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.


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