Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies

by DOROTHY KIM [Guest Posting]

Here's our second posting in a series on #diversity and (medieval) academia. The first in this series was by Michelle Warren (on twitter: @MichelleRWarren). This posting comes to us from Dorothy Kim (on twitter: @dorothyk98).

[EDITED 24 August 2014: In this thread, note postings by Helen Young (on twitter: @heyouonlineand Jonathan Hsy; also note Karl Steel in a related thread here and here.]

Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies

            Since Kalamazoo, I’ve attended probably half a dozen conferences, talks, workshops in the US, Canada, and the UK. I have also listened in on several other conferences via Twitter. I will come back later this month with thoughts about what I am observing in medieval Digital Humanities (linked-open data is your friend+the importance of federated sites) and what a summer of conferences has told me about the state of medieval English studies. But this post is about diversity and medieval studies, or as I have titled it, “Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies.” This is one in a series of posts that will consider non-normative bodies and their presence in Medieval Studies.
            I saw more diverse bodies at the Medieval Congress at Leeds and New Chaucer Society in Reykjavik, Iceland this summer than I have ever experienced at a Medieval Studies event. My expectations, and usually this is the norm, are that I will either be the only POC (person of color) or non-normative body in the room at a conference or one of a tiny group. Very rarely do I attend a Medieval Studies conference that includes POC, visibly differently-abled individuals, and non-gender normative folk. So my expectations are that the conference will have a high proportion of white, cisgendered men of a certain upper-middle to upper-class socioeconomic background. This does change when I attend something more focused on questions of gender—for example, this was not the demographic at the International Anchoritic Society conference in late April.
            However, as I happily saw at Leeds and New Chaucer Society, the demographics are shifting, and these two conferences have been the most diverse conferences that I have attended in Medieval Studies. I was not alone or even in a small group of non-normative bodies. What a wonderful thing. But not so wonderful is what the increased presence of divergent bodies may mean in our field. What does it say about the potential for abuse and what is needed to move beyond just saying diversity is a good thing.

Divergent Bodies and Abuse

An increase in non-normative bodies in a traditionally white, cisgendered, male field also comes with an increase in abuse. The abuse directed towards those bodies causes irreparable harm. They can range from daily microaggressions to more aggressive, violent stalking, threats, and physical abuse. The point of the abuse is always for the same reason—to put the divergent body in its place—and specifically in Medieval Studies as not in any way an “authority” in this field. This is about both actual medievalist bodies (those who work on medieval studies) and also the bodies we study within medieval studies.
            Many people have written about academic microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality, disability [numerous IHE and Chronicle articles in the last two years: for instance, this advice on mentoring minority faculty members]. There is even a very well-received and excellent book devoted to this topic in relation to class, race, and gender in academia called Presumed Incompetent; see also the newest one). Social scientists have even made this into a topic of study in considering the psychological and physical effects of everyday microaggressions related to gender, race, disability, etc.[1] There are numerous resources, articles, studies, discussions, cartoons, and even a web series (Tales from the Kraka Tower) out there to read, reflect, research. In addition, as critical race theorists and numerous public news articles have discussed, racism (along with sexism, ableism, etc.) is structural. If you are at all following the Twitterfeed from #Ferguson, this should be incredibly apparent. This is not about individual choices and beliefs, but systematic structures that create inequity and harm. Or as one recent article in the Seattle Times explains in an op-ed discussing intention over impact: “We are taught that racism must be intentional and that only bad people commit it. Thus a common white reasoning in cross-racial conflicts is that as long as we are good people and didn’t intend to perpetuate racism, then our actions don’t count as racism. But racism doesn’t depend on conscious intent. In fact, much of racism is unconscious. Further, when we focus on intent we are essentially saying that the impact of our behavior on others is irrelevant.”

            Our field has a complicated history in relation to divergent academic bodies—and by this, I mean those that are not white, cisgendered male, able-bodied, upper middle-class/upper class, and European. But on an everyday, daily level or in a larger more concerted way, medieval studies has not addressed what the presence of divergent bodies may mean to the field.
As I have previously written, medieval studies has had a long history of divergent bodies as part of the field’s history including the presence of the first Pierpont Morgan manuscript librarian—an early member of the Medieval Academy of America—who passed as Portuguese and white, but who was African American.  More recently, the field has splintered over whether to boycott the MAA’s Arizona conference because of SB1070. Our field’s history has never been exempt from dealing with race and the politics of divergent bodies. It is high time we as medievalists begin to address what the visibility of more divergent bodies means to our field more directly, more robustly, with more active voices.

Abused Bodies: Everyday Microaggressions

             One recent example of how racialized bodies are abused happened recently. At the New Chaucer Society Conference, I spent a portion of my conference tweeting one night at #NCS14 in a “twitter rant” or “PSA.” In it, I related the incident of another junior colleague who had an incident happen to her at one of the NCS cocktail hours. In it, a cisgendered, male, able-bodied, and white junior colleague decided to articulate vocally his surprise that she, a WOC (woman of color) medievalist, had such a “good job.” Likewise, he also proceeded to school her in how she should be a medievalist by suggesting that she should teach “ethnic fantasy literature” to undergraduate students. My colleague replied, I have neither expertise in ethnic literature nor in fantasy fiction. However, even this clear response did not seem to stop this male white medievalist from explaining her place in the academic world. And her place is apparently not one of authority in medieval studies—where she has completed a Ph.D., written peer-reviewed articles, and obtained an academic job—entirely because her body is non-normative.
Intersectional racism/sexism means that my colleague’s non-normative body will always have questions and “advice” like this lobbed at her (and yes, also lobbed at me). Likewise, no one will ever ask or “advise” this white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied white junior faculty member to teach ethnic fantasy literature or wonder surprisingly or loudly about the fact that he has obtained a tenure-track job in medieval studies. This is a classic example of white, male privilege. And yes, his comments to my WOC colleague are a form of racism (racial/gendered microaggressions). The structures within academia and our field have imagined authority as white, male, upper-middle class, and cisgendered. Divergence from this standard operating body is imagined as a disturbance.
After my #NCS14 PSA discussing this incident, I had several senior colleagues ask if I was OK the next day. I replied, oh yes, that PSA was not about me and I am currently fine, thanks for asking. But on further consideration, I wish I had said, actually, what happened to this other medievalist colleague is a normal everyday microaggression that happens to a group of us in medieval studies and the academy more generally.
This incident and others like it are a regular occurrence to medievalists with divergent bodies in the halls of academia, in medieval conferences, seminars, public spaces. This incident is “normal” and medievalists who are POC, gender non-normative, disabled, etc. have these everyday microaggressions occur regularly. And as a regular, often daily occurrence, it depletes us. As the studies show and as so many academics of color have discussed, all of this is exhausting; it creates everyday physical harm. It requires us, the divergent bodies in this field, extra labor to combat these constant attacks on our authority, our place in the academy, and even our safety.

Abused Bodies: The Policing of Medieval Studies

            Everyday microaggressions are one part of the abuse thrown at divergent bodies in medieval studies. If this is at one end of the abusive continuum, at the other end is the kind of stalking, harassment, threats, and physical abuse that happens. Recently, the very popular Tumblr medievalpoc has opened up about the death threats she has received as a POC discussing and showing non-normative medieval bodies on the Tumblr site (see here and here). She has been threatened, digitally stalked, harassed, and sent death threats. All because she dares to be and shows divergent (i.e. POC) bodies in mostly medieval images.
Her Tumblr is genius and a constant reminder that the medieval past has not been nor will ever be a neutral space. She has worked tirelessly to spread these images to the public. She has started to accept donations for her work on Tumblr, I encourage every medievalist to support and broadcast her efforts and also donate if you can. The medievalpoc Tumblr is an incredibly important node in our field. It needs support, encouragement, and defense against those who wish to tear it down. Non-normative digital bodies and abuse on Twitter and Tumblr have been well discussed in the following articles (here, here, and here). And as #raceswap amply showed, switching one’s digital avatar—one’s digital material face to the world—completely changes the dynamics of how even digital interactions happen.
            But if the ongoing abuse at the medievalpoc Tumblr is one example of what happens to divergent bodies in medieval studies and the academy, then one should also consider Professor Ursula Ore and her physical assault on the Arizona State University campus because she happened to walk across the street from a building to her car after teaching a late class.

Bodies matter—whether digital or materially in the flesh—and divergent bodies in a field that has been predominately white, cisgendered, able-bodied, and male stand out. Our divergent bodies by our very presence create small and large waves. The reaction to our bodies is often abuse from everyday microaggressions to more serious death threats and physical assault.

Pushing Back and Refusing: Bodies that Count

But what can medievalists do beyond reaching out with sympathy and useful advice? I once discussed with a colleague how feminism is an everyday practice; likewise, saying you are committed to diversity should be an everyday activity. This means you must think about how to make all of our bodies count.
Sara Ahmed discusses how counting citations and considering gender inequity is a way to push back from masculinist genealogies. Likewise, you must consider counting the bodies on your academic panels, collected volumes, editorial boards, executive boards, departments, fields, fellowship and grant panels. If you want to see medieval studies become diverse and the academy become more than another preserve for white, male, cisgendered, male privilege, then you must begin to count. Counting can be a radical act that can push back on normative operating practices where the default setting is white, cisgendered, male privilege.
As this article discusses, even as black women’s bodies in academia have been under assault, administrators and faculty colleagues have remained silent, not supported, not fought back even when they have had tenure, protection, and more privilege. And many people, in the days since #Ferguson, have begun to ask what is the price of silence, what is the complicity enacted when one is silent. This excellent piece from Audrey Watters lays out some of these issues in relation to academia.

Medievalists, and particularly tenured medievalists, need to do more counting, more pushing back, more daily acts to work for diversity within your departments, scholarly societies, academic units, universities and colleges, and the academy at large. Otherwise, imagine that microaggressive incident at New Chaucer Society in the undergraduate classroom. Imagine what shooting down the interests of non-normative bodies in medieval studies will mean to this field. And to flip that scenario, imagine how students may treat non-normative bodies in the classroom.
For the small number of us in Medieval Studies with divergent bodies, we are often the only divergent body in the classroom. The experience Liana Ford writes about in the Chronicle for Higher Education is actually more common for divergent medievalists than the opposite. As Ford states in these situations, “the truth is, the presence of my body in that classroom was disruptive enough.” So imagine that not just in the classroom but across your entire professional field. I can vouch for myself, but I am sure my other colleagues with divergent medieval bodies will agree, that we count bodies daily. We have to in order to survive, to reassess, to recalibrate our approach into public spaces, professional spaces, academic spaces, classrooms.
If colleagues consistently and without impunity question the authority of divergent bodies in Medieval Studies, how do you think students and the general public react? What do you imagine academics asked to assess our work will consider when evaluating these divergent bodies for fellowships, grants, promotion, and tenure? Paige Morgan recently wrote about going through a Ph.D. as a game in which a player gains special skills, points, gifts to level-up in order to more deftly deal with obstacles to get to the end of the game—i.e. a completed doctorate. Likewise, I believe you can imagine the entire journey in the academy—from student to full professor—as a game with numerous obstacles. As this excellent piece recently in Feminist Wire explains, the playing field is never level for non-normative bodies in the academy because the academy was built for only certain bodies—male, cisgendered, privileged ones—it was not built and it has not changed enough to comfortably accommodate others. As the article quotes Ahmed, “privilege is an energy-saving device” (Ahmed, (2013; from Feeling depleted? feminist killjoys). The rest of the article intimately, on a very daily basis, explains how much the academy creates these daily harms because it’s default setting is to only read male, white cisgendered, privileged bodies “as smart, as academic, as belonging; smartness is already mapped onto his white, male, able-bodied self.” In the game of academia, non-normative, divergent bodies have layers of extra obstacles that deplete their energies before they can get to the obstacles that allow them to move forward.
         While in London, I ended up watching a BBC2 program on the Hundred Years War. Though the program had a female medievalist as host, every single one of the medieval “experts” where able-bodied white men. Even to a public audience, the authority of medieval studies is imagined only for these bodies. Medieval studies needs to address how comfortable we are with the face of our field: the quintessential face of white male privilege (down to the plummy and “appropriate” British and American accents). We need to fight in little and large ways if we want this face (and voice) to change. Of course, my assumption is we do want this to change, but I know there are medievalists that do not see the need for these demographic shifts. That belief is what critical race theory labels structurally white supremacy and I have nothing to say to those bodies who feel this way.
I want to finish by quoting Nguyen and Catania’s powerful Feminist Wire piece because it encapsulates so much of what I am trying to frame: “Thus, we urge every-body, but especially those in positions of power (i.e., tenure-track and tenured faculty) to name oppression. To name sexism. To name ableism. To name racism. To be cognizant of how these -isms intersect to violently oppress and privilege particular bodies and identities.” Particularly with recent events (#Ferguson) in the United States and the clear way this country’s and its institutions anti-blackness have been laid bare, I think it’s time to end the silence, to end the complicity, to be more vocally mindful and reflective of how divergent bodies move through the academy.

This blog and the following blog postings on this topic will be a way to publicly reject silence on this topic because as Audre Lorde so eloquently states, “your silence will not protect you.”  

[1] Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.


  1. @Dorothy: This is an excellent posting. It covers so much ground (applicable to the entire profession, not just medieval studies!) and these are just the sort of conversations we MUST have, and we must have them NOW. I'm sharing this widely.

  2. This post is both brilliant and timely; thank you for composing it, Dorothy. To your list of what marks the supposedly unmarked bodies of medieval studies ("white, cisgendered male, able-bodied, upper middle-class/upper class, and European") I would also add Christian, especially because a shared religious identity is still so often (and lazily) presumed at gatherings of medievalists.

    As a next step, we need to think more about how we make medieval studies a more accessible space for divergent bodies starting even before graduate school.

  3. @Jeffrey: YES thank you for that. We're on the same wavelength here: Your idea of how to make medieval studies "a more accessible space" (in ALL senses of that phrase) -- even BEFORE grad school -- is what my blog post will address.

  4. @Jeffrey: I hope it's OK if I quote you on that point about presumed shared religious identity too -- that's something I'd like to work into the post as well.

  5. Anonymous11:00 AM

    I found this fascinating, and nodded along while I was reading (despite being personally very ignorant of a lot of the experience described, because I'm lucky).

    I can't think of many formats for sharing ideas that are more intimidating physically than an academic conference. You're often in a room with nowhere to write your notes but on your lap, everyone near you can see how you write, and if you use a laptop you risk distracting people or having them think you're discourteous (in my experience). It makes me very conscious I'm dyslexic/dyspraxic and therefore clusmy, especially when I'm tired - and I write in appalling five-year-old handwriting with a lot of misspelling.

    It is intimidating having someone look over your shoulder and see that. I don't know if it counts as a 'body' issue, but feels like it!

    I do love the chance to socialize and talk face-to-face, but it would be lovely if there were online alternatives to conferences that were valued to the same extent.

  6. Great post, Dorothy!

  7. One of the many excellent points that the medievalpoc Tumblr's poster makes is that bodies of color are not non-normative in European art: they are everywhere, only excluded by some C20/C21 gatekeepers.

  8. Yes, Jonathan, please do.

  9. @Jeffrey: Thanks, will do!
    @Sharon: Totally. A retrospective filtering of the historical past (more on this in the next blog post in this series...)

  10. @readingmedievalbooks: Thank you for sharing your experiences. Of course this counts as a "body issue" that we should be more mindful about! There is not just "one way" all people write/type/take notes/participate in conference settings and people shouldn't make assumptions about people who do things "differently" than most others.

    Rick Godden has a GREAT blog "ParaSynchronies" and you might be interested in his posting entitled "Humanities Accessed," about assumptions we make about note taking behavior; also some of the ways that online media is is one way for people to engage and participate.

    You are right though that the face-to-face is still the "privileged mode" and I wonder if there can be more creative ways to value online interaction and have it "count" in all the personal/professional ways we want it to.

  11. This is the first of your posts I've read. I'll be reading regularly, if this is any indication.

  12. @Jordan: Ooh, a new reader! Thanks for reading and hope that you'll keep following us. We will be continuing a series of postings about issues relating to race, diversity, and academia... and of course all sorts of wacky medieval stuff.

  13. Anonymous9:23 AM

    Thanks, Jonathan, both for that kind comment and the blog recommendation! I have come across his wonderful blog before, but must look again.

    I should have commented before that it's conferences that give me a (tiny) taste of what it might be like to have a much more non-normative body, really.

  14. I'm still trying to parse Patronizing Cisgendered White Junior Prof's comment about teaching "ethnic fantasy" literature. Not so much the "ethnic" part, that's sadly obvious to understand. But why he went to "fantasy" literature in the first place: SNUH?

  15. @RB: I wouldn't waste too much time trying to parse PCWJP's comment but I do think the leap to "fantasy" is intriguing: says so much about assumptions about 1. what counts as "real" or "serious" literature and 2. who is qualified to teach "serious" literature.

  16. It also occurs to me that perhaps we need a word for that kind of "helpful" comment. #Medievalistsplaing?

  17. Oh, I'm not agonizing over his idiotic remarks. Just pondering the genre recommendation, and I think you're exactly right: fantasy is a devalued genre in the overall hierarchy of literature. In particular, it's seen as the feminized Other of hard science fiction. So there's a perfect storm of assumptions here: gender and ethnicity and race combining.

  18. @Rob: Regarding "the feminized Other" and "perfect storm of assumptions here: gender and ethnicity and race" -- YEP. In other words, PCAWJP is the "perfect storm" of "major jerk on all fronts." To put it mildly.

  19. Bookmarked this. I am working on a proposal for a book on cities and communities, mostly around place-based interactions, but this posting and the series are causing me to think about devoting a chapter to the "place" of the mind itself, the mental community(ies) we maintain and must challenge. Thank you.


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