Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Year That Was

by J J Cohen

Happy new year, ITM readers. We hope that the twelve months ahead are filled with good things. And as to 2017 ... well, it was a year, we can say that. And we are still here. That matters. A few highlights and some personal reflection.

Presciently composed in December 2016, Sierra Lomuto's insightful and essential post "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies" traced the intimacy of white supremacy, the academy, "the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies," and the contemporary life of medieval symbols. Here are some words that to my mind uncannily predicted exactly what was to unfold in the following months:
When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponized against people of color and marginalized communities in our own contemporary world.
Not only did white nationalists not necessarily find resistance, sometimes they found themselves aided and abetted: through the disparaging of scholars of color and their insights, through endemic bothsiderism and whataboutism (no links because I am not driving traffic up to sites that monetize the manufacture of controversy and/or publish pieces that have been amply rebutted in advance: trolls have been rampant and fighting them exhausting; pushback is maybe a sign of progress but who knows). #Charlottesville made clear that the Middle Ages matter profoundly to white supremacists. Others have ridiculed and attacked Dorothy Kim for having asserted that "Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists" -- and that maybe we ought to do something about that fact. (Professor Kim's post, by the way, is the most accessed piece we have ever published here at ITM: so far it has been read 32,000 times. It would be difficult to make the argument that this is not a topic that is crucial and timely).
Our dog Wrigley, realizing that somehow you get through

Race was rightly been the topic of the year on this blog, with substantial posts dedicated to the subject by Karl Steel, Helen Young (and here and here), Shamma Boyarin, Cord Whitaker (whom we welcomed to ITM as Blogger #6!), JJC, Jonathan HsyShokoofeh RajabzadehAdam Miyashiro, and especially Medievalists of Color. That's a lot. What a year. Maybe you are tired. Maybe your energy is flagging. Maybe you need a break because the calls to action are constant. That's why we are a community: so some may step in when others cannot. I wish I could predict that things will be better in the year ahead, but I see few omens of change. Well, you know what our values are. You know we continue to stand against walls. We are grateful for your company.

Finally, on a personal note, this year ends with many changes in place for me. Perhaps you detected their seeds when I wrote about being restless in August: that's about when, much to my surprise, I was invited to apply for the position of Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University -- and somehow it all worked out. After many years at the George Washington University I will be departing this May. The scale of the new position is intimidating (I will oversee the directors of three schools with a combined faculty of about 400), but the possibilities exciting. Having spent my life at institutions proud of their selectivity (proud, that is, of how many people confront a closed door when they seek welcome), I am pleased to be joining an institution built upon access, affordability, invention, collaboration, experiment. Reading back on everything that has unfolded here at In the Middle over the past year -- itself a reflection on what has unfolded globally, nationally, and within academia -- I know that my decision to work to ensure open doors for students who too often find walls erected against them to be the right one to have made.

Peace and love in 2018, my friends.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

We do best when we work together

by J J Cohen

If you want to learn a little more about why I am leaving my position at GW and becoming Dean of Humanities at ASU, this piece well conveys the opportunities and my motivation.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

moving on

by J J Cohen

Longtime readers of this blog know how much of my life in Washington DC and the George Washington University have featured here over the years, from reinventing entry level courses to teaching as learning to becoming a better teacher. With some colleagues I founded an institute here, and it's been going strong for ten years. I hope that in posts like this one my love of this city comes through: no other place in the world will ever feel so much like home.

And yet sometimes, even when you love your home, you realize it is time to leave.

I am happy to announce that beginning July 1 2018 I will be Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. Although I will sorely miss my students and colleagues at GW as well as my friends and neighbors here in DC, this opportunity to make a difference in public education at an institution willing to bring a serious commitment to reinvigorating the humanities was impossible to refuse. I have my work cut out for me -- but I also know that I will soon have some unparalleled resources and support for shaping a future for the humanities at a university built upon open doors and wide access. This commitment to possibility and creativity speaks very good things about ASU's dedication to leadership across fields, willingness to experiment and affirm, and commitment to collaborative modes of inquiry. I am very much looking forward to working with ASU's superb students and faculty.

The official announcement is below.

Cohen named dean of humanities at Arizona State University
Mark Searle, Arizona State University’s executive vice president and university provost, has announced the appointment of a new dean of humanities at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen will leave his post as a professor of English and the director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to join ASU on July 1, 2018.

“It is a great pleasure to welcome Jeffrey to ASU,” Searle said. “His work as a leader and a scholar, and his commitment to the humanities as a discipline that can help us solve society’s greatest problems, make him a perfect fit and a welcome addition to the CLAS leadership team.”
At ASU, Cohen will lead initiatives geared toward reinforcing the importance of the humanities fields. This will include broadening programming around the subject of environmental humanities, fostering a culture in which faculty are communicating their research with the wider public and laying the groundwork for a project that aims to diversify the study of the past.

“One of the many reasons that I am excited about becoming the dean of humanities at ASU is that where others see a crisis, ASU – from President Crow to the leaders and faculty of the various schools – see an opportunity,” Cohen said. “This is the moment not to bewail the state of the field but to reinvigorate the study of the humanities.”

Cohen brings more than two decades of teaching and interdisciplinary collaboration experience to ASU, including the founding of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, which brought together 22 faculty members across nine departments. He previously served as the chair of the English department at GW. His debut book, “Monster Theory: Reading Culture,” published in 1996 by the University of Minnesota Press, had significant resonance across academic disciplines and has lately been used to teach freshman composition courses. His most recent book “Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman,” won the René Wellek Prize for best book in Comparative Literature for 2017.

“Hiring Jeffrey signals the importance of the humanities to the work we do here in CLAS,” Patrick Kenney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said. “He brings a set of innovative ideas to move the field forward and make ASU a leader in the way humanities education and research can shape the world for upcoming generations.”

Cohen received his doctorate from Harvard University in English and American Literature and Language in 1992 and has been at George Washington University since 1994.

His selection is the result of a national search and input from faculty and staff in the humanities fields in CLAS. Provost Searle and Dean Kenney thank the search committee, which provided insight and analysis of the finalists and invested an extensive amount of time in the process.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Guest Post by Samantha Seal: "On Chaucer, Jews, and Charles Muscatine"

by Samantha Seal

“But how can a Jew study Chaucer?” a professor visiting Yale asked me, a doctoral student in 2010. And that has been the question for a hundred and fifty years. Perhaps they couldn’t, perhaps Geoffrey Chaucer was the one subject sacrosanct from Jewish “intrusion.”  For Chaucer’s fame as the “Father of English Poetry” has proved at times inseparable from his successors’ claims to English blood. As the American critic John Livingston Lowes wrote, Chaucer was “himself the very thing that he begat. He is English poetry incarnate, and only two, perhaps, of all his sons outshine his fame.”[1] Race merges seamlessly into genealogy in this evaluation; Chaucer stands before his sons, each as English as the next, and glories in the exclusive aesthetics of their blood. And this filiation had space enough for critic and poet alike, for a fellowship of English blood (albeit often contained in American embodiments).

Lowes himself was an American of English extraction, the Midwestern son of a Presbyterian minister who had gone east to Harvard in 1918, and would remain there, the colossus of the English department, until his retirement in 1939. Perhaps for Lowes, to share the English blood of Chaucer was to redeem any regional distinction; certainly once at Harvard, Lowes was absorbed quickly into the multigenerational male genealogy of Chaucer Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. George Lyman Kittredge, bona fide Bostonian and newly-named Gurney Professor of English at Harvard (1917), took Lowes under his paternal wing, in the same manner that Professor Francis James “Stubby” Child of Harvard had previously embraced Kittredge. Even as Chaucer supposedly begat his own English poetry, so too, the story goes, did one white literary critic after another beget his own intellectual heir, nurtured in Harvard’s historic womb.

This is the history of Chaucer studies that I, a Jew, knew even before I learned it, that I intuited in all the ways that one intuits the privileges and exclusions of whiteness in the world. In America, Chaucer belonged to men with surnames that could have been called out at Concord or Lexington; in Britain, Chaucer was at the heart of an English identity inseparable from Anglo-Saxon ancestry. When John Dryden named Chaucer the “Father of English Poetry” in 1700, in fact, he did so on the principles of familial inheritance. In The Canterbury Tales, Dryden found “our fore-fathers and great grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer’s days.”[2] The claims of aesthetics fade here before the power of genealogy; Father Chaucer belongs to those who can claim their progenitors among his pilgrims. After 1871, a Jew could receive a degree in British literature from a British university, but he was still excluded from the larger story of that literature, from what G.K. Chesterton called (in his 1932 biography of Chaucer) “the curious primeval kinship between England and Chaucer.”[3] Elsewhere, Chesterton wrote that it was the Jew’s desire to insert himself into European literary history that provoked anti-Semitism within the world; he mocked German Jews with German names, saying that a Jew “might as well go and live in Stratford-on-Avon and call yourself Shakespeare.”[4] The great men of English literature belonged to the sons of their race, to a vibrant racial nationalism that helped fund the nineteenth-century establishment of The Chaucer Society and the twentieth-century enforcement in American of anti-Jewish and anti-Black university policies.

It is impossible, in this sense, to separate the history of English ancestry in Chaucer studies from the history of the “Jewish Problem” in American academia. By the early 1920s, the Ivy League universities faced what they termed a “Hebrew invasion,” an influx of Jewish young men with the intellectual merits to be admitted to the most elite of institutions.[5] Moreover, the flexible racial status of the Jews, their “alien and unwashed” origins, and their “infidelity to the standards of whiteness,” heightened the threat posed by their participation in “Anglo-Saxon” institutions.[6]  Shakespeare had already been ceded to Jewish intrusion; Walter W. Skeat had fostered the career of Sir Israel Gollancz, an expert on Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon literature, who held faculty positions at UCL and Cambridge by the mid-1890s.[7] Yet Chaucer’s Englishness was sacrosanct. Perhaps it might even repel Jews, as Chesterton argued, for “not even the most glittering, shifting and opalescent Opalstein, changing his name for the tenth time, ever seems to change it to Chaucer.”[8]

Moreover, due to the specificities of faculty hiring and specialization, the same faculty member might teach both Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon literature, merging both into a literary bastion of racial purity. As Daniel Aaron, one of the first Jews to earn a PhD at Harvard, wrote of John Livingston Lowes’s graduate classroom in 1933, English medieval literature was used to reinforce anti-Jewish exclusion; Aaron remembered, “You studied Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer and Beowulf. It wasn’t as if I didn’t like those things. But I felt very much on the fringe.”[9]  And that exclusion of Jews from Chaucer studies was blamed on innately Jewish characteristics rather than institutional or personal discrimination. Lowes had taken on a Jew as a junior fellow in medieval literature, yet no university would hire Hyman Theodore Silverstein. Harry Levin, Harvard’s other Jewish junior faculty fellow in 1934, asked Lowes directly if anti-Semitism had caused Silverstein’s career stagnation. Lowes responded that he didn’t believe bigotry was a factor, but conceded, “it might be, because he [Silverstein] retains certain objectionable Jewish traits.”[10]  It was the Harvard undergraduate, E. Talbot Donaldson (Harvard BA, 1932), who would join Lowes’s Chaucer genealogy; Silverstein, Lowes’s PhD student and faculty assistant, left for friendlier terrain at the University of Kansas City, and then the University of Chicago.[11] 

And yet, as I learned last month in the midst of research for a review, despite Yale’s reputation as a bastion of Anglo-Saxon racial purity, one of the first Jews to earn his doctorate from Yale did so in the study of Geoffrey Chaucer. Perhaps this is common knowledge; perhaps I somehow missed the information that Charles Muscatine had been a Jew. But when I read Chaucer and the French Tradition, I had thought it was still part of the old tradition, part of a legacy of scholarship that presumed a member of the “Anglo-Saxon race” to exist on both sides of the author/reader relationship. Moreover, I had assumed that Jewish participation in Chaucer studies dated from the 1960s— that institutional anti-Semitism had succeeded in keeping the gates barred until overthrown by force in a triumphant upheaval of tradition. But Chaucer and the French Tradition wasn’t my idea of rebellion, nor Charles Muscatine my image of intellectual defiance. In fact, to me, Muscatine was Chaucer tradition…and, apparently, a Jew.

 The ironic thing is that Charles Muscatine was, in a sense, born into an intellectual lineage, just not into the one I’d expected. His parents, Samuel and Bertha (Greenberg) Muscatine, had each come to America as part of the last, great wave of Jewish immigration (1880-1925), before the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed shut the doors of the goldene medina to the six million men, women, and children who would no longer exist by the end of 1945. Charles was born in Brooklyn, but his father, Samuel, was born in Orsha, now a part of Belarus.[12] By virtue of where they were born, the Mushkatin family were “Litvaks,” “misnaggidim;” they were the pure intellectuals who stood in opposition to the joyful passions of the Hasidim to the south. When Geoffrey Chaucer was a child in London, the first Jews came to the town of Vilna, to bring the great “Jerusalem of the West” to life. And Charles Muscatine likely had family in Vilna; one Leib Mushkatin (a cousin? a grandfather?) moved to Vilna from Orsha in 1890. Basya Mushkatin Goldberg, Leib’s daughter, was murdered in the Vilna Ghetto during the Shoah.

This heritage made Charles Muscatine an immigrant to Chaucer. In the 1930 census, the child Charles claimed English as his primary language; his parents claimed Russian. His family moved to Trenton, New Jersey when he was still very young, and his father managed a department store there. Muscatine’s maternal grandfather, who defiantly claimed English as his native language only a few years after immigrating, was similarly involved in the woolens business, and Muscatine’s future wife, Doris Charm Corn, also came from a Russian Jewish textile family. And yet, despite all the limitations of language and class and Ivy League anti-Jewish quotas (not fully repealed at Yale until 1960), Charles Samuel Muscatine matriculated into Yale in 1936.[13]  He earned his degree in English in 1941 and his master’s degree in 1942, the same year that E. Talbot Donaldson joined the faculty. Muscatine paused his academic career to serve in the Navy for two years (receiving a medal for his part in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach), but had returned to his doctoral studies by 1946 when the English department hired the first Jewish professor in the humanities at Yale, Charles Feidelson.[14] Muscatine received his PhD from Yale in 1948, and soon went off to have a prominent career at Berkeley. He lost his job for a few years when he refused to sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath, but Berkeley rehired him immediately after the courts invalidated such oaths. He retired in 1991 from Berkeley, and passed away in Oakland, California in 2010.[15]

Muscatine was part of a generation; his education at Yale, along with that of Charles Feidelson (who also earned his PhD there) and Richard Ellman, opened Jewish intellectual life at that university.[16] And this generational transformation grafts onto Chaucer. For, while Feidelson and Ellman edited The Modern Tradition together, Muscatine cast his mind upon the medieval tradition, and upon the man who had come to embody English identity in all its exclusions. In the opening of Chaucer and the French Tradition, Muscatine acknowledged his intellectual debt to Helge Kokeritz, calling him “myn owene maister deere,” and it is fitting somehow that America’s first Jewish Chaucerian invoked such a filial relationship with the famous Danish Chaucerian.[17]  Muscatine made his own genealogy here, a genealogy of those who came to Chaucer for purposes other than the reification of nation or race.

And Muscatine wrote a new genealogy for Chaucer, as well. John Livingston Lowes was the first Chaucerian with whom Muscatine disagreed, on the second page of the book. But, even more significantly, it was Chaucer’s idiomatic “Englishness” with which Muscatine took issue. “I am aware of Chaucer’s Englishness,” he wrote, perhaps a bit defensively.[18] But, Muscatine argued, “the most prominent source of the style of Chaucer’s poetry — his literary matrix — is not English, Latin, or Italian; his style is most compendiously and clearly described as stemming from the traditions originated and propagated, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in France.”[19] When Muscatine claimed for Chaucer that “his diction and syntax were English before him, his style was not,” he created a version of “Englishness” that assimilates the immigrant, the Jew. English is a linguistic convention, accessible through language study; it is a garment that one may put on and, potentially, take off, so as to pass through other climes. Muscatine’s Chaucer was an assimilated Englishman, French in his genealogy. “He is a common descendant of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, of the great French romancers— Chretien de Troyes, Gautier d’Arras, the anonymous author of Flamenca, — and of the Renart poets and their brothers of the naturalistic tradition.”[20]  Bloodlines were passé to Muscatine; they were the nationalistic fictions that obscured the commonalities and likenesses of the aesthetic. That Geoffrey Chaucer who had served English (and American) generations as the last bulwark for their bigotry became, for Charles Muscatine, son of Samuel and Bertha Mushkatin, yet another foreigner aping an English accent.

And so finally, I would conclude that those of us who study Chaucer now, seven years after Muscatine’s death and three months after white nationalists marched at Charlottesville, should see the existence of a man like Muscatine in our own history as a call to arms to hold onto Chaucer against the forces who would exploit him to do evil. When the National Review mocked Yale students a few years ago for protesting against the presence of too many white men (including Chaucer and Shakespeare) in their curriculum, they did so under Chaucer’s image, in his name.[21]  Their Chaucer is an English Chaucer for Englishmen (and their American cousins); to defend Chaucer’s poetry in the classroom is, in the opinions of such men, to defend the dominance of whiteness in the classroom. Yet Chaucer’s genealogy is what we make of it, his Englishness only another of his fictions with which he beguiles us. And our own academic genealogies, as Chaucerians and medievalists, are far more varied and diverse than we remember. Jews (and other underrepresented groups) are not only a part of the study of Chaucer in the present; they are a part of the way we have studied Chaucer in the past. Muscatine is the first Jew to break into the record, to receive a Yale doctorate in the study of Chaucer. Yet before him, there was Silverstein, and before him Gollancz, and before him countless other men and women who read Chaucer not because they recognized him as their racial peer, but because they recognized something human, something of worth, in the comic, tragic lines of his Middle English verse. Those men and women are as much a part of our history as John Livingston Lowes and G.K. Chesterton; they are as much a part of the future we hope to create. 

Samantha Seal is an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.  Her first book is Father Chaucer: Generating Authority in The Canterbury Tales, and she has also published on Chaucer’s engagement with medieval medicine, Jewish stereotypes, twenty-first century feminism, and motifs of disability.

[1] John Livingston Lowes, Geoffrey Chaucer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), 1.

[2] John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, and Chaucer: With Original Poems (Edinburgh: A. Kincaid, W. Creech, and J. Balfour, 1773), 35.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932), 75-6. On the Universities Tests Act of 1871 and the history of Jewish matriculation into British universities, see Cecil Roth, “The Jews in the English Universities,” Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 4 (1942): 102-115.

[4] Quoted in Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of the Jew in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 201.

[5] Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), 110. Cf. Susanne Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy, 1900-1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998); Klingenstein, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

[6] The comment on the Jews as an “alien and unwashed element” comes from Robert Nelson Corwin, chairman of Yale’s Board of Admissions from 1922-1933, and is quoted in Karabel, The Chosen, 112. The discussion of Jews as traitors to whiteness can be found in Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 127.


[8] Chesterton, Chaucer, 75-6.

[9] Quoted in Klingenstein, Jews in the American Academy, 203.

[10] Quoted in Klingenstein, Enlarging America, 64.


[12] All genealogical information on Charles Muscatine comes from my personal research into his family on, (particularly LitvakSIG), and


[14] As Paul Fry recounts in his brief history of the Yale English department, when Lionel Trilling (Columbia’s first tenured Jewish professor) came to speak at Yale, Feidelson, still a junior faculty member, was “sent to meet him at the train since ‘they would understand each other.”’


[16] Klingenstein, Enlarging America, xx.

[17] Perhaps fittingly, Muscatine thanks multiple Yale professors (including Kokeritz), but does not mention E. Talbot Donaldson.

[18] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 6.

[19] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 5.

[20] Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 5.