[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.
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.
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.’”
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?