Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How We Wrote: The Aftermath of Written Chatter

by Suzanne Conklin Akbari, with a few endnotes by Chris Piuma

How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page emerged out of an efflorescence of what I described, in the book’s introduction, as “written chatter” – blogposts, Facebook comment threads, tweets, emails – which generated a conversation that was subsequently crystallized in the thirteen essays collected in the volume. It’s clear that this is a conversation that struck a nerve in people: as Jeffrey Cohen pointed out in his blogpost on the occasion of the book’s publication by punctum books, the initial ITM blogpost by me and Alexandra Gillespie had on that date reached 8585 hits, and Eileen Joy wrote to me and Chris Piuma recently to say that the book itself – which is available at no cost as an e-book, though users are encouraged to support Open Access by contributing to punctum books – had been downloaded 915 times since its publication two weeks before. I say this not in any spirit of self-congratulation but as a fact: this is a conversation that was long overdue, and one that has opened up some doors to new opportunities, new encounters.

These new encounters were encouraged by making How We Write an Open Access publication: for a project that is all about community-building through the act of writing,* it was essential to take advantage of the spontaneity and speed of production as well as the freedom of distribution made possible by working with punctum books and the Open Access model. The impact made almost immediately by How We Write was made evident in an email I received a couple of days after publication:
Every weekday we pick one Creative Commons or free licensed ebook to promote. "How We Write" is our selection for today. is a website dedicated to the development of sustainable funding and distribution for Creative Commons and other freely licensed books. We are compiling a comprehensive catalog of these books while offering authors and publishers new ways to make their efforts sustainable. We recently  launched "Thanks for Ungluing" which lets creators ask readers for support for free works on our download link pages and from inside the books. Thanks for using a Creative Commons license!  Eric Hellman, President, Free Ebook Foundation and Founder, 
My initial response, I’m embarrassed to say, was “Is this spam?” But as soon as I looked up, I realized that something very interesting was going on. is a project committed to making books more freely available, and supporting the wider use of Creative Commons licensing. By making How We Write a featured book – not on the basis of any specific interest in the topic, but because of its publisher’s clearly stated commitment to Open Access – brought the project to a wider readership, and affirmed the principles of community-building that are essential to punctum books in general, and to How We Write in particular.

Other interesting conversational aftermaths, both in the form of “written chatter” and in the form of actual in-person chatter, have been abundant. I hope, too, that there will be much more opportunity to carry on this conversation at the upcoming meeting of the BABEL Working Group on 9-11 October, which features a session explicitly dedicated to “Counter-Productivity:Valuing Scholarly Processes,” organized by Marian Bleeke and Asa Mittman for The Material Collective. Their session asks the following questions: “What do you actually do when reading for a research project? …What do you do when you are thinking? When you sit down to write? …Have your practices as a scholar shifted over time and if so how and why?” These questions resonate with the essays collected in How We Write, with a shared focus on research – like writing – as process, and as a process that changes over time.

Among the many examples of written chatter already engendered by How We Write, let me give two short examples: emails from postdocs writing from two distant locations, echoing the geographical diversity that also underlies the essays collected in the book (xxi-xxii). Here’s a response from a postdoctoral fellow writing from a university in Israel:
As a postdoctoral fellow in the throes of converting my dissertation into a book, I look at a lot of writing blogs, books etc., and have become somewhat disillusioned with them. I took a look at "How We Write" because I thought seeing some other perspectives might be helpful (and also as a form of procrastination, I admit). Your essay was so incredibly helpful to me, because I, too, write the way you describe – long periods of procrastination, doing other things, and stalling, before finally settling in to write an entire chapter in a few days or weeks of concentrated work. I spend a lot of my time feeling guilty about this, and it is so great to read about other scholars who have a similar writing method and it works out for them. So thank you, so much, for this collection, and for your essay in it. 
And here’s another one, from a postdoctoral fellow in Norway:
I was made aware of How We Write through Derek Gregory. The anthology looks very interesting! I'm giving a talk at a PhD seminar about writing and would love to have a look at the anthology and tell my students about it, but it doesn't seem to be out yet, and the seminar is this Friday... I'm wondering if there's a chance I could get a reader's copy or something - a pdf - so that I could read it before the seminar and tell my students about it. Hope to hear from you!
These were wonderful messages to receive, on three different levels: first of all, Open Access – it was a delight to be able to respond to the postdoc in Norway with a link to the e-book, which he could use and then pass on to his students. Second of all: the extraordinary diversity of place in these responses, remote not only in physical location but also in terms of the web of connections that led each postdoc to the book. For the postdoc writing from Israel, the point of connection appeared to have been the various writing blogs she alludes to, where she may have found a reference to How We Write; for the postdoc in Norway, the connection came through the field of geography (two of the contributors to How We Write, Stuart Elden and Derek Gregory, had referred to their essays for the volume on their own blogs). Finally, the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of this community is perhaps most remarkable of all: these are people whom, in the normal course of things, I would never have run across – but through the collection, we are all in conversation. The postdoc in Israel writes to say, I recognize my own process in your account of your writing, and so we are together in this shared endeavor; the postdoc in Norway writes to say, I want to share the conversation of your book, which I learned about in a different conversation (either online or in person), within the conversation in my seminar. In other words, we are all part of conversations we don’t even know about. And that’s awesome.**

But there are also the conversations – some of them very tense conversations – that we do know about. An interesting and curious example of this appeared over the last few days, when I shared the book with some of the upper-level administrators in my workplace. There was initially much enthusiasm – “This is great!” – and expressions of eagerness to talk about the collection in university meetings of department chairs, where How We Write might provide a useful example of collaborative work on writing (a priority area, here at the University of Toronto as at many other universities). It might also be seen as exemplary in the way the book draws together contributions from such a wide range of academics: graduate students, postdocs, junior faculty, and those who are mid-career or senior faculty, including lower-level administrators. But then, I think, those upper-level administrators just may have noticed something that made them less comfortable: that is, the explicitly political dimension of the work that – while it is not foregrounded as much as it might be – underpins the collection as a whole and was, in part, a motivation for all that followed.

I am referring to the first essay in the collection, by Michael Collins, whose own blogpost (emerging from a roundtable at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto) was the starting point for the “written chatter” that bubbled up all around. Michael’s essay addresses his experience of the writing process, but he also does not hesitate to identify the all too practical economic substrate of the challenges that face today’s graduate students in the Humanities: namely, how to carry out doctoral studies on a very limited stipend, without taking on the burden of debt. His essay closes this way:
Institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time and energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted, like any other employees who are overworked, underpaid, and demonstrably unappreciated by the most powerful within the University (if they actually appreciated us as they claim to do, they would pay us what we’re worth). A lost generation of should-be scholars is forming around this problem. Fix it, and dissertations will get written. (How We Write 7) 
While I may be in for some uncomfortable conversations with the said administrators, I think that there is nonetheless a great value in generating them: through this aspect of the first essay, which acts as a cornerstone for the contributions that follow, we are reminded in the strongest terms of the human, physical, embodied reality of the writer, which – as many of the following essays make clear – includes times of suffering.***

In his blogpost, Jeffrey pointed out the “embodied” nature of many of the contributions: “The volume reassures that many ways of getting writing done exist, that they will likely change over time, that none are perfect, that all adapt to embodied experience (crying infants are a running thread in the book; let’s call it the Writing During Colic topos).” This is a strand that was evident to me on one level while editing the collection, but which became evident on a whole different level when I looked at the collection in retrospect. It’s clear that the embodied nature of writing is foregrounded in many of the contributions, from Michael Collins’ comments on the economic pressures that confront the grad student writer; to Maura Nolan’s account of how changing health circumstances affect how much (and when) the writer’s body cooperates with the writer’s desire to write; to Rick Godden’s account of the physical circumstances of writing in situations where a book being out of reach required him to “become skilled in the art of Google-fu” (80); and so on. Several of the contributors talk explicitly, as Jeffrey notes, about the challenge of integrating child-care responsibilities with the work of writing. While allusions to the impact of child-care on writing appear in many of the essays, it is interesting that the most explicit and detailed accounts appear in essays written by men. These include Steve Mentz on writing with a screaming baby on his shoulder (124-25), Dan Kline on juggling child-care with academic duties (137-38), and – most vivid and charming of all – Jeffrey Cohen’s daughter photobombing the photo of his writing space on the opening page of his essay (44).

What’s interesting to me, looking back on this, is how male writers – and, in particular, more senior male writers – are able to talk with increasing openness and honesty about the bodily challenges to the writer’s work, especially as these include family-care responsibilities. This is, without a doubt, a good thing. It’s striking, though, that women writers are still hesitant to foreground the interplay of child-care with the writer’s work. This may in part have to do with a continuing anxiety on the part of women scholars (especially those in more junior, and therefore less secure, positions) that acknowledging their role as mothers may make them seem less ‘serious’ about their work. Here, the fact of childbirth – a condition of the body often understood (in my experience, wrongly) as debilitating, both mentally and physically, to the ‘serious’ academic – may inflect the writer’s ability to acknowledge the interplay of the role of parent with the role of writer. I would like to see more conversation, especially cross-generational conversation, on this topic. How are different constellations of family structures affecting these conversations? Has institutionalized parental leave, both for faculty and (at least in Canada) for graduate students, improved the situation, or has it created new challenges that are different from those that faced the graduate students and junior faculty who worked in a time before institutionalized parental leave?

In part, these questions pertain to our ongoing conversation about the role of the writer, especially the writer as an embodied self. But they are also the beginning of a different but related conversation, centering on the generational changes that have affected women in academia over the last two decades. There is an increasingly evident split between feminists of older generations and those of younger generations, often centered on topics such as sexual violence (especially sexual violence on campus), sexual harassment, and trigger warnings. The split centers not so much on the recognition of these as real problems on university and college campuses as on the question of how best to address these issues. Having been on both sides of this divide – as a younger faculty member, outraged by senior female colleagues’ toleration of sexual harassment on our campus; as an older faculty member, trying to figure out how to reconcile a commitment to academic freedom with students’ expressed desire for trigger warnings – I am increasingly eager to find ways to create spaces for intergenerational conversation. We have much to learn from one another.

This fact – that we have much to learn from one another – pertains to the last aspect of my retrospective look back at How We Write: that is, the experience of collaborating with Chris Piuma on the physical production of this book. Chris and I have had a long and fruitful relation in the context of his doctoral research, where I am a member of his advisory committee (not his primary supervisor), and we also worked together (as instructor and TA) in developing a large lecture class (about 400 undergrads) on “The Literary Tradition,” a survey of influential works of world literature from Homer to Goethe. In other words, we have worked together within existing institutional frameworks for professor-graduate student interactions. In creating the book of How We Write, however – both the physical, hard-copy book and the magnificently vivid e-book – bringing it from a jumbled series of contributions to an integrated whole that had a shape and an underlying narrative, Chris and I worked together as collaborators. He suggested the subtitle “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page,” which introduced a poetic metanarrative for the essays, alluding to Wallace Stevens’ poem (which then became the epigraph for the introduction I subsequently wrote). The imagistic series of stanzas of Stevens’ poem became for me a kind of mnemonic for the essays that followed, each one understood as a kind of poetic image. It’s unsurprising, then, that the splash pages that open the essays have such a powerful effect on the reader – most strikingly in the colorful illustrations of the e-book.

While the original idea for including images came from Stuart Elden, who offered to provide a picture of his working space to accompany his essay, it was Chris who ran with this idea, encouraging contributors to come up with a wide range of opening images that might illustrate or epitomize the underlying theme of each essay.**** Alexandra Gillespie’s contribution, unsurprisingly, features a honey badger drinking a cocktail; no one who knows Alex will need a fuller explanation. Steve Mentz’s essay opens with a picture of him swimming the waters of the Atlantic, in a photo taken by his daughter – one of the “colicky babies” that were integral to his writer’s life. Every one of the images tells a story, a story that resonates with the content of the individual essay and with the collection as a whole. And some of these images have engendered new written chatter: Maura Nolan’s essay opens with a drawing made for her by her niece many years ago. That niece, now a freshman in college, was surprised and pleased to learn from Maura that her childhood drawing was illustrating Maura’s essay about her writing practice. Maura emailed to describe their encounter, as mediated by the book:
I have had the most wonderful exchange with my niece for the last hour!  I didn't tell her about using her picture in the volume--I wanted it to be a surprise….We have been texting a lot, and today I texted her the punctum link and told her that she had a picture in print.  She was SO excited!  She was absolutely thrilled--and she read my essay, and it really brought us closer together, as adults, for the first time. We have always been close, but of course, she's never read anything personal I've written, and we have generally talked via the medium of my sister, her mom. So the whole thing turned out to be a fantastic bonding experience for Siobhan and me. 
More written chatter! And, just yesterday, I saw that Steve Mentz had posted on Facebook a picture of his daughter reading How We Write – perhaps looking at the very page containing the portrait of him swimming, taken by her.

I learned a lot in the process of putting together this book – about what colleagues do when they write, about what I myself do, and about writing itself. The most important thing I learned is that there is no one right way to write.***** The other thing I learned was the importance of community. Without idealizing community, without underestimating the importance of existing power relations and inequities that must be acknowledged, we can still say: we share a space, and within that space, we can learn from one another, and support one another.

NOTES (by Chris):
* “community-building through the act of writing”: Yes, but. I designed the book, helped edit some of the pieces, and told Suzanne early on that there was the material for a book here. Some of that happened through “written chatter,” but I didn’t really write any of the book (except for a some incidental text, such as some of the photo captions).+ Editing, designing, publishing: These are all not writing, but they are parts of an ecology that allows writing to thrive. (Dear Reader, add “reading” to that list as well!)
** Being talked about in conversations that I’m not involved with is something I find terrifying and the opposite of awesome. I realize it happens, I realize it has to happen, I realize that good things can come of it, but it’s like other people’s bowel movements: for the most part, I’d rather not think about it. But the nice thing about a book—especially a book where your name only appears in small print on the bottom of the copyright page, tucked out of the way—is that people can talk about it without talking about you. This is an awesome thing.
*** There is so much suffering in this book. There is a lot of joy as well, but the dominant mood is perhaps a joyful regard at past suffering: so many times when writing caused physical, mental, emotional pain.++ But this is a book about academic writing, which is to say that it’s a book about academics, who mostly believe that a certain sort of writing is foundational to who they are and what they do. One of the things I felt on my last reading of How We Write was that no one really questions this. (And I guess, why would you, in an essay about how you write?) How We Write emerged during a period when I was questioning this, when I was coming to the realization that the pain of writing is not worth it for me. This spring I finally noticed that every paragraph I added to my dissertation cost me a few days of depression, and that this had been true for ages. (I went to grad school hoping that it would teach me a way past this: It did not.) And so I started to think, is there another way? I joined punctum and spent the rest of the summer designing and publishing books, and helping to organize the upcoming BABEL conference—all of which were challenging and difficult and (I think) important, but not painful and depressing the way that writing is. At this point, I am accepting that if writing is foundational to being an academic, then I am not going to be a functioning academic—or even one of How We Write’s dysfunctionally functional academics. But even if others don’t suffer from writing to the extent that I do (or just have stronger constitutions?), there is still clearly a vast amount of suffering involved: and I (idealistically) wonder whether there could be a more humane system. Or if not, whether we should look at each book that manages to get written as a monument to suffering.+++ I wonder whether the contributors to How We Write suffered when they wrote their essays. My sense is that they didn’t, or that most of them suffered much less than usual.
**** Designing a book is not writing, but it is a creative, interpretive, rhetorical act. It is perhaps like conducting: That performance of Beethoven is still clearly Beethoven, but it’s also Toscanini’s Beethoven.
***** And so, in response How We Write, my follow-up question: Is one of the right ways of writing: not writing at all? There are many ways to not write (from Bartleby to Socrates to Bénabou to...) , and some of those ways have more of an effect on a writing/publishing/thinking ecology (or, if you like, community) than others. How do we not write? And what do we do with people who are vital parts of the community—but who do not write?

MORE NOTES to Chris’s notes (by Suzanne):
+ Oh, but there was definitely a creative process there, even if we don’t call it “writing.” For example, after Chris had overseen the development of the splash pages, he looked back at the front matter (short bios of contributors, which he titled “Who We Are,” and “About the Images”) and asked, “Do we want an illustration for these as well?” And, of course, we did: a beautiful photo (so beautiful in the online color version!) of fluorescent minerals from Franklin, NJ, representing the vivid individuality of each of the contributors, “gathered” (in Chris’s telling term, in the caption). And, for “About the Images,” a photo of a mirror, showing the photographer in the mirror with an assortment of other photographs alongside the frame – caption: “Image, with images.” For me, those bits of the book are among its most intensively creative moments.
++ And joy! Several contributors talk about the enormous pleasure of writing, once the writing starts. Maybe the misery overshadows the joy too much in the retelling of the experience.
+++ Books as monuments to suffering: undoubtedly the case. As Christine de Pizan puts it, “Just like a woman who has given birth forgets the pain and labor as soon as she hears her child cry, you will forget the hard work when you hear the voices of your books” (L’Avision 3.10).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

30% discount for readers: Medievalism: Key Critical Terms and Medievalism: A Critical History

by J J Cohen

Boydell and Brewer asked me if In the Middle would like to offer its readers a discount on two new books of wide interest among medievalists ... and I thought, why not? These books look great.

(ITM makes no money from this offer -- we are a zero profit entity, fueled by the labor of the five bloggers. We are happy to promote the work of any of any kindred spirits: just ask us. We are always open to guest posts, book excerpts, you name it.)

Here are the details.

Boydell & Brewer is pleased to offer a 30% discount on Medievalism: Key Critical Terms and Medievalism: A Critical History. Please use promo code 15562 when ordering

In Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, edited by Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz, leading international scholars in the field define and exemplify essential terms used when speaking of the reception of medieval culture in postmedieval times, in a lively and accessible style.

Medievalism: A Critical History, by David Matthews, is an accessibly-written survey of the origins and growth of the discipline of medievalism studies.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Pope Is Coming! Papal Visit 2015


[Papal Visit 2015 swag on sale this morning, George Washington University, Washington, DC.]

The Pope is coming to town! DC has been abuzz as it prepares for a visit by Pope Francis (the pontiff is arriving here tomorrow and staying for a few days before heading to Philly and NYC). Back in April 2008, JEFFREY blogged about the visit by the previous pontiff (Pope Benedict XVI, aka Bishop of Rome) making his way down Pennsylvania Avenue and bypassing the aptly-named Rome Hall (where the English Department is located). It would appear that Pope Francis has a very busy agenda and, alas, will not be making his way by Rome Hall this time around.

Among many other things, the Pope (as head of state of the Vatican) will be making a visit to the White House and will also make an unprecedented address to a joint session of the US Congress. There's much speculation about what he'll discuss, but -- as befits his medieval namesake Saint Francis of Assisi -- Pope Francis is expected to address issues of poverty and the environment. Indeed, the Pope's June 2015 encyclical letter entitled "Laudato Si'" draws its title from the refrain of the Canticle on Creation by St. Francis of Assisi (read more about this on the Medieval Histories blog); subtitled "on care for our common home," this encyclical has been interpreted as a call for policymakers to take action on climate change [you can read the original document in Italian, in English, and other languages on the Vatican website].

[The FABULOUS coronation tiara of Pope Paul VI, on permanent display at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Photo taken August 2012.]

Even if the Pope isn't currently in town, there are a number of sites around DC where papal history and related aspects of medieval (specifically Franciscan) culture thrive. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has some lovely papal artifacts on display. Pope Francis will visit the Basilica to canonize Spanish missionary (and Franciscan) Junípero Serra, founder of many missions in California; this canonization mass will be conducted in Spanish--this being not only the native tongue of Serra but also that of Argentina-born Francis (this also marks the first canonization mass of a Catholic saint to occur in the US).

[A view of the gorgeous interior of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC. Photo taken August 2012 (click to enlarge).]

The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America is well worth a visit for its astounding replicas of religious sites in the Holy Land. This monastery is not surprisingly taking part in the visit of Pope Francis in a number of ways. The friars are hosting a watch party for the Pope's arrival, as well as an exhibit honoring Junípero Serra.

[Statue of Friar Godfrey (Rev. Godfrey Schilling), founder of the monastery, and a bypassing quinceañera procession. Inside the Garden of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC. Photo taken August 2012.]

Some more resources regarding the Pope's visit to DC:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Beowulf Trump and Lady Fiorina: GOP Debates and Medieval Rhetoric


[Split-screen screenshot from the livestream of last night’s GOP debate: on the left, real estate mogul and zillionaire Donald Trump; on the right, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.]

I spent last night grading Chaucer translations and poetry assignments while the GOP debate played in the background. As someone who teaches in Washington, DC, I find it’s always interesting to “tune in” whenever election season rolls around—political debates invariably provide timely and topical ways to think about present-day issues of gender, performance, and the arts of rhetoric (all of which are key themes in many of my literature classes).

Donald Trump’s prominence in the field of GOP candidates has driven much of the mainstream media coverage of this election cycle, and last night The Donald didn’t disappoint.

A few weeks ago, Bruce Holsinger's brilliant #BeowulfTrump tweets (archived here by Shyama Rajendran) enacted a witty parody of The Donald’s rhetoric by imagining Trump in the role of the hero of an Anglo-Saxon epic. For more insights regarding masculine posturing and bombast, read this interview with Holsinger in The Washington Post (this meme has also taken the form of a stand-alone @BeowulfTrump twitter account). For an excellent analysis (from earlier this summer) of Trump’s performance habits that connects Trumpian rhetoric to Classical epics, check out Jeet Heer’s piece in New Republic.

There is a lot to say about how the inclusion of Carly Fiorina—i.e., the first appearance of a woman in a primetime GOP debate this cycle—transformed the discourse. The Washington Post (for instance) quickly declared Fiorina the “winner” of the debate (and Vox justifiably praised her “mic-drop response” to Trump’s misogyny), so on many accounts she more than held her own. What intrigues me most this morning, though, is Fiorina’s response when all the candidates were invited to close the debate by offering their vision of America. Fiorina waxed poetic in a weirdly ekphrastic (and all-female) personification allegory (I cite the partial transcript here):

I think what this nation can be an must be can be symbolized by Lady Liberty and Lady Justice. Lady Liberty stands tall and strong. She is clear eyed and resolute. She doesn't shield her eyes from the realities of the world, but she faces outward into the world nevertheless as we always must, and she holds her torch high. Because she knows she is a beacon of hope in a very troubled world. And Lady Justice. Lady Justice holds a sword by her side because she is a fighter, a warrior for the values and the principles that have made this nation great. She holds a scale in her other hand, and with that scale she says all of us are equal in the eyes of God. 
And so all of us must be equal in the eyes of the government, powerful and powerless alike. And she wears a blindfold. And with that blindfold she is saying to us us that it must be true, it can be true, that in this country in this century it doesn't matter how you are, it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what you look like, it doesn't matter how you start, and it doesn't matter your circumstances. Here in this nation, every American's life must be filled with the possibilities that come from their God given gifts, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Fiorina’s rhetoric invites many questions:

  • What’s up with this allegorical interpretation of the iconic blindfold of Lady Justice?
  • Might Fiorina’s status as the only woman at this debate shape her rhetorical choices?
  • Can the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test) apply to personification allegory?
  • How might this vision of America differ if it invoked Lady Fortune or Lady Philosophy?

I'm sure ITM readers will discern many other uncanny affinities between contemporary political discourse and medieval rhetorical traditions. I'll be curious to find out what other gems this election cycle will offer.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How We Write: Now Out from punctum books

by J J Cohen

Readers of this blog will be interested in the latest -- and perhaps speediest ever into print -- book from punctum. How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page began here at ITM, with a superb guest post by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie. The piece resonated: as of today it has been read 8585 times. What's so refreshing about the post -- and the book that springs from its publication -- is a refusal to prescribe for others any method of accomplishing academic writing. Different modes are examined and their costs (especially emotional) are detailed without being judged. The volume reassures that many ways of getting writing done exist, that they will likely change over time, that none are perfect, that all adopt to embodied experience (crying infants are a running thread in the book; let's call it the Writing During Colic topos). What all the methods have in common is simple perseverance. There are no stories here of those who gave up, despite the toll writing takes. How We Write is diverse, bringing together scholars at various points in their careers. Many but certainly not all are medievalists -- but I don't think discipline really matters here. The methods described don't strike me as especially field specific. Suzanne did an incredible job of bringing How We Write together, and Chris Piuma ensured that the finished product would be a thing of beauty. It is.

My own contribution brings together two pivotal moments in my career: a period when I did not have quite so many demands on my time, because I had just stopped being an administrator (what a dent that put in my productivity); and a period a few years later when, even though I had finished being department chair and had had some fellowships that enabled me to complete my research for Stone, carving out the time to give the book the form, voice and argument it wanted was extremely difficult. I devised what I called a Writing Lockdown for fifty summer days. I did not by any means complete the shaping of the book during that time but the sustained focus it enabled assisted that goal immensely -- though at considerable cost. Re-reading my account now makes me realize how anxiety limns my writing, mostly as a productive spur rather than anything crippling. But I think I'd rather live without it. On a more personal note, I'm mentioning that affect because -- despite what some eminent colleagues say about how scholars ought to feel less and think more -- I actually believe cognition and affect to be inseparable. We are embodied creatures whose emotional lives are intimate to our writing and thoughts. That intimacy can often help us to understand distant times better. I also believe we don't talk about the difficult affective states enough, like depression or anxiety, in our work, or with our colleagues, or with our students. We can do better.

If you download a copy of How We Write, please make a donation to punctum books. Open access is not free. It is sustained in part by love (we are all donating our labor and time), but it is also sustained by the ability of those who enjoy its fruits to support the endeavor financially. Be generous! The world is better for having books like this within it.

II love that my daughter photobombed the picture I took of my study and ended up in the book)

Monday, September 07, 2015

Medievalists and the Global Refugee Crisis


[UPDATED September 8 with more links! Scroll to the end of this post.]

This entry falls somewhere between a compilation of links/resources and a proper essay. In this blog posting, I wanted to reflect a bit on the global refugee crisis that's currently in the news and consider how (or if) medievalists might respond to what's happening in Europe and elsewhere.

Part I: Medievalists on Twitter

[Images from my twitter feed yesterday (September 6), including premodern iconography of the biblical Flight into Egypt.]

The image above is a screenshot from my mobile device yesterday morning—and it happens to provide a sample of different ways medievalists (premodern academics) are engaging with media coverage of the plight of refugees in Europe and other places around the globe:
  • The Refugee Tales Walk is a collective effort by activists and storytellers to showcase the stories of refugees indefinitely detained in the UK; taking its cue from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the project tells stories of lives in transit. Note this brief blurb on the Global Chaucers blog; you can also follow "Refugee Tales" on Facebook or on twitter.
  • Kees Teszelszky, historian of early modern Dutch-Ottoman-Hungarian relations, chimed in on the plight of refugees by tweeting depictions of the biblical Flight into Egypt (Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus on horseback) from 16th-century sculpture and stained glass; another tweet suggests the recursive history of refugees in transit through Hungary in particular. [ also linked to an article about medieval refugees fleeing Hungary during Mongol invasions.]

Popular media (especially social media) has deployed the adjective “medieval” to varied ends: sometimes the term targets refugees themselves, but other times refers to the perceived mentalities of governments (European as well as Middle Eastern) in response to this crisis [I won't link to particular examples here, but a quick search for "medieval" and "refugee crisis" certainly brings up examples].

In mainstream news media, people of varied religious backgrounds are discussing the ethics of refugee welcome, including

Historical context: In an earlier conversation on twitter (after the mass murders in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and subsequent news coverage of an online racist screed attributed to the shooter), Karl Steel stated that we as medievalists must be prepared to disrupt racists’ idea of "Europe." As indicated in the article about nativism and xenophobia linked above, the refugee situation has laid bare political anxieties over a "Muslim takeover" of Europe, and related fantasies of a white, Christian nation can become the implicit or overt basis for excluding refugees from over land or sea—and not only in Europe but also across the so-called “Global North” of industrialized countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States).

Part II: Discomforts of Analogy

[Top half of image: The opening to The Man of Law's Tale (illus. Edward Burne-Jones) in The Kelmscott Chaucer (William Morris, 1896) depicts Constance set adrift on a rudderless ship. 
Bottom half of image: In the opening scene of the 2003 BBC adaptation of The Man of Law's Tale (written by Olivia Hetreed, directed by Julian Jarrold), Constance is a Nigerian refugee.]

In addition to addressing a broader historical view of "Europe" and its meanings over time, how might medievalists think more carefully about analogies made between the lives of medieval people and refugees today?
  • The Refugee Tales Walk (mentioned in Part I) provocatively invites people to contemplate similarities between the plight of present-day refugees and experiences of medieval travelers, with a clear ethical and political objective: building compassion and solidarity with displaced peoples and using art and storytelling to combat prejudice.
  • In a blog post from over a year ago, Steve Mentz reflected on Caroline Bergvall's book Drift (2014), a work that juxtaposes the Anglo-Saxon elegy "The Seafarer" with the story of a boat of Algerian refugees that was seen—but not rescued—by NATO vessels in March 2011.
  • Chaucer's The Man of Law's Tale tells the story of Constance, a tempest-tossed and much-imperiled protagonist. Her story begins in Rome, but her subsequent transit to (Muslim) Syria and (pagan but Christianizing) Britain—with many travails and dangers in between—have invited comparisons between this story and refugee experiences in the present. In a 2003 adaptation of The Canterbury Tales for the BBC, six tales were set in modern multiethnic Britain. The Man of Law's Tale (written by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Julian Jarrold) casts Constance as Nigerian refugee who mysteriously washes ashore in northern Britain—and the story goes on to consider modern-day complications of race, trauma, religious community, and cultural assimilation. This adaptation is complete with a scheming mother-in-law figure and courtroom drama scene (all present in Chaucer's original), and I've found this attentive adaptation useful when teaching my medieval literature classes. [For more about this production, see Susan Yager's 2007 article; I also address some linguistic aspects of this adaptation in a 2014 essay collection.]
I'll end this post by referring, in a roundabout way, to my own discussion of medieval Constance narratives (Chaucer's rendition as well as analogues by Boccaccio, Gower, and Trivet) in my book Trading Tongues (2013). The focus of my analysis on that book was on perpetual disorientation of the protagonist and she moves across space and language. Earlier this year, Pamela Troyer reviewed my book in the Rocky Mountain Review, and I was intrigued by her account of how she brought my chapter into her classroom. I quote these paragraphs here not because of what Troyer says about my book itself but what rather for her attentive reflections on the varied perspectives and life experiences of students from recent immigrant backgrounds:
After reading Trading Tongues, I experimented with Hsy's ideas in a required course I teach that includes readings from Canterbury Tales. The class had students majoring in literary studies, secondary or elementary education, and creative writing. Three of them were bilingual and most of them from area public schools, which are now multilingual communities; the Denver Public Schools posts its "top languages spoken" as Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Nepali, and Russian. Since we only spend six weeks on Chaucer's works, I have never assigned the Man of Law's Tale, but after reading Hsy's treatment of the Custance story [...] I wondered if the students might identify with her traumatic experience of geographical and linguistic displacement. [...]
I fully expected the class to be perplexed and stymied by the strange elements of the story and by Custance's impossible travel trajectory—the story is so medieval!—but a surprising number of the students related to her vulnerability and powerlessness. They saw her as a recognizable victim of racial violence, religious persecution, and sexual harassment, bartered by "pimps" or "slave traders." A student whose parents immigrated from Guatemala wrote with unexpected clarity that Custance "is just like many women in the world today, a social outcast with no access to justice except the fantasy of God's grace." My students found Custance's peripatetic suffering plausible and accessible. What they found "medieval" and unrealistic was the conclusion of the story: Custance survives her travails (the French root of travel) without having been raped or beaten and without losing her healthy child to kidnappers or death. Unrealistically she is reunited with her people in material comfort in her homeland. One first-generation American summarized it as "typical immigrant wishful thinking." (Troyer 98)

Troyer's discussion tantalizingly ends there, and there's much more about this classroom experience that could be explored. How does an affective response to a seemingly alien medieval world change how one thinks about (im)migraiton, desire, hope, nostalgia, life trajectories? I'll just end this posting by asking few questions. What are the ethical investments of medievalists in this current humanitarian crisis (or any crisis, for that matter)? How (or should) we address urgent present-day concerns in our scholarship, in our classrooms, online, or in the streets?

UPDATES [September 8]:

The Lewis Chessmen and "Margret the Adroit," their Maker (?!)

by J J Cohen

St Martin's Press asked me to bring this new book to your attention, and I am happy to do so, since the volume does appear to speak well on behalf of what makes studying the people and objects (as well as, by way of the sagas) the texts of the Middle Ages so rewarding. It's Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them -- and yes, OK, that title is quite attention grabbing: women as medieval sculptors and artisans? Not sure how that will be discernible in the art but I have not read the book yet so ... here is the blurb.

In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.
Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

You can read more here and buy the book in the usual places. Would be great, I think, for a course on contemporary re-imaginings of the Middle Ages.