Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Pushback, Progress and Promise

by J J Cohen

I offered a version of this note this morning on a friend's Facebook feed after she posted about sadness, frustration and anger in the aftermath of the personal and social media backlash against medievalists of color and their work in the wake of the recent Leeds conference (and an article in the Chronicle about the issue). I offer it here to anyone who has felt dispirited in the wake of what has been unfolding, but especially to scholars of color who are young in the field and undertaking the kind of work that is generating resistance in its many modes.

The field of medieval studies is changing: it's too late, those transformations are already quite advanced (look around at peer reviewed publications and social media alike: the list of resources and scholarship is vast). The backlash is fear at the realization of the profundity of these changes. Yet there is no turning back: the groundwork is in place -- and larger, sturdy, innovative structures for rethinking what the Middle Ages is and does are rising and have risen, transforming already the future's horizon. Those working to change medieval studies have had a success that is not at this point ignorable and cannot be dismissed, silenced, or lost. This success scares scholars (of many ages: it is not generational) so deeply because the excellent scholarship behind it demands a complete rethinking of assumptions that have shaped them in their professional formation as medievalists. Those normative tenets are now being shaken to the core and the cracks are showing. It would be very difficult to return to business as usual medieval studies at this point.

If you are feeling the backlash, please keep this in mind: YOU are the future of the field. I and many, many others thank you for all you are undertaking and have accomplished. We have dreamed and worked in our own way towards such a re-alignment of what medieval studies could be -- and sometimes despaired that lasting change would not take hold. But it is arriving and its roots are already deep. Backlash, painful as it is to endure, means you are doing things right and that you are doing things well. Please do not despair, do not think about not continuing -- and know that panicked negativity can be so shrill its noise drowns out voices of support. 

But never for long.

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