accelerated rate, not only since they typically possess fewer resources but also because in certain states (Iowa, Florida) legislators are inimical to professoriat, believing their lives to be too easy. I don’t think anti-intellectualism will abate any time soon. Nor will the recession: we graduate students who owe tens of thousands of dollars to unscrupulous government-supported lenders, dooming our young to years of indentured servitude to pay off their price of passage. The humanities have a difficult time breathing under such constriction.

Can minority disciplines withstand the pressures of institutional consolidation and interdisciplinary expansion? 
Without some active and creative intervention, only with great difficulty, and maybe not for long. Boutique institutions will continue to offer the array of programs they have long supported, but none of these will likely grow. The question of whether to train future specialists in early literature and history within them will be a pressing one, given that the number of jobs will likely continue to trend downwards. Meanwhile other institutions will persist in allowing such programs to dwindle to the point where they are terminated or consolidated. It is possible that under the English umbrella can be found resources (including jobs) that have evaporated elsewhere: it seems easier at the moment to do the French of England in an English department than to do medieval French and hope to get a position in a Romance Languages program. Yet English Departments thereby become the blob that engulfs everything, absorbing and assimilating the positions and practices of minority disciplines – sometimes intentionally, under the banner of globalism or transnationalism, sometimes because of extramural institutional decisions. English Departments will likely do this without the humanities growing overall.

What kinds of intellectual losses will medieval studies sustain as faculty lines and entire programs are lost or enveloped into larger units?
The downside of what I’ve outlined above is that when Wace and Marie de France become British writers, they lose their place in francophone tradition. Disciplinary training ceases to matter. Yet how can interdisciplinary endeavors be executed in the absence of disciplines? Global or transnational literature as practiced by English Departments usually means quietly making the world revolve around an anglophone, even anglophile axis. The same thing happens to the theorists early literature specialists use to communicate with their peers in later literature: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Latour become authors known in translation and absorbed into the arsenal of established practices for interpreting the English and American canons.

The Question of Theory (condenses three questions)
Theory in whatever form offers something that humanists otherwise lack: a potential lingua franca. Medieval cultural studies has been savvy about this communalizing use. Look at the inaugural issue of postmedieval, where specialists in medieval studies, early modern studies, and later posthumanisms share space. Many of its contributors are in English Departments; many are not. Theory has enabled scholars of early literature to engage in conversations across temporal and disciplinary boundaries – and local evidence suggests to me that the dialogue is a shared one. But here is the rub: we often speak about theory as if it were its own entity, as if it accomplished things by itself. We associate theory with certain key figures who are distant or dead, but we don’t otherwise embody its practice. If medieval cultural studies has been at all effective in bringing critical attention to the period through the alliances it has enabled, then let’s not forget that these alliances do not come out of nowhere. They take dedicated work. They require scholars who know how to bring people together socially and intellectually. They take insistent outreach (via social media and personal connection), as well as the cultivation of multiple federations. 

We live in an age that has rightly given up on the heroic model of scholarship, where a lone individual accomplishes admirable feats of monographic creation. We recognize that collaboration is all. And yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the power of Big Personalities. If minority disciplines have a hope for reinvigoration, if humanists have a hope for reinvigoration, it might just be in the cultivation of such academics, charismatic scholars whose endeavors are not focused on self-aggrandizement but upon the collective and cooperative renewal of the humanities. We need a playful but not ironic sense of mission. We need to become better leaders, movers, shakers, administrators, and activists. We need to be willing to step into spotlights, advocate widely, confederate promiscuously, proselytize even to the converted, form the largest and most vigorous collectives possible and get over our own modesty


BLB said...

I wonder what would happen if every single scholar (with the expertise and resources to publish) would pause her or his current project and write a book directed towards the general public and not towards those already within the discipline.

Eileen Joy said...

I think that would be amazing, frankly.

Anonymous said...

It is called 'Impact' in the UK - but writing is not enough.

Anonymous said...

In the UK this is called 'Impact' - we are required to do it by our funders and the results are measured both quantitatively and qualitatively every few years (at the same time that our research outputs are assessed). Oh - and writing is not enough.

ASM said...

I agree. I've been thinking about doing this, actually. I'm writing an art appreciation book, now, which should reach a much larger audience than my other writing, but after that is done (in two years), I am thinking of trying for a more popular book. Even have a half-formed idea about it, but I can mull that for two years....

Ashby Kinch said...

Jeffrey's comment about "stars" toward the end is crucial, I think. It takes many of us many years of labor in the vineyard to earn that measure of stability within our departments and Universities where we would even be able to conceive of a broader audience for our work. When a fellow scholar produces such work, how many of us sneer in disdain (another form of professional jealousy)? While attracted to the idea, I recognize how painfully difficult such writing would be. It requires inventing an entirely new writing personality, made up, one would hope, of some form of a felt personality of one's own, but perhaps it's a voice that one has too regularly repressed to re-awaken? I look forward to the journey of re-rediscovery myself...

BLB said...

"When a fellow scholar produces such work, how many of us sneer in disdain (another form of professional jealousy)? While attracted to the idea, I recognize how painfully difficult such writing would be. It requires inventing an entirely new writing personality, made up, one would hope, of some form of a felt personality of one's own, but perhaps it's a voice that one has too regularly repressed to re-awaken?"
Definitely! Scholars who are young in the field need to use their small amount of time to show their disciplinary chops. And there's also a culture of disrespecting the popular book. Everyone can name well-selling books about the Middle Ages that are widely reviled. But the challenge is to come up with a new genre: the truly *good* popular book, the one that makes clear not only the appeal of the topic, but the usefulness of the kind of digging and honing that scholars can do. Writing is definitely not enough, but some well-done books for a general audience would help us immensely. (And of course people are doing this, lots of scholars do outreach, interviews, and the like -- but I think we need to make it the primary focus, or else we go away).

Anonymous said...

Sir, as student I wonder: why do we have "rightly given up on the heroic model of scholarship"? In my opinion, a lot of that "heroic" model of scholarship from the 20th century - which by the way, did not exclude collaboration - will remain unmatched.

hck said...

(I wrote on this over there on G+. Much of what follows is c&p-ed from what I wrote there.)

What is written here seems to be very much about the situation in the USA (and to some degree, in the comments, the UK). I doubt that it applies to what happens in many other parts of the world.

And, no, I don't agree about the "remedies" either. I'd suggest instead:
- Create an environment and courses that make it possible for a student to study with you without having to spend a lot of money. Yes, that includes training your students also for jobs that are not in academia, and making it possible for them to liaise with future (non-academic) employers and/or customers well before they finish their PhD.
- Tell students and funding authorities about the many ways a humanities PhD can find employment outside of academia.
- Tell the general public / the tax-payers why and how humanities studies benefit them via liaising with them in your everyday work - not just via writing "popular" books. (Accidentally: I don't believe in the popular monograph versus scholarly monograph setting. In the past there have been some extremely readable and yet scholarly texts [Renan, Kantorowicz, Gilson and others knew how to do it].)

And, well, the heroic-scholarship-but-not-quite-as-it-was bit: Who decides who the "heroes" are? Is it proven that "heroes" can and do attract more funding than "ordinary" scholars?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

When I spoke about giving up on the heroic model of scholarship, what I meant acknowledging that such a model is mainly a myth. Monographs don't come out of nowhere, even if sometimes they are yielded to the world as if they were the product of years of solitary rumination in archive. There are books that render their collaborative nature invisible, and their are books that rejoice in that nature.

One of the many good effects of feminism upon the academy is that collaboration does not have to be instantly de-valued. I am not saying that explicitly collaborative work gets ranked as highly as a research "product" as that to which a single author is attached; the humanities still loves the monograph. But there has been a deep change in how we frame the work we do.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And hck: I agree with you. In fact in my comments at the session I spoke about the necessity of incorporating digital humanities into graduate training for just that reason -- and pointed out that digital humanities is the trailblazer when it comes to making alternative academic (alt-ac) career paths visible, as wll as providing the resources for others to follow.