Thursday, September 28, 2017

Where do we go from here?


My last post here, about racism and what I think of as ‘medievalfail’, I ended with hope because of what N.K. Jemisin had to say about similar events in science fiction and fantasy fandom (and scholarship): good came of them because the status quo doesn’t change without major disruption.

The past couple of weeks have seen an extraordinary backlash against progressive moves in medieval studies, aimed initially at Professor Dorothy Kim (again. See Quod She for an account), and now a smear campaign against Professor Adam Miyashiro. Both are shocking in that the attackers have turned not to other academics for support (although social media shows there is some within our disciplines), but to right-wing outrage machines, drawing in actors with no knowledge of our fields, no allegiance to scholarly integrity, and a history of organising harassment so bad he has been permanently banned from Twitter.

I’m still reminded of SFF, and I’m still hopeful because I’m reminded of SFF. In that sphere, after the initial turmoil of RaceFail09, there were – and still are – concerted backlash campaigns of harassment and abuse and attempts to ‘game’ the Hugo Awards perpetrated by groups calling themselves the ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies.’ Their particular (although not sole) targets were women of colour (sound familiar?) who they claimed were successful because of ‘political correctness’ rather than talent. Damien Walter suggested the opposite in The Guardian last year: “I say it [the Puppies’ campaign] is to sponsor awful writers.” Although they did manage to disrupt the Hugo Awards for a few years by ‘slate stacking’ nominations, a process that was within the rules but against common practice and community ethics, they’ve lost and are becoming increasingly irrelevant. And as I wrote last time I posted, N. K. Jemisin – one of their main targets – has won the last two Hugos for best novel. So, I am hopeful.

But if the various unpleasant Puppies have lost some momentum, they’ve also been actively resisted. SFF hasn’t gotten better *just* because of social media campaigns and discussions and fights, although they matter and can important ways of resisting. The disruptions are important but they don’t have lasting effects if that’s all there is. The disruptions matter because they make people, more people, pay attention and care and act.

Not everyone can do the same thing to make medieval studies less racist. As Kathleen Kennedy pointed out on Twitter, 70% of medieval studies scholars are in the precariat. Not everyone is in a position to take a public stand, for many different reasons.

Change happens because we make it happen, but we don’t all have to do the same things and we’re not all able to. If you’ll forgive me the swerve over into early modernity, John Milton wrote in “They also serve who only stand and wait.” We can’t all, to keep borrowing from Milton, “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest.”

Many of those taking a public stand are not in a safe position to do so, and become less safe when they act and speak.

White medievalists, we need to do more, we need to care about our own feelings less. We didn’t earn our privilege – that’s the whole point – and if we didn’t ask for it we’ve still benefited from it. We’re playing the game on a low difficulty setting. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe. We may become less safe, but we are not targets just because of who we are, by our existence.
So what do we do? What can we do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some general ideas that I’ve learned, mostly again from SFF fandom and scholarship and the collective work of many people there:
  • Accept and acknowledge that medieval studies has a racism problem and that it’s not just a ‘few bad apples’ or whatever. Our whole inter-discipline was built to bolster whiteness and justify colonialism and imperialism. Literally, European cultures got interested in the Middle Ages right at the time biological concepts of race went mainstream. If we can’t even acknowledge that how can we be sure we’re not still doing the same things, standing on the shoulders of racist giants?
  • Listen to people of colour and believe them when they talk about racism they have experience/seen/noticed in your syllabus
  • Do your research! It’s not up to people of colour to educate you if you don’t know what to do/ if something is racist (here’s a tip, if you’re not sure don’t say or do it or like it on social media).
  • There’s a good chance that a person of colour has already answered your question/ talked about the issue online generally, even if not in direct relation to the particular text or context. Try finding out before you ask for that work to be done again.
  • Don’t assume that your minority friend/ fellow faculty member is there to do the diversity work. They have experience as a person of their own identity, but it’s not necessarily their scholarly field of expertise (I know next to nothing about queer theory). A single minority faculty member does not equate to diversity.
  • Do your research again! If you don’t know what to do or how to do it then find out. You have excellent research skills, use them
  • If you’re white and feel uncomfortable talking about racism, stop to think for a minute about how people of colour feel because of racism. And they don’t get to just not talk about it.
  • Think about racism, think about structural and systemic racism and how to change it.

Many people have been putting together resources and doing other really practical things that can help us change our field. Here are two places that resources have already been compiled:

I don’t have all the answers and I know others will have practical suggestions, resources and general ideas that I haven’t thought of or don’t know about. If you have something – a syllabus, an idea, a reference, I hope you feel safe to share them here in the comments. If you don’t feel safe DM me @heyouonline and I’ll post them for you (with a note saying it’s not my idea). If that doesn’t feel safe then if there is anyone you trust (doesn’t have to be in medieval studies) get them to pass it along.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

4 thoughts about vulnerability and community

by J J Cohen

1. Regarding our co-authored Statement of Support for Dorothy Kim, you may find some background to what unfolded via Quod She, as well as the account published yesterday by Insider HigherEd (there is also a piece in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education but it's behind a paywall). Here too is a Statement of Commitment from some medievalists at the University of Chicago. But to really understand the stakes of what unfolded -- and to take some wind out of the "but both sides!" argument that would posit a tenured professor is being attacked rather than an untenured scholar is being supported -- read this piece by David Perry on the actual content of Milo Y's "livelier style" and this piece by Bryan William Van Norden on what unfolded, the power imbalance, how race matters, and the potential harassment being incited against Professor Kim. That her friend Milo Y was repeatedly tagged in her Facebook posts and that Professor Fulton Brown placed an article about herself on his website are of consequence here -- and it has become clear to me that some people do not understand why.

2. Did you not the sign the various letters of support for Dorothy Kim? Did you refrain from making any public statements at all? That's ok. No one ever should feel pressured to place themselves in a position of vulnerability: as the links above make clear, the risks are real. Scholars work to bring about a better field in different ways, and many of those modes are not publicly visible. Each person commits to doing the work that they can as they can, knowing their own limits and vulnerabilities. That's how community works: some of us step in to support those who need help, and know that the situation changes over time. And note that you are likely a member of a group that advocated on your behalf: New Chaucer Society, Medieval Academy of America (the trustees of which also wrote a personal letter to Professor Kim), the International Piers Plowman Society, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. That's a powerful commitment on their part to speak out for members who may be in too vulnerable a position to do so themselves. Onwards.

3. Let me share something I posted on Facebook yesterday. It's disappointing to hear that Professor Fulton Brown is now identifying me as the "mastermind" (her term) behind Dorothy Kim's writing and actions. This maneuver deprives Professor Kim of her agency, intellect, and accomplishments, and sets me up as the Jewish Svengali behind her actions, mobilizing (intentionally or not) another alt-right as well as a medieval narrative. I have never met Professor Fulton Brown and I bear her no animus (even if she will never have my respect for the actions she has undertaken against an untenured scholar of color). Everything that I have written has been not to attack Professor Fulton Brown but to support Professor Kim. Everything Dorothy Kim has written and posted and urged is hers. No one requested that she research and write what she did, and should be attributed to her genius alone. To make of Professor Kim a puppet or a pawn is demeaning. It also mistakes my own interest in Professor Fulton Brown and her career, which is zero, except when she uses her position against the vulnerable. And let me also make clear that neither I nor any other member of "In the Middle" ever contacted (and have no influence over) the New Chaucer Society, the Medieval Academy of America, the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, or the International Piers Plowman Society. We did not compose or have any input into the the letter sent in support of Professor Kim to the U Chicago History Department (though I did share links). I also want to make clear that I did not ask anyone in any social media to post anything about Dorothy Kim or Professor Fulton Brown. But let me also state: I remain grateful to anyone who did. You make me proud to be your colleague.

4. What has unfolded over the past few days has been frequently reported as exposing a rift or divide in medieval studies (if not the humanities writ large). What I take away from these events is just opposite: the IPPS statement has garnered 1136 signatures, the open letter to the U Chicago history had something like 1300. The Medieval Academy and NCS and SMFS and many other organizations have demonstrated exemplary leadership and made clear that they support Dorothy Kim. This sense of community is wonderful to behold: I have never witnessed the field so united in an effort to bring about a better future. That is what I am holding onto from these terrible past few days.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Recommended Reading

by J J Cohen

It's been hard to keep up with what has been unfolding. Read this please, among the most important posts the six of us have written for In the Middle. We want a more diverse Middle Ages. We want a more diverse medieval studies. We want both to be empty of white supremacy in all of its forms. We acknowledge the troubled past of our discipline and we strive together with you for a better future.

And, if you need some background, read this excellent overview on stakes and repercussions and moving forward at Quod She.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

In Support of Dorothy Kim

by the ITM Bloggers

Rachel Fulton Brown, a tenured white medieval historian at the University of Chicago, has recently used her blog to attack and disparage Professor Dorothy Kim, an untenured medievalist much her junior. The post foregrounds Dorothy Kim's body as a scholar of color (including the use of a photograph of Professor Kim lifted without attribution and published without consent) and the post belittles Professor Kim's training and intellect  that is, her license for intervening in the field's most urgent conversations. The post ends with the command that Professor Kim "Learn some fucking history." This is not normal scholarly exchange. This is unprofessional discourse by any standard. Just as disturbing is posting pictures of scholars of color to score rhetorical points or to serve the aims of doxxing and harassment. This post irresponsibly misrepresents Professor Kim's work and is woefully under-researched when it comes to both the history of the formation of the discipline (see, among other sources, the work by Professor Kim), the active and inclusive role of the Medieval Academy in the field, and the history of race and its relation to color in the Middle Ages (we have a helpful bibliography here that might serve as a start for those who wish to conduct initial work on the topic, and we highly recommend this essential post by the Medievalists of Color as well).

Rachel Fulton Brown's blog post is ostensibly framed as a response to a guest post on "In the Middle" that Dorothy Kim composed recently about white supremacy and the classroom. Professor Kim's ITM post "Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy" was published with the full support of all six of us the "In the Middle" co-bloggers. Each of us looked at the post in draft and approved the final form for publication with enthusiasm. A renowned scholar of histories of medieval Christian-Jewish enmeshment, Early Middle English literary and cultural studies, critical theory, Digital Humanities (including manuscript studies, sound studies, and media theory), Dorothy Kim is a frequent guest contributor here at "In the Middle." We will continue to welcome her at this blog and do what we can to support her work.

We stand with Dorothy Kim and we recognize that medieval studies is a far better field for her presence.

Karl Steel
Leila K. Norako
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Jonathan Hsy
Cord J. Whitaker
Mary Kate Hurley