Saturday, August 30, 2014

Teaching Literature in the West Virginian Ecotone

a guest post by LOWELL DUCKERT

[I invited Lowell to compose this post for ITM because his innovative ways of teaching ecology and environmental theory as part of graduate and undergraduate classes deserves emulation, tying global crises to local histories and rethinking pedagogical space. It's been an honor for me to have been collaborating with him for the past few years. I've learned a great deal from both his creative praxis and his generosity of living and writing. Lowell is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University. He taught GW's very first environmental literature course while here as a graduate student. I hope this piece inspires you as much as it did me. -- JJC]

Teaching Literature in the West Virginian Ecotone
So let’s get fated and outcast together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or as a collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of the co-melancholic implication of pretty much everything…This is a civic project. And it is a hopeful one. (Eileen A. Joy, “Blue,” from Prismatic Ecology)
It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago I began my third year at West Virginia University. I was hired to teach Shakespeare, and so far I’ve taught him every semester, but I’ve also been given opportunities to engage my other research interests in environmental criticism, ecotheory, and travel literature. (Or all at once: I’m teaching “Ecology without Shakespeare?” right now.) On every syllabus I include a statement that reads something like this: how can past works of literature not only resemble the present, but influence it, and consequently bring about livable futures for as many human and nonhuman beings as possible? Lately I’ve been thinking about how premodern descriptions of ecological ills, whether or not written by authors we would now deem “writer-activists,” might actually invigorate environmental justice and health movements today. These ethical thought experiments are often unsettling for my students, which is the point; opinions are freely given, some more passionately than others, which typically lead to (respectfully) stimulating discussion. I’ve always been inspired by Lynne Bruckner’s article “Teaching Shakespeare in the Ecotone,” an ecocritical effort, she says, that “requires something new from us—a deliberate heterodoxy, a willingness to take risks and break rules, a commitment not only to examining our own historical, material, political selves as we really live in the world, but also asking our students to do the same.” (A requirement, to be sure, that doesn’t just apply to Shakespeare.)

Like many places, West Virginia is a precarious ecotone, and it’s been a challenge getting to know my new home in- and outside the classroom: it’s the second-poorest state in the country; chronically divided over energy production and consumption (coal keeps the lights on, but coal also kills); red politically but blue psychologically; predominantly white with racism directed towards other whites (“trash”) as well as persons of color; glorified historically as a sacrifice zone for the nation’s industries but a resource colony in reality; whose workers’ demands for unionization led to the only time in history (so far) that the U.S. military has bombed its own citizens (The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921). Every week the amount of explosives used in the surface-mining technique known as mountaintop removal (MTR) equals the amount of force that leveled Hiroshima. A chemical spill in the capital city of Charleston earlier this year left three hundred thousand people without water. My university is supported by funds from environmentally harmful companies. And yet my students are often the first in their family to attend college and bring with them an enthusiasm for change; the region is astoundingly beautiful, containing some of the oldest mountains and rivers on earth; a deep-rooted Appalachian identity has compelled many to stay and improve the lives of both human and nonhuman residents, together.

In the fall of 2013 I took my graduate Shakespeare class to Kayford Mountain, an active MTR site just south of Charleston. We read King Lear and selections from the PMLA “Sustainability”cluster to think about how (and even why) to carry on in a post-sustainable, eco-catastrophic world. Standing on the brink together with our guide, an environmental lawyer and organizer for the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, we witnessed the destruction firsthand. I was surprised when the visit didn’t have the impact I expected. Many (but not all) of my students were frustrated with the experiential learning requirement of the course, the unusual nature of the subsequent assignment (to put Lear in conversation with the rhetoric of post/sustainability and their own feelings atop the mountain), and the idea that I was forcing them to become “activists.” I was downtrodden, to say the least, to the point where I honestly reconsidered having any environmental engagement in future courses. But I talked through it with others (thank you); I gleaned (what little I could) from my course evaluations; I revisited some of my favorite sections of the state; and I added details from the trip to “Earth’s Prospects,” my contribution to the Elemental Ecocriticism volume Jeffrey and I are co-editing. Most importantly, I prepared myself for a new class I had proposed for the spring semester: “Environmental Criticism,” an introduction to ecology and literature for undergraduates.

I paired each primary text with a style and a color of ecotheory: think of a “Pink” and “White” Frankenstein with a queer-ecological bent. This time, however, I tweaked the experimental learning component: because all (five) of my students were native West Virginians, I assigned them colors one would commonly associate with the state: “Blue,” “Black,” and “Grey”—a palette of struggle. “Blue” granted us the optimism of empathy, of cohabiting another’s melancholia as a way forward; “Black” the denigrated color of coal and of skin, but also a presence that speaks of inextricable absorption within a “wilderness” of relations; “Grey” the ashen bodies of abject laborers, zombie miners, the objects of dehumanization. One of my students was (and still is) an activist in the southern coalfields, and with his and his friend Catherine’s help, I arranged a daytrip for us to the abandoned mining community of Nuttallburg along the scenic New River. Nuttallburg was like many boom-and-bust coal towns: founded in 1870, its citizens manufactured coke (a high-carbon fuel made from coal) until diminishing demand closed the mine once and for all in 1958. But what makes Nuttallburg more unique, and more troubling, is the fact that it was racially segregated. I had designed the course to ask precisely this question about which beings are allowed into the oikos of ecology, and what’s at stake when the commons is de/limited: why are certain human and nonhuman voices unquiet and others are quieted, why are some heard and others ignored? To help us dwell on this (unapparent or purposefully forgotten) aspect of the river gorge’s history, we stopped at the African American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted and met its curator, Norman Jordan. Not only was Carter G. Woodson, he told us, the founder of Black History Month, but he was also a West Virginian who mined Fayette County as a young man. Before we left, Norman read us a few of his own poems, after which I asked him why he thinks many people (myself included) are unaware of the area’s (and even the state’s) African American ties. He replied through his art: “Poetry,” he said, “is about telling stories.”

Telling stories. My students and I, guided by Catherine, thought about Norman’s response as we stood next to the foundations of Nuttallburg’s “Black School” and “Black Church.” It was a beautiful early spring day; the wind was the only noise we could hear. We talked about the interpretive sign’s disturbing language: African-American miners had a tough life, but “slavery was worse.” When we crossed Short Creek, the trickling line that separated the camps, it felt ridiculous to us that something so small could divide races, and at the same time we thought about the real danger that the small stream would’ve posed. We passed the coke ovens and imagined what the heat and smoke must have felt and tasted like, and how fragile, how illusory, the romanticized notion that men went into the mines different colors, but they all came out the same truly was. The coal tipple led our eyes hundreds of feet up the hill to the mine. About an hour later we stood, sweating, next to warped and rusted pieces of metal with leafy offshoots, vegetable-mineral machines of no more use. Pieces of coal littered the ground. We peered into the mine’s mouth as far as we could, trying to look beyond the boulders that were deliberately placed there to block our entry. It was cold. And although together, it felt lonely. Fated and outcast.

On the way down the hill, the New River looked as scenic as ever, and yet I could tell that our relationships with the riverscape had gained unexpected, and necessary, complexity. Later that evening the mood lightened as we enjoyed dinner together in the nearby town of Fayatteville. The trip set the tone for the rest of the semester – one of my favorite classes – for it helped us think about the stories that are told and are yet to be told, their potential to intervene in our lives (including our policies), and who cares, or is willing, to listen. It was a long two-hour drive back to Morgantown. I like to think that it was a hopeful one.

May we all offer something new from ourselves this semester, in every tone and any form imaginable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Two book notes, and a note, on materialism and ecocritcism

by J J Cohen

[read Jonathan's Hsy's essential post Intersections: On Annoyances, Mistakes ... and Possibilities and work your way back through the rich discussion of diversity and medieval studies -- some of the best material we have published at ITM]

Anyone who reads ITM regularly cannot have missed that the material turn in contemporary criticism has been of great interest to those who blog here.  I recently attempted to articulate the stakes and possibilities of the new materialism as feminist, ecocritical practice in this post, derived from my NCS presentaion on "Magic Rocks." Medievalists have tended to be rather skeptical of the new materialisms, and I wonder if that hesitancy is not also why ecological approaches to literature and culture have not made the same inroads into the discipline as they have in, say, early modern studies. Medievalists possess plenty of scholarship on environmental history, but are still poor in ecotheory -- which is a shame, since this loose alliance of methodologies and spurs to thinking shares much with feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies, all of which have emphasized the fragility, non-universality and contradiction-rich depths of the category "human."

Today I want to call your attention to two excellent (but non-medievalist) new books at the intersections of ecotheory and the material turn, and I hope both will receive wide exposure. Material Ecocriticism is a superb collection edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (with whom I have frequently collaborated; their work, together as well as individual, models the best of what this convergence of fields offers). The volume includes beautiful essays by -- among many others -- Lowell Duckert, Catriona Sandilands, Simon Estok, Cheryll Glotfelty, Jane Bennett, Joni Adamson, Stacy Alaimo and Timothy Morton. I was honored to write its foreword, on storied matter (draft here). Bruno Latour blurbs the book (!)

And speaking of blurbs, I was also deeply pleased to compose an endorsement for Serpil Oppermann's New International Voices in Ecocriticism. Here's what I wrote:
A needed spur to a more globalized field, New International Voices in Ecocriticism presents a lucid argument for why the ecocritical future must be geographically and temporally capacious. Combining activism and environmental justice and a focus on materiality with ethical generosity, the essays collected in this book offer a compelling vision of ecocriticism as an interdisciplinary and transformative practice. Serpil Oppermann is to be commended for gathering so many fine, emergent voices in this indispensable forum, and for composing an introduction for the book that serves as a manifesto for work to come.
The book is well worth your time, especially because it globalizes ecocriticism in important ways and attends to the voices of those who will be the field's future.

Those are my two book notes. Now, a note on a note. Karl has recently written on his other site about a revision he made to an essay for a crazy edited collection that gathers together some medievalists, some early modernists, and some contemporary critics to envision an elemental ecocriticism. Karl notes: "the new materialist ecocriticisms urgently need to figure out some way to use their critique of the agent/object distinction to critique racism and they need to draw on the critics of racism to do so." First, I want to repeat what I wrote on Karl's FB page: YES. Second, I'd like to also point out that the index for Prismatic Ecology (a volume with much material ecocriticism within) has a substantial entry for race. I cannot say that race easily came to mind for all its contributors, with several draft essays skirting or bracketing race at moments when they should have foregrounded color, body, and justice. To the credit of the contributors, most (not all) took my editorial interventions seriously and included some significant and useful mediation on race, materiality and violence. These are some small steps towards an ecomaterialism that can speak of human specificities and the violences that undergird them rather than be content with simply demolishing the category human and thinking that enough.

Happy ecomaterial reading.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Intersections: On Annoyances, Mistakes ... and Possibilities


[This posting forms part of a thread on race and diversity in medieval studies and academia as a whole; see previous postings by Michelle Warren (on twitter: @MichelleRWarren), Dorothy Kim (on twitter @dorothyk98) and Helen Young (on twitter @heyouonline); note also our own Karl Steel in a related thread here and here.]

Making space

This series of guest postings about diversity and medieval studies (expanding to race and “things medieval” more broadly) might look like it has been carefully orchestrated but has actually been quite spontaneous—this whole thing emerged organically from conversations in person and over social media with other medievalists, and I hope this venue will continue to spark timely discussion and make space for new voices and different vantage points (so far we’ve featured junior and senior scholars, women and men, people of color and white folks, US and non-US contributors, writers attending to race in the historical past as well as our present).

I did want to point out to our readers who might be new to this discussion that matters of race in medieval culture (and our perceptions of the medieval past) will be explored further in a forthcoming issue of the academic journal postmedieval edited by Cord Whitaker: “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages,” Vol 6, Issue 1 (2015). This issue will build upon formative discussions launched by medievalists (our own Jeffrey Cohen, Geraldine Heng, Suzanne Akbari, to name just a few) and expand how we think about cultural encounter/exchange and reorient approaches to Jews and so-called Saracens, Moors, and Mongols (among other “others”) in the medieval past.

This particular blog-series on ITM has had an “academic” professional tilt—but these contributors have also taken a chance to reflect more informally to draw from personal, practical, and everyday experience. Opportunities to reflect in this more personal ways about embodied experience in professional spaces are precious few (although the collaboratively peer-reviewed digital journal Hybrid Pedagogy has published a series on pedagogical alterity offering varied perspectives on how embodied experience shapes teaching)—and in general the more conversational flexibility of blogging is one aspect of it that I find absolutely vital.

As a medievalist who is both Asian-American and identifies as gay or queer (depending on the context), I can easily consider myself one of those “divergent bodies” referenced in Dorothy Kim’s excellent posting. Most of these blog posts on ITM have had an Anglo-American (i.e. US-oriented) center of gravity, but I’ve participated in conferences in (Anglophone and Francophone) Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia, and my reflections in this posting apply to my motion through majority-white spaces here and abroad. Through my experiences across these venues, I know all too well what it feels like to be “the only one” in a professional setting, and (often before I realize I’m even doing it) I can find myself strategically counting bodies in the room and reassessing “how I belong” in any given social or professional space. In my own posting here, I reflect on my own experience and suggest how we can all work together to change things in the real world (hint: undergraduate teaching).

Let’s talk about Asianness—for a moment

I’ll address my concurrent and overlapping identities soon, but first I’d like to say a few things about the whole “being Asian thing” in particular. Being a person of Asian ancestry (i.e., a person with a face that “reads” to others as Asian) in medieval studies is a peculiar thing. In my particular experience as a US-born, native English speaker (with varied capacities in other languages, living and dead), I’ve learned to strategically toggle between marked and unmarked “otherness” in the field. I present myself in ways that most people would consider “professional” and I can be more or less “processed” as if white—but there are times in professional settings when I’m jarringly reminded of how I’m unavoidably “different.”

Most of the time my “perceived otherness” emerges through awkward exchanges or other minor annoyances. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mistaken for “the other” Asian guy in the room (or at the conference, in the department, at the meeting, in the archive). There have been times (inside and outside the US) when I’ve randomly been redirected toward the lone scholar from Japan who just happens to be at the conference ... as if the mere fact of our “shared-Asianness” means we must automatically share the same interests or something (I’m never sure what exactly the expectation is when this sort of thing happens). If I state I have interests in medieval travel literature, people unfamiliar with my work often assume I work on Marco Polo and China (which I don’t). Even a seemingly innocuous question (at a conference reception) like “How did YOU get interested in medieval studies?” opens up a whole can of worms. Depending on how it’s asked, such a question sounds as if I need to explain or justify my very presence in a space that is “naturally” coded as white.

In these sorts of interactions I don’t believe the deliberate intent is to offend, but the effects of such exchanges—even (or especially) if they involve someone who is “trying to be nice”—are still harmful. These episodes send (conscious or unconscious) messages that “add up” over time (see here, or even more pointedly, here) to remind you that you’re a perpetual outsider and you must continually re-explain, assert, or justify your very presence in professional spaces.

One complicating factor of growing up Asian-American more broadly is a toggling between perceived relevance and irrelevance in contemporary US conversations of race; such discourses can often cast racial difference in terms of reductive black/white binaries. When the events in #Ferguson first began to unfold, perspectives of Asian-Americans (among other nonwhite and nonblack groups) were ignored—and its only recently that people have addressed how the “model minority myth” deployed by Asians and non-Asians alike can serve to devalue black bodies in particular.

What I find so curious about “being Asian” in a broader US landscape of race discussions is how often Asians are not actually discussed as Asians but rather as a way for people (usually in the white majority) to discuss other things. Asians became Stephen Colbert’s “trope” to mock Native American mascots—a move bravely and justly confronted by writer and activist Suey Park, creator of the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag. And we live in a world where a totally unfunny white dude will try to use “Asians” as a trope to satirize discussions of white privilege—and when actual Asians point out why this is a problem, he claims “it’s not about Asians” and Asian-Americans are just too humorless to get the “joke.”

When it comes to discussions of race and the “monochrome Middle Ages” myth that Helen Young has addressed (which extends beyond the US per se), Asians strangely get trotted out yet again as part of this rhetorical “invoke and ignore” strategy. George R.R. Martin’s quip “There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England” is meant to signal that the mere idea of Asians being present in a fictional medieval-ish world is so completely outlandish that one can’t entertain it (direwolves and dragons on the other hand, TOTALLY FINE).

These kinds of social messaging from inside and outside the academy can make a person of Asian descent like myself feel systemically unwelcome, marginalized, or excluded—in the broader sphere of (Anglophone) discourses/ideas, but also in the much more “rarified” field (medieval studies) where I actually claim the most professional training and expertise. My particular Asian-American perspective is, of course, only one aspect of a much larger landscape, and I admit I am speaking from a particular US-based perspective here. The broader structural issue we all face (regardless of where we are) is the urgent need to re-code what it means to think about “things medieval” in the academy and outside of it. In other words, there is not just “one way” a person should look, speak, act, think, love, or move in order to be recognized as legitimate.

Intersections and institutions

I started off by discussing systems of “Asian exclusion” because an unstated “model minority” myth (in addition to homogenizing the varied experience/backgrounds of all people of Asian ancestry) has a way of making it seem like everything’s just fine and dandy for Asians and Asian-Americans in higher education. My anecdotes offer a few reminders that change still needs to happen on the inclusion front. I also focus initially on my identity as Asian-American since race is (in my own case) a category of difference that I do not voluntarily disclose but one that others readily perceive during a first encounter. At this point, I want to broaden this discussion beyond my own situation to consider intersectionality—how it informs so many kinds of social and embodied difference. 

This concept of intersectionality has its origins in black feminist thought and reminds us that it’s not “all or nothing” when we discuss (conscious or unconscious) prejudice and its effects: gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, disability, age, rank, employment status—it all interrelates. You can be advantaged along one kind of social axis while also be disadvantaged by another.

While I’ve mentioned my own particular intersecting kinds of otherness in the field, I acknowledge my varied forms of insider privilege. Broadly speaking, I enjoy status as a tenured faculty member at a diverse, research-active urban institution in a progressive gay-friendly environment. I am a native English speaker and can rely on important information around me being in English. I was raised Protestant and the academic calendar always accommodates Christmas and lets me enjoy time with family. I can walk and I can enter any building on campus without needing to scout out a ramp first. I am male and cisgendered (i.e., my gender identity matches the biological sex assigned at birth). I hold a PhD and both my parents earned graduate degrees.

In pointing out these social advantages I claim, I stand by what Dorothy Kim has stated: those of us who have tenure or hold otherwise claim privilege should be committed to making medieval studies (and academia) a safe, inclusive, and accessible space for all—and to change the conception of “what’s possible” now and in the future. As far as the present-day profession is concerned, many different kinds of people need to be included in leadership positions and planning roles.

We can all do things informally to change the climate of our professional meetings too. When the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship publicizes lactation rooms at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, it sends a message that medievalists who also just happen to be working mothers are welcome and valued. Participating in a polyglot Chaucer reading or actively helping to promote a new Chaucer adaptation that features a Nigerian/British/Icelandic cast sends a message to attendees of the Congress of the New Chaucer Society that the field isn’t just Anglophone and isn’t exclusively white. Organizing an informal gathering of LGBT folks and allies at a local queer bar (big thanks to Anthony Bale for first floating this idea on social media!) sends a message that medieval studies is a safe place for many kinds of people.

As far as the future of the profession is concerned, a big part of cultivating a more diverse faculty is attentive mentorship of graduate students. This informative report on mentoring first-generation and graduate students of color offers sound advice for anyone pursuing graduate study (not just those advising people of color). It’s important to note that broader socioeconomic factors can play a role in the complexion (deliberate pun) of academic medieval studies. Nonwhite people and/or ethnic minorities might not necessarily have access to the kinds of cultural capital and early training (especially in European languages, living or dead) that would “track” a person toward a humanistic field like medieval studies (or Classics, or Renaissance art history, for that matter). Mindful early guidance of students of color who might have promise in the field is thus a very important thing to keep in mind for both for faculty who are white and for those who are people of color. It made a huge difference for me that I had (white) undergraduate mentors who proactively engaged with my interests in medieval studies and were realistic about the challenges that would come with this path.

How faculty diversity matters

In her posting on diversity and mentoring, Michelle Warren deferred the question of why diversification of faculty is important. I’ll take up this baton by considering the undergraduate classroom: teaching is, after all, the most significant way that we academics actually make a difference every day. Again, I’ll refer to my own experience here. I teach in the department of English at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and the general trend has been that some (but not by any means the majority) of students we have in our medieval and early modern classes turn out to be US-born ethnic minorities (this reflects our general undergraduate demographics). In addition, an increasing number of students at my institution as a whole are “international,” i.e., not from the US (I’ve had quite a few students from South Korea, mainland China, Iran, and Ghana, for instance).

Having a person with an Asian face in the classroom—in a field where one might not expect to encounter one—can create a more expansive “horizon of expectations” for all kinds of students. The very fact I’m there sends a message that medieval literature isn’t “just for white people,” and for those students for whom English is a second language my presence send a message that anyone can “do” Middle English. And broadly speaking there is something very empowering about having sustained interactions with “someone like you” as an authority figure when you have never had that experience before.

I’m stressing here that “being there” is more than “faculty diversity window-dressing.” It’s also what I do outside the classroom that counts. In casual conversations during office hours, I’ve found it interesting that it has so far only been the nonwhite students (US-born and those from outside the US) who have felt open with disclosing the real family or cultural pressures complicating their decisions to pursue interests in English or in a humanities discipline—more than a few students have expressed to me a kind of obligation (even burden) to obtain a “practical” degree or one that is perceived as more reliable, lucrative, or otherwise more prestigious “back home.”

My sense in these (often unsolicited) interactions is that they give students a chance to “vent” but also to give some thought to what an education is “for,” what they want out of it, and how to manage the discordant cultural expectations they face—a conversation they might not have any chance to pursue otherwise. I think there’s an intangible benefit to at least giving students the chance to gain exposure to a wider sense of “what’s possible” with their life-paths, and to explore modes of reading, creation and expression that they find rewarding—even if they end up don’t actually end up majoring in English or pursuing medieval studies.

At this point I have a less clear sense of how students’ experiences have been shaped by interacting with faculty member who isn’t straight. I teach Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale in the vast majority of my courses, and we inevitably end up discussing the Pardoner’s body—which reads as indeterminate in terms of modern-day categories of gender and sexuality—and the text offers an opportunity to think critically about discourses we’d now identify as homophobic. I use more informal words like “gay” and “gay-affirming” in class (or when discussion turns to theory and politics, the term “queer”) to signal that homophobia and transphobia are unacceptable in the classroom. (I’ll also mention my partner in passing just as any other instructor might casually mention his or her spouse.) I find that after the class on the Pardoner’s Tale (which tends to be early in the semester) students can become more open to discussing gender and sexuality in the texts we read. While I find students don’t specifically open up to me about matters of sexual orientation in office hours, I do find they will feel OK expressing interests in (say) queer theory—and of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that any such student self-identifies as queer. This all just means that Im trying to do the best I can to create a safe space for everyone no matter how (or if) they might self-identify.

Owning mistakes—whoever you are

So what are the next steps here? A huge part of creating a more inclusive medieval studies involves changes that are systemic, structural, and professional (as other postings in this thread have addressed). But what can a mere individual medievalist do? One strategy is teaching in more open-minded ways about race and embodied difference, as Helen Young suggests at the end of her posting. 

But another significant part of the learning process (i.e., growing as a human being!) is owning your mistakes and changing your behavior when you recognize there’s a need to adapt. When someone makes an offensive comment (even when it might not be consciously intended), call out that person’s behavior—and be willing to check your own assumptions when YOU discover you’ve messed up. [All of this is “easier said than done,” I know.] In this spirit, I offer a few anecdotes to suggest how I’ve negotiated my own place in the medieval literature classroom—with particular reference to some interactions with kinds of embodied difference that are not my own.

Teaching The Prioress’s Tale

In my experience teaching at GWU, I’ve found the vibe to be largely secular. Reflecting the broader demographics of this institution, my classes typically include at least some students who see themselves as ethnically or culturally Jewish (even if not strictly “observant”). I quickly learned that teaching Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale—a story full of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence—presents challenges as well as opportunities. It has always been my strategy to make the text’s anti-Semitism a key part of class discussion, and this usually engenders a productive discussion of how we perceive anti-Semitism in the past and the present. It can also provide an opportunity for students in class to collectively consider how notions of Jewishness are disseminated in literature or other forms of cultural messaging.

There are have been times, though, when I’ve made mistakes. One year, I cluelessly scheduled the class session on the Prioress’s Tale on Yom Kippur which meant that the Jewish students in class were absent (including ones who weren’t otherwise “observant”). Of course, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of conducting a discussion about anti-Semitism and the expulsion of Jewish communities from medieval England in a room totally devoid of its Jewish classmates (and I’m sure some students in class picked up on this too). I’ve since learned to, you know, actually pay attention to the list of religious observances that our university disseminates and be more mindful in my class scheduling.

I’ve also learned to be more careful in how I frame our discussion of this tale in the first place. One time when we were discussing this text in my class, a student abruptly disengaged from the conversation. I noticed this shift in behavior (she was otherwise a reliably active participant) and I asked if something was bothering her—and it turns out she had reached a point where the text was to her as hurtful as reading Nazi propaganda. I’ve since made it my strategy to prepare students for the discussion by stating (in the class session before we read this text) that it an ugly and hateful text (specifically, it’s anti-Semitic) and we are going to have a frank discussion this about this aspect of the work.

Throughout these discussions I’ve learned, too, not to make any assumptions based on a student’s name or appearance—much as I would not want someone to make assumptions about mine. Some students may choose to disclose being Jewish in a classroom discussion (I’ve found in this case it’s not unusual for some to do this), but others may not. And some of these voluntary disclosures can be unexpected: I have had more than case where a student with an Asian face and Anglo name turned out to be Jewish.

In some of our conversations online and in real life, our Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has made the point that presentations at medieval professional venues shouldn’t silently “assume a shared belief in Christianity.” The same goes for the undergrad classroom: keep in mind the possibility for different vantage points and what that really means. Think about how to make the classroom a space where everyone can engage.

Disruptive bodies

In one of my classes, a student had a foot injury and as part of his recovery process he had to stand or walk out of the classroom at certain intervals. When he revealed to me later that he was struggling getting from class to class and sitting for solid blocks of time, I suggested he consult our Disability Support Services; he found the office was helpful in informing his instructors about his mobility accommodations even if in these emails the student would always put the term “disability” in scare quotes (he, in this context, did not self-identify as “disabled”). Initially other students in class were confused by this student’s actions and thought his movements inside and outside of the room were distracting—but once (with his permission) we took a moment to briefly explain the situation and how we were conducting class, we all adapted to this new rhythm.

From this experience, I’ve since realized that the “disability boilerplate” on my syllabus (i.e., language that describes accommodations and resources for students who have disabilities) should be explained on the first day. It could be the case that someone who might benefit from accommodations (in terms of the room’s spatial configuration or its pacing) might not think of himself or herself as “disabled” in the first place (and the question of what social factors would make someone avoid identifying as disabled might warrant some consideration too). As an instructor, I need to send the message that the classroom is a space for all kinds of bodies and minds. 

Some practical tips: Put some thought into what you want to include in your course syllabus regarding flexibility to many modes of learningBefore you categorically ban all laptops from your classroom, consider having an open discussion with your students about how and why they use the technologies available to them, remembering there may not be “one proper way” to keep notes or attend to class discussion (see for instance Rick Godden’s great blog posting reminding instructors to “not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way”). This isn’t just about “conforming to a top-down policy” from university administration. Adapt your language to the particular shape of your course and the community that YOU really wish to cultivate.

Being "the only one."

Given my own experience in educational and professional spaces, I try to be more sensitive to what it feels like being “the only [insert your category here]” in class and to be more mindful of how the particular composition of the classroom can inflect a discussion. In one of my classes, we were discussing the Travels of John Mandeville and its description of “Ethiopians” and discourses of blackness and beauty. There happened be only one black student in class that day, and as we approached this topic many of the classmates’ glances began to drift, as if on cue, toward this person…perhaps in anticipation that this student would soon speak up, or otherwise just to gauge her reaction; in any case, it was an unconscious and unspoken shift in the class dynamic that “singled out” the student in a way that obviously made her uncomfortable.

This student avoided eye contact with me as this was happening (clearly she did not want to be called upon) and, picking up on this weird classroom dynamic, I redirected the conversation by inserting myself in the moment. I said something to the effect that “as a nonwhite person I find these Eurocentric racial discourses cause me great discomfort. We obviously have both white and nonwhite people in this room, so what are some ways we can all approach reading this passage today?” I found that at this point all the students felt they had more of a “way into” the discussion and there was no longer this perception that only one “type” of person bore the burden of responding to this passage. It was one way to give us all permission to openly acknowledge the many different bodies in class and to engage in a shared discussion.

Although I touched base with this particular student later about things in office hours and we had a productive conversation about this and made sure she hadn't felt alienated, I don’t doubt that I could have done better—but I at least tried to “call out” a (subtle) shift in class behavior as it was happening and do something productive with it. (For another perspective from a different kind of classroom and urban environment, see this blog post.)

Knowing others

In her recent book Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference (2014), Stephanie L. Kerschbaum reworks current discourses about diversity in higher education by adopting what she terms a “microinteractional” perspective on how we present and define ourselves in shifting contexts. Her book, which focuses on the writing classroom, attends to interactions that transpire not along pre-determined scripts or markers of difference but dynamic configurations that emerge through institutional spaces. Kerschbaum draws upon some of her own lived experience of deafness and reminds readers that difference is not a “fixed” or stable category but “dynamic, relational, and emergent” (57). One message I take from her book beyond the specifics of teaching writing is that we (those of us who teach) should be careful to avoid engaging students (and one another) along the lines of any pre-conceived social norm.

Kerschbaum’s experiences as an instructor and a deaf woman both inform her work. Early in the book, she observes: “I regularly find myself making minute adjustments in response to unfolding awareness of how others perceive my deafness and assume its relevance for our interactions” (7). Later, she reveals that “[a]s a deaf woman who is often the only deaf person in the room,” and her particular “interactional preferences” shift from moment to moment depending on the context (24-25). In this posting, I’ve reflected on some of my own forms of intersecting difference and some of the microinteractional adaptations I’ve made in my own behavior. 

Microaggressions are real. Prejudices and misperceptions are harmful. But we’re all in this together, and—to repeat something I’ve stated on this blog before—I hope that when we move through our various social and professional spaces we can strive for a more informed and mindful empathy: a sensitivity to always-emergent forms of difference, and an earnest effort to know and to engage with others unlike ourselves.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Re-making The Real Middle Ages™

by HELEN YOUNG [Guest Posting]

Hello readers! Here's our third posting on race, diversity, and things medieval [and if you're just joining in, read the postings in this thread by Michelle Warren (on twitter @MichelleRWarren) and Dorothy Kim (on twitter: @dorothyk98)!].

This posting comes from Helen Young (on twitter @heyouonline).

[EDITED 24 August 2014: In this thread, see also Jonathan's posting, and Karl Steel in a related thread here and here.]

Re-making The Real Middle AgesTM

The professoriate of future decades is the current generation of Game of Thrones cosplayers, Vikings watchers, and Medieval Times diners, and every teenager who is part of what Umberto Eco called, in what has proved to be a masterful understatement: “a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages.” In the past year or so I’ve done a straw poll of scholars working in Medieval Studies, and almost without exception they said were interested in the Middle Ages before beginning their studies. Not everyone can identify a precise moment, book, or toy – for me it was a combination of medieval-themed Lego and Tolkien – but many people can and do. There are multiple steps, turns, and obstacles between playing with a Lego medieval market village “full of authentic features” as a child and a career in Medieval Studies, but that every journey begins with a single step is a cliché for a reason, even if that step is an excruciating painful one onto a Lego brick, or a hoax rune-stone.

The ultimately white supremacist desire for home and belonging that Karl Steel identifies in claims for the Viking heritage of North America is just one aspect of a much broader phenomenon. Popular culture medievalisms, particularly those that achieve massive success in the mainstream, are as lacking in diversity, if not more so, than the medieval academy. Creators and audiences alike invoke The Real Middle AgesTM to justify heteronormativity, the absence of disabled characters, extreme violence, especially towards women, and the whiteness of the majority of protagonists, with occasional exceptions for enemies or minor characters. When the BBC television series Merlin cast Angel Coulby, an actress of color, to play Gwen it met with backlash because of historical inaccuracy, despite the overtly fantastic elements (magic, dragons etc) of the program. Earlier this year, when a post on the Tumblr site “People of Color in European Art History” cited multiple academic sources to suggest that a “realistic” video-game set in Central Bohemia could include characters of multiple ethnicities without being inaccurate, the author received multiple rape and death threats. Dorothy Kim has just written eloquently about the ongoing abuse of that blogger, and other many other abuses of people considered, in multiple medievalist forums, to be outsiders.

Not only are the Middle Ages constructed as a nostalgically longed-for pre-race utopia, the same argument is also used to in attempts exclude people of color from contemporary fan communities and to construct those communities as normatively white. People of color are only welcome in many medievalist digital spaces if they pass as white by not asking questions or commenting on any thread to do with race, let alone starting one. The myth of the monochrome Middle Ages, in which the medieval is originary, pure, and white, transcends geographical and temporal boundaries. It is attached, through supposed biological descent, to white bodies, wherever and whenever they go, even into the apparently non-corporeal digital realms of fan-forums, television and video-games.  There are many fans of color of popular culture medievalisms, but a hostile milieu which consistently repeats the messages that ‘you don’t belong in the Middle Ages’ and the ‘the Middle Ages are not yours’ actively discourages setting out on, let alone completing, a journey from interested fan to professional scholar.

The figure of J. R. R. Tolkien looms large here. Amy Kaufman, in her essay “Medieval Unmoored, argues that ”the neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages is gained… through a medievalist intermediary. Neomedievalism is … a medievalism doubled up upon itself.” In the realms of popular culture no shadow is longer than Tolkien’s, even if his medievalist fantasy imaginings have been folded and re-folded into neomedievalist origami, some of it in shapes that would outright horrify the man and scholar. Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed rightly suggested that Game of Thrones problematic representations of race could be traced back to Tolkien’s influence, creased by the race problems of modern-day America. We can take this several steps further and suggest that the most troubling racial elements of Tolkien’s work stem from his medievalism. Medieval texts inspired him – orcs and the armies of Sauron have a lot in common with the Saracen armies of Crusade romances. The philological thinking which connects language with culture and biology in Middle-earth derives directly from Germanic thought of the nineteenth century which not only shaped the medievalist academy, but underpinned global Anglo-Saxonism, the British Empire, American expansionism, and taken to extremes, ultimately also inspired the racist excesses of the Nazi regime. Tolkien-the-scholar lends authority to Tolkien-the-author even as the former’s studies shaped the latter’s novels.

The overwhelming whiteness of being medieval in popular culture does not go unremarked; witness Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman’s 2007 discussion of Gil Junger’s 2001 movie Black Knight: “the first thing everybody notices (or does not need to notice) about films set in the Middle Ages is that the characters are usually white. The fantasy of the Middle Ages has always been the exclusive province of European colonialism, representing the historical legitimation of white, Christian, European domination.” Norman Cantor’s 1991 remark in Inventing the Middle Ages that “academic medievalists constitute the interpretive community to which the popular writers … defer in their highly imaginative writings” (p. 19) was an accurate insight into the connections between popular culture and scholarly visions and re-visions of the Middle Ages. But how much that fantasy of the white, Christian Middle Ages as it is currently expressed in popular culture derives from the medievalisms of nineteenth-century constructions of ethno-national identities, both within Europe  and outside it, and the place of the academy in creating and perpetuating them, is the big white elephant in the corner of the classroom and at the back of the conference venue.

We are let off the hook by authors, film- and game-makers who have a vested interest in emphasizing their own roles as artists in the creation of medievalist worlds. George R. R. Martin, the author of the novels on which Game of Thrones is based, writes on his website that: “a writer cannot do much research… Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters,” and authors across every genre, including historical fiction, and medium repeat this sentiment. The end of the statement is far more appealing than the beginning because it allows us, as members of the academy, to sit at a safe distance and point out anachronisms and inaccuracies. Doing it amongst ourselves is a fun way to pass the time at conferences; everyone at Kalamazoo has something to say when I tell them I work on Game of Thrones. Each time a new season of the show rolls around, there’s another slew of blogs, op-eds, and articles pointing out that rape and violence were not as commonplace in medieval times as Game of Thrones suggests.

Race rarely seems to get a mention in these sorts of pieces unless they are in activist forums, and those which do engage don’t often it take up in connection with the medievalism of the show – or novels. It is hard to argue with a comment like: “Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its period, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.” Medieval England, however, was not mono-cultural, mono-racial, or mono-lingual, nor was Europe as a whole, much less all the shores of the Mediterranean. We know this, our research shows it: journeys, movement and connections, not politico-geographical ethno-national boundaries reverse engineered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are increasingly structuring our fields of study. Pointing out the errors and mis-representations that litter the landscape of works in The Real Middle AgesTM mold is a worthwhile endeavor, but unless we follow through by changing our own practices, we are just shouting into the Stormfront of white supremacy.  We need to not just interject into conversations that are already happening in the public sphere – although that in itself is important, and can happen in a multitude of ways. We also need to look to what we can do through our own scholarly to shape the ways that the Middle Ages will be re-imagined in the popular culture and the academy of the future.

The old dichotomies are breaking down. Medieval Studies scholars, increasingly under pressure to attract student numbers and show the relevance and impact of their material, and are turning to medievalisms, particularly popular culture medievalisms, for help. Eco’s now infamous dismissal of “fantastic neomedievalism,” contrasted with “responsible philology,” a binary which held sway into the twenty-first century has crumbled under the pressure of theory and evidence into what David Marshall has termed a “haze of medievalists.”

There is no quick fix for increasing diversity – racial or other kinds – but as Michelle Warren suggests in the first post of this blog series, “just about anything can be a contribution… [and] transformation is possible.” And the two things we all do are teach and research. We are at what could become a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the medievalist academy, if we do it right.

Research like the Global Chaucers project, and the forthcoming Studies in Medievalism volume on medievalism on the margins highlight examples of resistance to normative narratives. Historical authenticity does matter to producers and consumers of popular culture, and making research available in forums that are accessible and affordable to them is another move towards change.

Change in the classroom matters too, because other than then lucky few whose research really hits the big time (how many academics can live off their book royalties?), we’ll have far more students than we’ll ever have readers.

Teach something that makes you uncomfortable, teach something that challenges the things you were taught and how. Teach the Prioress’ Tale and talk about entrenched anti-Semitism. Teach Richard Coer de Lyon with its cannibal Crusader king. Teach being Black in Camelot. Teach Medieval Studies and Medievalism that resists monolingual, monocultural, monoracial heritage. Teach Game of Thrones to deconstruct its ideologies. Teach Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro instead of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Teach Spenser’s The Faerie Queene alongside Saladin Ahmed’s fantasy short-story of a Muslim character stuck in that poem (podcast here). Teach something that makes you turn your dissertation upside down and look at it from underneath. Teach something that makes the Middle Ages belong to everyone, not just a monochrome few.

If we repeat the same stories about the Middle Ages then we’ll keep seeing those pages, folded and refolded in popular culture, and, ultimately, we’ll keep telling them to the same people. Dorothy Kim has just powerfully argued that we should not be silent. We should speak in our classrooms and at conferences and in every forum not just to rebut and refute and intervene and interject, but to take away the privileged trade-mark that is currently attached to The Real Middle Ages.