Thursday, November 20, 2014

Creating Alternative Communities (finally)

by Mary Kate Hurley

[Before you read my (very, very long) post, check out Jonathan's post about Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Exciting stuff.  I also want to take a moment, in this pre-preface, to thank Lynn Arner (Brock University) for giving me the opportunity to be on an absolutely fascinating panel on Institutional History. Moreover, I want to thank all of my (anonymous) respondents, who spent time and energy being thoughtful about BABEL, and especially Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman, who took the time to respond to a number of my questions at great length while being very, very busy.]

After quite a long time – and as part of a three-part series of posts, including both my paper from BABEL Santa Barbara (it was COSMIC) and my reflections on the conference itself  (eventually) -- I wanted to finally post the material of my talk from New Chaucer Society, now four months in the past. Time does funny things in academia: one of them is the way that the fall semester rolls over everything like a wave, picking up speed through syllabi and name-learning, until suddenly with a crash it is midterm, then Thanksgiving, and it’s hard to say why or how so many months have passed. That’s another way of saying that I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get this up on the blog. In any case: these were the things I was thinking in Iceland. I’m looking forward to writing, as I once did for Boston, about the moments that caught the light for me a few weeks ago in Santa Barbara.

So: what appears below is a transcript of the paper I delivered at NCS, which people respectfully did not tweet. I was and am grateful for that, #medievaltwitter -ati! Another thing this transcript cannot really contain is the lively q & a period, where multiple people addressed some of the concerns I raised in the paper. Most importantly, the concern about how BABEL participation might affect graduate students’ academic careers was called into question. I’ll let others name themselves in the comments if they so choose, but it was pointed out that many BABEL-affiliated graduate students, including myself, are now BABEL-affiliated faculty members across the country. So perhaps it’s not an either-or situation any more than academia as a whole is either-or. And I at least would like to think the lines are not so clearly drawn: I spent a great deal of time at NCS just talking to people about my paper and about BABEL, and I’d like to think that what BABEL puts front-and-center—friendship allied with critical inquiry—is not unique to BABEL, and is in fact an important part of the profession as a whole. But I’ll leave that to the side for now, and focus on the blogging before me: my long-awaited blog post of my NCS paper: “Creating Alternative Communities.” You can see my Prezi, which I learned to use just for the event, here.  I've reproduced a few screenshots from it below.  I apologize if there are any infelicities or typos -- I've done my best to eliminate them.  I should also say that there's a short afterword that you should check out too, at the end.  

Creating Alternative Communities (July, 2014)

The organizing principle of this paper might well be best described as precarious: I asked questions without really knowing in advance what I would find. In fact, my own position giving this paper is somewhat precarious: BABEL has been and continues to be very close to my interests and projects as a theory-minded Anglo-Saxonist with post-Conquest tendencies and soft-spot for manuscripts and philology. Yet, and I think we can agree on this at least – BABEL is a group that inspires (or provokes) at least as many feelings as it does thinkings. In my informal survey, I asked a number of questions, some of which I wasn’t sure I would want to know the answers to, in the hopes that taking a good hard look at the group would help me to better understand where the group has been, and where it is going, and what might help the group continue to survive and thrive in our precarious institutional world. I also believe that the criticisms leveled at the group should be heard and considered carefully, especially as it relates to the increase in adjunct positions in the university at the cost of tenure-track ones. This precarity is something within which we must all now live, BABEL members or not.

A few preliminary pieces of information will contextualize my remarks today, and will help demonstrate the admittedly informal methodology that I attempted to employ. I received 46 responses to an informal survey I posted, from a representative sampling across both professional levels and relative levels of involvement in the group. To help create a broad base of data, I did recruit some people who do not feel that they are a part of BABEL in a classic sense. If there is a bias in terms of who responded to my survey, it’s that I did ask a lot of people I know personally, and with whom I have ties over social media including Facebook, Twitter, and the blog In the Middle. Thank you to everyone who responded, anonymously or not. Although my initial survey asked for names and affiliations to go with responses, I have chosen to excise all names in favor of anonymity for sources. My reasoning in doing so takes its impetus from BABEL’s own attitude toward hierarchy: all views, positive and negative, should have the same weight.

My questions are focused on respondents’ experience of BABEL as well as its perception in the field. [note: you should look at the slide reproduced below to understand these points] In particular I want to draw out three points about them. First, I separated the positive and negative perception questions, in the hopes that this separation would encourage reflection on both sides of that particular coin. I asked questions specifically about graduate students and their place in BABEL. I also addressed one question as a reflection on the problem of adjunct labor in the university. I cannot speak to everything that has been said in this survey, but what I will do is assess broad trends in how people perceive and respond to BABEL. To begin, a brief history of the group will contextualize survey responses. I will follow with representative ideas from responses to my informal survey, and then think about ways forward. So, to history.

The mission of the BABEL working group is one that intersects a number of critical questions, narratives, citations, ideas, and ideals. At the center of the group is a commitment to theoretical lines of inquiry as one way of engaging in humanistic study, and to the idea that medieval studies can be and is central to the ongoing humanities. The online BABELegend puts it thusly: “It has to be stated unequivocally that BABEL has NO coherent ideology, only a passion for certain questions–as in, what is the future of the humanities, and what is at stake in either having or not having a humanities in the future? If we have one philosophy at all it is to devote ourselves endlessly to proposing all the possible answers without ever exhausting the political energy of the questions.” The group was created around 2004, and the main “leaders” or “organizers” are Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman. Myra describes their work in the following way: “I'd say Eileen was and remains the Primary Visionary, while I was and remain the Earliest Adopter. In other words, she tends to throw out ideas that at first sound quite unlikely, however desirable, and in many (certainly not all!) cases, I leap right on board and fully commit to making it happen.” The group has engineered a number of endeavors in the past ten years, including a biannual conference (its third iteration taking place in Santa Barbara in October 2014), a vibrant new journal, Postmedieval, and a slew of panels at conferences. BABEL has, in Eileen’s estimation, “helped level the playing field of who ‘counts’ within medieval studies, such that the PhD student and early career researcher is on an equal footing with more senior scholars when it comes to advancing the field (you never know where your best ideas might come from), and also has been successful in fostering and making more public/established (via conference sessions and publications) more creative approaches to the field of premodern studies.” Eileen’s characterization of the group’s accomplishments resonates strongly with the responses I received to my survey of the field, the results of which I will turn to now.

My findings in the survey came to some particularly interesting trends and conclusions. Importantly, I think, the positive and negative views of the group are densely interrelated, and I think that from this particular conjunction we can begin to see a pattern emerging around the current state of the field – both intellectually and in terms of the precarious state of the university.

According to the survey that I’ve done, the consensus seems to be that BABEL’s positive contributions to medieval studies seem to be largely grouped into: support for junior scholars and graduate students, community formation, and intellectual innovation. A number of respondents noted that the group “brings young scholars to the fore.” Most notably, the group has a real affinity and affection for graduate students and contingent scholars: moreover, it succeeds at “offering a supportive environment for graduate students and younger scholars who can interact with senior/more established scholars in ways that are more informal and less rigidly hierarchical.”

The question of community is a particularly important one to medievalists, especially as many of medievalists find themselves, in one respondent’s words, “starting out as the lone medievalist in my current job.” This person found that “BABEL was a lifesaver. The sense of fellowship, support, and intellectual discovery that all members provide for each other is remarkable.” Another respondent notes that “BABEL has a myriad of positive effects, most notably [that] it has fostered an inclusive and dynamic community of scholars across rank, discipline, and country.” I think that these dynamics can be seen particularly well in the composition of the group’s conferences, which include everyone from medievalists to theorists to planetary ecologists.

A repeated point that I found in the survey responses is that BABEL creates space for different kinds of scholarship, for “intellectual projects that don't quite ‘fit’ anywhere else.” Another respondent notes that “At its best, BABEL fosters a sort of academic catholicism, giving air-time (as it were) to many different theoretical or methodological priorities. It can be methodologically inclusive. And obviously fostering that sort of discussion is an important thing, lest we end up falling into theoretical camps a la 80s/90s and fail to see what we can learn from one another.” The marriage of theoretical interests with the quirky or inventive projects that might not otherwise find a home was a repeated refrain – seen most clearly in one response which averred that “The idea that there is more than one way to "do" academia and academic work is extremely valuable.” This value, I think, stems in part from the difficulty our field continues to face in a contracting market. If even the most solid work might not be quite enough to secure a job, then maybe experimentation can be more meaningful, because “playing it safe” doesn’t guarantee a home anymore, if it ever did.

  These positive traits come with their negative counterpoints. These can be grouped broadly as a perception of the group as engaged in “cliquishness,” the potentially superficial nature of the scholarship done within it, and more concerningly, the effect it might have on the very graduate students it tries to support. One respondent puts it quite bluntly, saying that “It's become a clique. The cool kids are in; those who practice old fashioned sorts of things like philology are out.” This problem of the idea of “cool” seems to be based in large part on the prominence of critical theory in the group. One respondent gave a particularly interesting response to it, noting that “While I am perfectly comfortable talking theory and enjoy learning from my theory-minded colleagues, I generally feel that I am not welcome in BABEL conversations. It may be that my non-theoretical work does not easily fit within the group's larger discussions, but I also get the impression that my disinclination to do theory for theory's sake makes me and my work uninteresting to the group.” Another colleague writes, “They generate conversation, which is a good thing. They generate angry conversations, which is not a good thing.” This sense that only “theory” counts can also be read as an investment in theory itself that eschews the medievalist origins of many of the groups’ members.

The question of the nature of the work done by the BABEL group is a particularly sustained criticism of the group. As one respondent put it, “I'm not always sure the work presented in Babel sessions is serious. I don't mean that it's on unserious topics, but in the sessions I attended a number of the papers sounded rhetorically wrought, but not necessarily based on deep, sustained thought.” Importantly, the prominence of rhetorical sophistication at the cost of less “flashy” coherence seems, simultaneously, to be a product of the experimental nature of some of the work -- Such work, as another colleague pointed out quite presciently, “will necessarily have failures. The problem is that those failures are likely to give people of a more traditional mindset pause about the value of most of the work that is carried on by BABEL.” This problematic relationship to the “traditional” work of medieval studies has a particular affinity to criticism of the group’s effect on graduate students. Although many of the responses suggested that BABEL is quite good for graduate students because allows them to take a central role, there was a repeated if oblique concern on the part of the respondents that BABEL might make getting a job more difficult for graduate students, especially as, as one respondent put it, is that “grad students may be encouraged to publish too early and also falsely led to believe that their work is of higher quality and more polished than it is in fact. Grad students may be led to put too much emphasis on modern theory and to overlook some of the basics of medieval studies or literary studies in general, such as close reading, manuscript or historical or cultural context.” Interestingly, this response in particular seems to touch on the precarious nature of the market in which we function, in which a student’s public persona can be a help or a hindrance to their eventual place within – or increasingly, outside of -- academia.

The stresses of a market that is in almost constant decline – for the humanities and elsewhere – is a particular concern of many respondents, and I want to segue to that now.

The non-traditional mode that BABEL promotes emphasizes an experimental aura, one that seems to mark a departure from traditional approaches to scholarship. However, despite the radical inclusivity of the group, the perception is that it doesn’t always make room for people who do not share its interests or participate in its conversations. To borrow from one of my respondents, “Every We-system is also a They-system" (a quote, I understand, from Gravity’s Rainbow). The structure of the group seems – and this was a point brought up by both people both involved in the group and outside it – to have an “inside circle,” as one respondent put it, which is unfortunate “since that's what Babel sought to remedy in the profession.” Although inevitably, I think, BABEL will never be everyone’s cup of tea, several of my respondents suggested that there is an “apparent lack of transparency in terms of process,” which leads some people to feel excluded. This resonates with points that both Myra and Eileen brought up in my email “interview” with them – because they are perceived as the only people through whom all ideas must go. Perhaps a greater structure to the group, with more transparent decision-making processes, and – I think importantly – open calls for papers for sessions and issues of postmedieval, might help to break up some of the vision of the group as a only “for” a select set of medievalists or scholars. Moreover, I think that distinguishing between BABEL itself – the big umbrella – and more niche groups that have emerged within and from it (Material Collective, GW MEMSI, eth press, In the Middle, etc) might help to ameliorate the sense of tacit exclusion so many of my respondents spoke about. The group could also do more to find new faces, as a number of people suggested – actively seeking to find people who are not coming from the same ideological or theoretical background, who might push the group, or parts of it, towards different ideas.

The second critique that I find particularly trenchant is related to the graduate student and early-career scholars. Anecdotally at least, there is a perception that a new journal like Postmedieval will not carry the weight with hiring committees that more established ones do, and moreover, that the perception of the group as a clique will make those publications less valuable to other hierarchies that judge our scholarly worth and productivity. With the growing concerns over adjunct labor in the university and the precarity of the very members that BABEL can put front and center, these two pressures have the potential to become catastrophic for careers that deserve to have a chance to succeed. As another respondent put it: “The experimental, the para-academic, is all well and good for people in jobs or with tenure, but is more dangerous / risky a mode for grad students or those on the market. The market - rightly or wrongly - still largely recognizes and rewards strong publication records in traditional venues. As a hiring committee member, I know my colleagues will favor an article in, for example, Medium Aevum, over a piece in a crowd-peer-reviewed BABEL publication.” This, I think, is the most specific pressure that increasing contingency can put on our profession. The stakes have never been higher for young academics, and anyone in a position that is no longer precarious is, I think, obliged to also think about how we help our younger colleagues find roles either within or without the academy. BABEL can play a role in these conversations – the spotlight it has granted to certain graduate students, myself included, is undeniable. But the group must continue to push its youngest members to produce work – theoretical or not – that stands up to the rigors of critique by members of our own field, and the university at large. Although being playful is important, and as BABEL so often reminds us, the work we do is *fun* -- I think we also have to emphasize that there can be such a thing as rigorous play, or playful work – and I’ll end with the criticism I found most haunting, in a certain respect: “Taking questions of academic merit seriously isn't always and only about ‘gate-keeping.’”

Afterword (November, 2014)

As I edit this document, it creates a telescoping effect in itself. I wrote this in July, and it is now November. The weather is eerily similar, but that’s because I wrote most of it in a rather rainy England, and gave the paper itself in Iceland.  But one thing that I haven’t stopped thinking about is the role of discourse communities in this conversation.  That really useful distinction called up by one of my respondents – that every we-system is also a they-system – really matters to me, because I think there’s always an exclusion at stake when “we” say “we”, whoever we are.  And I wonder, too, about critique and its place in the profession:  how do we respond to it, how do we work within its strictures to make the entire enterprise of scholarship better and more effective?  And most importantly, can we make room for conversations that aren’t just about what works, but also about what doesn’t?


Mary Kate Hurley said...

A note to explain my "don't tweet" request: as is probably clear, this was a very carefully orchestrated paper with a lot of difficult and intricate signposting of other people's words. I don't mind being live-tweeted, for the most part -- in this case, I just didn't want anyone else's words to be attributed to me, especially since I decided to make everyone anonymous. There was a paragraph about that, but as I mostly ad-libbed it, I decided to cut it from the post. It's the only major change I made to the paper in posting it here on ITM.

i said...

Thanks so much for this, Mary Kate. I'm having flashbacks to my job in project management, when we talked about things like "360s" and six sigma and stuff like that. By which I mean that the work you've done here is valuable labour for any organization: to ask "where are we, are we doing the work we mean to do, are we also perceived as doing that work, and where do we go from here." I trust Babel paid you your usual $400/hr consultancy fee.

More seriously though: any of these conclusions are up for debate, and as you noted, the greatest concern has been proven already not to be so much of a worry. But the critique is valuable, because work Babel does has to take it into account, even if it means respectfully disagreeing.

My own concern, one I expressed in the survey too, is that Babel is ALL ABOUT not being cliquey, but it is seen as such by many people. I think there are very practical things that can be done about that, and they don't need to come from the very centre of the organization either. We can all publicize CFPs for the conferences and the sessions we organize for them. (I note here with my head hung low that the two sessions I (co)organized for Babel Austin were by invitation.) Editors of special issues of postmedieval -- like yourself -- can publicize the CFPs for those widely rather than just having a blurb on the journal's site. I think the institutional culture is of arranging constellations of like-minded friend-scholars, and that can be so wonderful and thrilling in a way that a good salon is. I know this. But true openness means sending out a big ol' invitation to other people to join the party, and then pinging them with reminders that the party is really open. People need to be convinced. Let's convince them.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@MKH: Thank you SO MUCH for all your work in conducting this survey and for translating your NCS presentation into this blog post! It's a very timely piece -- thoughtful, honest, and insightful, and much to think about here as we (used in the most expansive way possible) think-together about what BABEL is/does/enacts now and in the future.

@i: Excellent suggestions here about CFP's as a way to move beyond the (perceived) core members; we should all be more creative in "mixing things up" (one big point about my most recent blog post about concurrent networked medievalist communities!). Keep inviting/including many kinds of people, keep showing that spirit of openness.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting, Mary Kate. I admit I get frustrated with some of the comments that came back from the survey, because they seem to be immune to correction no matter how hard some of us try -- esp. the one about BABEL as clique. I love that the latest conference tried new ways around some of that impression, like offering sign ups for dinners so no one felt excluded. I met some great new friends that way.

The concluding paragraph also has some statements harvested from the survey that I disagree with, especially about BABEL, play and rigor. This one in particular:
"Although being playful is important, and as BABEL so often reminds us, the work we do is *fun* -- I think we also have to emphasize that there can be such a thing as rigorous play, or playful work – and I’ll end with the criticism I found most haunting, in a certain respect: “Taking questions of academic merit seriously isn't always and only about ‘gate-keeping.’”"
I disagree with the implication here. All the work that I have encouraged others to undertake under the BABEL umbrella has been to my mind rigorous play and playful work. That's actually what the BABEL I know is about, rather than a possibility that resides outside of what BABEL does and needs to be sought. I'd like to think for example that that the two issues of postmedieval I've co-edited and the two books with punctum are just that (and all these projects intermix graduate students and senior faculty; I wish more venues outside of BABEL were attentive to that necessity).

The line about an article in Medium Aevum, over one in postmedieval getting someone a job made me wonder what kind of out of date advice is being given to those being trained in medieval studies. Maybe it is just my GW experience (that would never be true here!) and maybe it's just my experience with the BABEL affiliated graduate students who got good jobs because of their BABEL ties rather than despite them -- but it is hard for me to imagine that Medium Aevum opens gates and postmedieval makes gates remain locked. Again, I am just going on my own experience, but I think both journals can open many, it isn't an either/or, and many search committees (typically made up of many non-medievalists) are more interested in things like digital humanities and crowdsourced peer review than they are in traditional publication in a journal with a Latin name. That's not always the case of course but I think is true more often than not.

Finally, I will say -- since part of this post is about job market anxiety -- I have seen BABEL help grad students immensely in both jobs and publications by leveling the playing field for them a bit. It's a space where senior, junior, grad students mix and get to know each other. For many that has led to invitations that could not have otherwise been extended. I have seen the lives of several people profoundly changed as a result, for the better -- and can say that I am often asked informally by search committees to make recommendations for people doing BABEL inspired work. I'm speaking only from my own experience here but I have seen BABEL only as an aid to job market success. A search committee would write to me only if they are inclined a certain way, so maybe take that with a grain of salt; but still, that's my experience.

Angie said...

I'm going to leave comments on the job market and what Babel does for grad students alone, considering that I won't know the outcomes of the opportunities I've had (from both Babel and SMFS and even my institution ) are until later this year, or even next.

But what I find really frustrating is the way the "we" (BABEL) has become the "they" for some of these commenters. *They* don't do serious scholarship. *They* don't care about the non-theory things. *They* don't pay enough attention to manuscripts (!?!??! because so many medievalists do?!?!?) I am frustrated that the entire group has been painted with a single broad brush that seems to want only to re-marginalize any or all of the alternative modes of thought that have been welcome in Babel.

As I understand it, the group was created so that people could ask other questions *too,* aside from just the "responsible," historical/-cist, philological, and paleographical questions. That there might be some value in thinking about the Middle Ages as touching us in some way. It was never an argument that historicism et al. shouldn't happen, just that other things can happen as well.

But that isn't really my point either. As a person who takes manuscripts very seriously (as do many in the Material Collective), I find it frustrating that my work too is trivialized in these responses. I work with manuscripts AND theory (heavens forbid!), and in many ways both my advisor and Babel have provided supportive spaces in which I've felt able to take some early risks as I figured out how to bring these two things together. Not all of these risks paid off, but that's how experimentation works. You try something, if it fails you try again. You just try to "fail better" as they say in the sciences.

And it's these risks that are paying off for me. If I'd written a traditional medieval dissertation on a single author, I imagine I'd face the problem on search committees of someone asling "but why should we--non-medievalists--care about your lesser-known, not-Chaucer medieval text? Nobody reads that anymore." Not to mention the job pool to which I could have applied would have been severely contracted. That would have left 9 jobs for which I was eligible instead of nearly 30.

Babel is not a perfect group, and we have work to do as a community to address cliquishness and the perception of it, inclusivity, and frankly, diversity. But I don't think anyone would say the work they were doing wasn't both serious AND a labor of love (inside Babel or out). This accusation that finding joy or playfulness in our labors is somehow flippancy towards our subjects, our fields, and our jobs is insulting.

I'm trying to write with as cool a head as I can, but I have to admit, I'm experiencing a certain affect. I am sure that these respondents meant well, and that their answers were aimed to kindly inform us of potential downsides, but it has the effect of making those people echo exactly what the establishment has said all along: WE do serious work, our way is the (only) right way, and everyone else is either not serious or not intellectual enough.

Patricia Ingham said...

I want to chime in to thank Mary Kate for her very thoughtful paper and this very thoughtful post.

I have a few thoughts, coming from someone outside BABEL, but who thinks BABEL mostly does great stuff, and is very committed, although in different ways, to supporting the work of graduate students and early career faculty.

W/r/t inclusivity. I think one reason, in my opinion, that the claims of inclusivity don't always seem entirely "real" has to do with a certain level of defensiveness even outrage often leveled at scholars who hold divergent views, or are skeptical about this or that. First, I don't see why skepticism is necessarily threatening, or seems to need to be defensively fought against. Why not see it as an invitation to conversation? Not that it is in every instance, but I sort of run away from BABEL b/c of the level of defensiveness I sometimes experience. I just don't find defensiveness, while a human emotion and understandable in some ways, enabling for my thinking. So maybe that's on me. But less defensiveness would help me feel like the value of being "open" was being embraced as fully as possible.

And perhaps there are, indeed, some views that BABEL doesn't want to include. That's certainly okay--and in fact, I think of "inclusivity" in principle as both aspirational and impossible. And after all, in so far as BABEL prides itself (yourselves?) on being an "alternative community," you can't also be the mainstream community, right? You can't both be the only game in town and an "alternative" to it? Right? So I guess I'm just saying that exclusive groups can sometimes be important for political projects--though tricky, I know from experience. I remember a few women-only groups I was in during the early 90s that were very important for me. So there's that, too.

Finally, I'm not really a joiner. But why does it sometimes feel that because I'm not really a joiner, or because I don't feel overwhelmingly enthusiastic about EVERY thing BABEL does, that I am somehow a version of the enemy? (And this is, I suppose, a version of the point made in the survey that Jeffery objected to: that questions of academic merit aren't all gate-keeping questions. Nor designed to destroy you. And I don't see why such questions (or even the category of "merit"--there are lots of ways of adjudicating merit) are so threatening anyway, since there's plenty of meritorious, rigorous work that flies under the BABEL banner.)

PS: And Angie, as you know, I know, there's plenty of theoretically engaged work in teh field outside BABEL, so I don't think what's going on is mostly the old "theory" vs. "history" thing from the 90s. It may have features of that, but I don't this is the main divide. Again, just my opinion.

I write this with some trepidation. That's because I have been called a gate-keeper (and thus, BAD PERSON) both behind my back and to my face by some members of BABEL. (I've also been published by punctum and praised too, so I don't take this entirely personally, but I don't much like it either, to be frank.)

This is my third effort at a comment. I hope this works!

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

As someone who has lurked along the edges of the BABELian in various fora—here on ITM, the FB group for Material Collective, and as one of the recipients of the first James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for K’zoo in 2013—I’d like to weigh in on the question of inclusivity, we/they, and the perceived hostility to those not engaged in the theory du jour.

I think the issue can best be illustrated by looking at the first Michael Camille Essay Prize awarded by postmedieval in 2012. The theme was “Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity (conceptualized and imagined in any way the author sees fit)” – yet the 1st prize winner (which was certainly an outstanding essay, don’t get me wrong) was GW graduate student Haylie Swenson’s “Lions and Latour Litanies in The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.” Here’s what the judges had to say about it (from pm’s website): it “makes an important contribution to object-oriented philosophies, critical animal studies, and indeed the ethics of the artistic encounter…Finally, the essay makes a timely contribution to debates in animal/posthuman studies, fields in which postmedieval takes a special interest.”

It seemed to many of us at the time that “conceptualized and imagined in any way the author sees fit” really meant, “uses the trendy BABEL theories of OOO and animal/posthuman studies”—and essays that didn’t name-drop Latour and Ian Bogost and focus on animals rather than humans didn’t really ever stand a chance.

In other words: the sense of cliqueishness results from the fact (as Patricia Ingraham alludes to) that BABEL isn’t equally interested in all modes of academic inquiry—rather, it takes a “special interest” in particularly fashionable theoretical approaches, while shrugging its shoulders at more traditional fare. So of course those of us who aren’t focused on those trendy theories and aren’t spending our days thinking about the agency of the ecocritical (e.g.) are going to feel like we’re outsiders looking in. (But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t captivated by what we see!) Moreover, I’ve found that BABEL is often little interested in my particular subfield (theology), which means that when I do try to contribute to discussions of such theoretical approaches (as, for example, in trying to suggest that medieval theologians already had a mode for thinking about the agency of objects, i.e. the concept of sacramentality), my contributions, though always greeted with respect, aren’t really seen as constructive.

As I read through what I’ve just written, I realize that it seems to taste too much of sour grapes, which was never my intention (the perils, I suppose, of words that do not convey the warmth of heart with which they are written). I really do appreciate the work that BABEL does, and the various modes of theory that I have been to exposed to through it (to which I would never have been exposed otherwise) have fruitfully challenged me to better and different ways of thinking. Moreover, I have never been met with anything but kindness and generosity from Eileen, Myra, Jeffrey, and the other contributors to ITM—you all are true testaments to the humanistic, in the fullest sense of that word. (I just finished a week of reading Wisdom of Solomon with my students today, and I recall that at several points, the author calls Wisdom philanthropon—you, too, are lovers of humanity.)

(And I should acknowledge that the travel grant to K'zoo was for a "traditional" paper on the theological discourse of images in a 12th-century manuscript; and that, as a result of being able to give that paper, I was invited by the editor of an online European open-peer-review journal to submit a full article, which was then published. I owe BABEL for that one.)

Steve Mentz said...

A quick note about We- and They-systems, a phrase from Pynchon that I think describes a basic conditional of social relations. I didn't quote that line in my response as an attack on BABEL, which has been perhaps the most welcoming scholarly group I've encountered in my career. I simply think that it's in the nature of We and They to form themselves, no matter what we do to avoid or minimize or perhaps distort that basic social congealing. I suppose that's on some level a bad thing, like entropy or mortality, but I don't think it's a think we can dispense with.

The genius of BABEL, as I'm pretty sure I also said in my survey response some time ago, is radical play and openness, what Pynchon's goof-ball heroes call "creative paranoia" in GR. I might also add, though if anyone's read this far down in the comments you'll already have seen, that the Working Group incites deeper emotional connection than any other academic group I know. That's its core strength, and perhaps (I suspect) the root of some of the anxiety it provokes: emotions can be scary.

The profession, at least from my non-medievalist view from the margins, needs both "traditional" deep-dive archival and manuscript work as well as "newer" theory-driven analyses -- but we also need to find or create better ways to think about the relations among the different kinds of work we do. Friction, critique, and opposition seem perfectly fine to me, though like all scholarship these things work best when they emerge from real sustained attention to things we don't yet understand but are trying to. That's the project I understand BABEL to be invested in, in the halting, imperfect, visionary, and utopian way of all valuable projects.

Julie Orlemanski said...

Hi everyone,

I disagree with the accuracy of some of the survey responses -- like the idea that being involved with BABEL is likely (or more likely than not) to harm those looking for academic jobs. Search committees and hiring decisions implicate people from a number of fields, and BABEL tends to encourage (but of course does not automatically lead to) scholars making the conceptual and ethical stakes of their projects apprehensible across specializations. But these points have already been made in comments above; which comments have also challenged the rhetoric of "fun vs. rigor" and "me/us vs. them." Part of the BABELian project (ongoing, unfinished) is to break down those oppositions -- so to assume them and to frame criticisms in terms of them is to miss what is going on, or to hinder a fuller account of it. I would also never choose to answer such criticisms, or respond to them in practical terms, in ways that left those oppositions in tact. But again, points that were made below. [continued]

Julie Orlemanski said...

[oops; I meant "points that were made *above"]

I just wanted to say a quick word about how I might be inclined to think about whatever anecdotal evidence this survey provides. (On which note: MK, is the full bank of data available to other readers? I can imagine it being anonymized and responses grouped by question, with any idenitfying markers stripped. That strikes me as a way to make an archive of disciplinary self-reflection available to others to interpret and reflect on too.) My perspective stems from social-justice organizing, and I think it's relevant even though BABEL is not a social-justice or political collective. So: it makes sense to be aware of how people perceive one's group, one's actions, one's practices. But these perspectives should not legislate how we act. The project of the group, and the well-being and mutual aid of the group, are higher priorities. Of course, these ends never show up as easily perceptible and uncontested, so that's not the point. But it helps in pursuing those to know that winning over, say, the "mainstream media" or the majority of respondents to Gallop opinion polls (or, winning over everyone in the field of Medieval Studies, or scholarship at large, or everyone everywhere), is not the ultimate goal -- and mistaking that as a goal often leads us to deform and compromise the projects we're pursuing and one another's well-being. So, we can think about these survey results as facts that can be analyzed and considered for their practical and strategic import (and they should be evaluated as facts, with thoughts about how accurate or representative they are) -- but we should orient ourselves toward them, toward what they mean, from our stance of commitment and collective involvement.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Two quick points (I want to see what other people have to say):

Steve: I hope that it was clear in my paper that I too think it's a condition of social relations that every We-system is also a They-system. I'd never heard it articulated that way prior to your comments (being unfamiliar with with Pynchon, for the most part) -- and yet, it resonates very, very strongly.

Julie: just a note on the feasibility of making ALL comments anonymous and public. I don't think that's possible for this survey. The conditions of my call for responses were the respondents' choice of anonymity, citation, or simply inclusion in aggregate data, as well as restriction of the database to my eyes only and deletion when the project has run its course. I cannot change that post-facto in good confidence. I likely should have done something more formal, like Sylvia Tomasch's much more extensive NCS survey (which was also part of the panel during which I presented this paper) -- but hindsight is 20-20 after all. If someone else (perhaps the newly elected steering committee!) thought this anecdotal evidence holds any value at all, perhaps another survey could be be performed with the condition of publicly available but anonymous comments from the outset.

i said...

My own perspective is closest to Julie's: take these responses seriously, decide as an organization what is worth acting on or not. BUT, I think here is an issue that simply cannot be ignored:

There is a fundamental disconnect between Babel-as-intellectual-project and Babel as organization that seeks to change the way the academy works.

My own Babel is a place for intellectual freedom, where I can do things I otherwise wouldn't be able to. I think there's a response along those lines that came from me. Every single thing I've done in/with Babel was something that was on my heart, and wanted out. I haven't expected any kind of job-related advantage from any Babel-related things, and as far as I can tell so far, have not received any. (I can't tell, of course, but no one has ever said to me, "You were at the top of the list because of X".) So I think it's possible to say, "maybe traditional academic merit is not as important for us, because it would clamp down on creativity and ideas that needed out," because that's been precisely the value of Babel to me. And it would also be okay to say, "This is a group of like-minded people, not everyone has to feel included, because it's not pretending to some kind of all-inclusiveness but to the fertile work that comes from salons, movements, etc." For what I want to do, it is not quite as important what other people think of Babel or Punctum or postmedieval, since I benefit from them more as spaces of experimentation and freedom.

But then some of us don't have feet in doors yet, and maybe would like Babel-related work to count for hiring or promotion. And in that case, I propose, it matters a great deal what other people think about Babel as an organization and especially about the intellectual merit of Babel-related activity. It matters even if they are wrong. Actually, it matters more if they are wrong. For scholars who are still in precarious positions, esp. those who are crafting an academic persona that is deeply tied to the Babel project, the question of how the group is perceived should be very important. And if the group decides this *is* part of its mission -- not just innovating, but helping scholars to steady employment, then it needs to stop getting angry and start crafting a plan for how to change public opinion.

But again -- this is an open question. It has very much to do with the direction Babel chooses to take. I look forward to seeing where the conversation goes.

Chris said...

Mary Kate—

I would love to see the analysis of this survey (which, after all, is all about people's perceptions of the group) complemented with facts (or, as Julie puts it, accuracy) about the group. Have grad students associated with BABEL actually done worse than others on the job market? (It seems that the ones I associate most with BABEL have mostly done very well indeed.) As for cliquishness... Are the same people appearing again and again at BABEL meetings? Are people outside or tangential to the group put in positions of power within the group? (And how does this compare to other academic or para-academic groups?) (I suspect BABEL comes out looking pretty good here, but there are better ways of measure this than what I think.)

It's important to get a sense of what people inside and outside a group think about a group, but I'd like to see these thoughts put into better context—in other words, is BABEL living up to its reputation(s)? (Both its bad reputations and its good reputations!) Not that I want everything to be, you know, some tedious set of metrics to track—but a little of that can be useful for thinking about, wait, what is actually going on here?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Chris: I very much get where you're coming from, and would love better metrics than "what I think," but that wasn't really my project in this paper, which is of course an artifact of my admittedly insufficient procedure. I wanted to take the temperature of the field regarding BABEL, and to some extent (I think, I hope) my survey has started to do that.

And I'm glad people are returning to the trackable things that I didn't account for: I noted in the second paragraph before the post that in particular the question of "what about graduate students" may in fact be a red herring. It's important to keep pointing that out that it very well could be a red herring!

We can do this better -- I knew that when I proposed the paper, presented it, and posted it here. But I also think a place to start matters. I too would love to see context (I actually think metrics are great to track, because they are something we can hold on to and think about critically rather than simply feel about). But again, that wasn't part of my survey. I'm being completely honest when I say I didn't know what responses I would get, and given the turn-around time I don't know that I could really do much more than report what I found. I didn't think abstracting the data (it was only 46 respondents, after all) would yield useful numerical results as regards positivity or negativity. So I decided, for the project I undertook, that my purpose was to give a voice to the positive and negative positions about the group -- because I think what's NOT good is when we all "know" what people think and say (behind backs or to faces) but aren't talking about it publicly.

So if we need more context -- fantastic. Let's get it! This is not the type of work I do: I don't usually talk about people who are alive (and Beowulf doesn't tend to talk back), so I didn't know we'd need that context until I actually presented my preliminary findings, in Iceland and here. Hindsight is 20-20 (I say that a lot), and there are a vast number of things I'd do differently about this survey and paper, only some of which I've started to mention. BUT: My survey was meant to be a starting point, not an ending one. If we want context, let's track the facts and find some accuracy on both sides, as you and Julie helpfully put it. You're both on the steering committee, and that gives you access to information that I didn't know I'd need. Pull it together. Create a report to present at NCS16. Or BABEL15! I think ITM would gladly provide the space to post your findings. I'll gladly help, if my help is wanted, as will any number of people, I'm sure.

Arthur Bahr said...

I first got inspired by BABEL years ago, when I heard Eileen Joy speak at Kalamazoo on “creating the medieval studies that we want” (that may not be an exact quote; apologies if not). After attending the BABEL conference in Santa Barbara last month and reading this comment thread, I feel even more inspired by the group. I think it shows tremendous institutional and personal maturity that the leaders acknowledged the reality of the perception of cliquishness—even if they disagreed with the substance of the criticism—and took such active steps to combat it in Santa Barbara, most notably with the dinner sign-ups that Jeffrey mentioned above. Senior members of the group also took seriously and even sought out frank, difficult conversations on the subject well before Santa Barbara. My hat is really off to them for that.

I’ve thought about the clique criticism a lot, since it’s one that I used to agree with—and voice, to BABELians I felt comfortable with—and one that clearly also causes senior BABEL folks (by which I mean “founding and/or strongly affiliated,” not necessarily “tenured and/or institutionally powerful”) understandable frustration and pain. I think that a lot of the clique perception actually comes from something very positive, namely the fact that lots and lots of BABEL folks are really close friends, not just colleagues. Friends have shared histories and in-jokes that are not immediately legible to others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them part of a clique; it just makes them, well, friends. I think what people like me who long felt on the outside of that were really feeling was sadness that we didn’t have more true friends in the profession—while also feeling that, for whatever reason (for me, perceived differences in scholarly interests/methodologies, with lashings of shyness compounded by the stress of imposter syndrome), BABEL wasn’t “for us.” BABEL still won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine. It’s good, in fact, since as Julie rightly said above, BABEL can go only so far toward opening itself outward without becoming something other than what it wants to be, and it shouldn’t compromise on its core values. It feels to me, as an interested spectator and occasional participant, that the Santa Barbara conference marked a high-water (pun intended) mark for the organization’s openness to outsiders. It’s a sign of how much more open I, at least, perceive it to be as an organization that I feel comfortable posting a comment here, which I would never have done before Santa Barbara. I look forward to seeing what BABEL does next, and I eagerly anticipate joining in some part of it.

(Not to mention the fact that I can’t readily imagine where else I would have gotten to juxtapose—seriously yet/and playfully—Old English and compulsory figures. Thanks for that, guys.)

Eileen Joy said...

What's interesting and heartening about this whole thread is that, first, it both enunciates and re-affirms [but with new/not-my language] what I really believe should be a core part of the mission of BABEL [asking ourselves as a group, what we want, and then enacting that, as best we can, without always caving in to those who will possibly never be happy with us, while also remaining OPEN to the Other we can never anticipate in advance, and this requires, as Arthur points out, some occasionally difficult conversations where we don't always hear what we want to hear, but we say, "yes, let's work on that, we can be better"]. And second, the post itself opened up a space for voices to emerge here [that often do not emerge here] to express their discomfort and worries over that openness. I have, like, a gadjillion ideas about all of this, of course, but my voice is heard often enough. This is just a thank you for the post and for the emerging discussion, and also one correction of what might be called a sort of "sin of omission" [although *sin* is not the right word; that's too forbidding] --

Nathaniel, I just really kind of love your honesty in your comment. Part of me wants to chastise you for being "sour grapes-y," but then you kind of chastise yourself anyway. Your comment is a rare exemplum of personal honesty and it was brave. But I do, as the editor of postmedieval and manager of the Paxson award, have a responsibility to remind you and everyone that there were two other winners in 2012, alongside Halyie: David Hadbawnik and Alison Hudson, whose articles were brilliant but which did not take up any new so-called fashionable theories. Hadbawnik's essay, looking at a modern poet's appropriation of Chaucer, is, on on level, good old-fashioned source studies and intellectual history. Alison Hudson's essay was very historicist and also performed intellectual history; to whit:

Early twentieth-century English historians read the late tenth- and early eleventh-century Vitae Æthelwoldi and saw a monster: a capricious, arbitrary bishop who beat his monks and forced an over-achiever to put his hand into a pot of boiling water. However, the authors of the Vitae, Wulfstan of Winchester and Ælfric of Eynsham, had intended to glorify Æthelwold. They used the violent anecdotes to compare Æthelwold to the great monastic leader Benedict of Nursia and even to God, who ‘beats those whom he loves,’ according to Wulfstan’s citation of Hebrews 12:6. This essay traces how the cultural and social contexts of particular groups of scholars shaped these conflicting views of violence and of Æthelwold, bearing in mind Michael Camille’s exhortation to consider ‘the prism of modernity through which the Middle Ages is constructed.’

The essay that won this year by SJ Pearce is actually an intellectual history of *editing* practices! In Arabic philosophical and RELIGIOUS texts.

SO: do we have a bias toward certain theories in the Camille Essay Prize competition? Absolutely and unequivocally NOT. A cursory glance at all who have won the Paxson Travel Award will immediately find similar results.

But thank you for articulating what you feel/felt: again, that took guts.

Lara Farina said...

Ok, I tried to post this earlier, but I always have trouble proving that I'm not a robot. So I don't think it went through. Let's try again:

Thanks for opening up discussion on this topic, Mary Kate. The paper spurred good discussion at NCS, and I'm now reading these thoughtful comments with interest.

I just want to quickly comment on the way the job market is being invoked by some of the survey respondents, because it bothers me so much. The use of "the market" to admonish and threaten academics of all ranks (but especially non-tenured and grad students) is pernicious and often falsifying. It's almost always brought up as an easy way to shut all kind of things down--from new programs to traditional course offerings.

Yes, the competition for jobs is ridiculously steep. I'm as aware of that as anyone since I'm on two hiring committees at the moment. But this state of affairs is all the more reason for job-seekers to do what really inspires them. A "safe" dissertation topic isn't any more likely to get you a job than an experimental one. Further, very few people will be hired by colleagues in their own period or field; if you're a medievalist, you're much more likely to be hired by a combination of Brit Lit people, Americanists, rhet comp folks, and maybe a creative writer. None of these people have ever heard of Medium Aevum, Speculum, Exemplaria, OR postmedieval. Even letters of recommendation are so routinely over the top now, I'm not even sure that they matter much. What people want in a colleague is: enthusiasm, creative and perceptive thought, flexibility, collegiality, depth of preparation, and an ability to productively engage with others' work. There are many ways to put these qualities into practice.

What I like so much about BABEL is that the collective enables the cultivation of enthusiasm, inspiration, admiration, and affection together with the more usual pursuit of intellectual rigor, knowledge of archives, and refinement of writing. These are necessary and sustaining things, IMO.


ps., Arthur, I love what you wrote!

i said...

As a response to Lara's comment: I could not agree more that "the market" should not dictate the kind of work someone does. Whenever I've seen grad students talking about how they're going to shape their project to suit the market or the job listings, I've wanted to shake them and yell, "WHAT market? You can't predict what people will want in 3 years anyway, they won't all want the same thing, and even if you could predict it all, it doesn't mean you should do that. Besides, there might not be any jobs anyway. In fact, there probably won't. Do work that makes you happy."

Then I realised my own second comment may have contributed to the impression that I meant anything like that -- which I don't. Looking back at the original post, I notice that some comments about "market" refer to the work and methodology, and some refer to publication venue. I don't think any grad student, or faculty member for that matter, should shape their projects according to the methodology some other random person thinks is valuable. (I'd have to do 19th century philology, judging by what some Anglo-Saxonists think is appropriate work.) They should be shaped by passion, by interest, and by the demands of the materials themselves.

BUT publication venue is a different matter. It's an unfortunate fact of life that an older, more conservative journal can be cliquish, unprofessional, and dismissive and still retain much of its prestige on people's cvs, while a new, theoretical journal has to fight to establish its bona fides. But so it is. I think postmedieval and Punctum have been set up masterfully in that respect, with established names lending their prestige to newer ones, and I think it makes sense to protect and continue to build them in this way. *That's* where I think the accusations of cliquishness can do damage. It's also true that many committees might not be as attuned to the differences between medieval journals, but the eventual external referees for tenure will be.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...


Thanks very much for your follow-up. I think that, after some time for reflection, my comment very much represented how I felt about BABEL a few years ago -- but as you point out, the evidence speaks for itself about an openness to both method and topic that must be recognized. Moreover, I think that BABEL's advocacy role--that is, as an advocate for an academia that is supportive, friendly, and open, rather than combative, hostile, and cliqueish--has become far more apparent to me in the last few years, supplanting my original impressions of its boundedness to theory.

I still do often feel like I'm an outsider looking in on BABEL -- but what I want to emphasize is that I'm looking in with fascination and admiration, not begrudgement and scorn. (The outsider feeling is mostly due to the circumstances of being an adjunct teaching in rural America, without the time or resources to participate in the BABELian beyond the occasional blog comment. That is, it's my fault, not yours.)