“Outreach” is the kale of academia: everyone agrees it’s healthy, but they’re not always eager to make it a part of their lives. My hat is off, then, to Richard Utz, a scholar of medievalism at Georgia Tech, for his willingness to ride out to the market square and kick around big questions about the state of his field. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published part of the plenary speech Utz delivered in May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I’ve been moving truckloads of books to a new home in the country, so this is my first chance to dig into the piece. Despite the stupid title the editors gave it—“Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists”—it’s a worthy start, even if I found myself cuisse-deep in the questions it raises.
It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.
One way to do this is to intervene aggressively in the media when the French National Front appropriates Jeanne d’Arc, New Hampshire legislators feel textually beholden to the Magna Carta, British politicians combat contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or Prince Philip is appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.
What does it mean to “intervene aggressively”: stand on the drawbridge and denounce sinful readings of history? By what criteria? It’s not a question of accuracy: Utz links to stories about European nationalists, British Conservatives, American Republicans, and cranky Prince Philip (as if they’re all the same) but later he praises the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA and its members have done tremendous work in material culture, folklore, and martial arts, but as an organization whose mission is often informally characterized as creating “the Middle Ages as it should have been,” it also has a fantasy wish-fulfillment faction, and it redacts a vital force in medieval culture: religion. Is that not at least potentially a problem for academia? Does the group get a pass from the Medievalist Police because they’re nicer or generally more liberal? I don’t want (or trust the proponents of) a medievalism that seeks to justify every facet of liberalism any more than one that serves as a conservative catechism or nationalist blueprint.
Even so, Utz sees promise in meeting at least certain elements of the public on their own turf:
Add these efforts together, and we medievalists might extricate ourselves from the isolationist confines of 19th- and 20th-century medieval studies and embrace a broader and more egalitarian mélange of academic and popular medievalisms. If we join ranks with the so-called amateurs, we will ensure a continued critical as well as affective engagement with medieval culture. In the process, we might revivify our discipline and contribute to the health of the humanities.
I respect Utz’s aims, but I’m skeptical of his plan. In the past eight years, I’ve written more than 160 blog posts about medievalism, a few of which have gone, if not viral, at least naggingly bacterial, including one about a Charlemagne quote from an Indiana Jones movie that’s drawn tens of thousands of readers. I’ve written both a middle-school textbook and a moderately successful midlist pop-history book about Charlemagne. I’ve given talks about Charlemagne at libraries, museums, and book festivals. I’ve promoted a book of medievalist poetry inspired by a Gothic cathedral. I’ve translated a Middle Scots romance and published shorter translations here on the blog and in scholarly and literary journals. I’ve even dabbled in applied paleobromatology and shared my clunky efforts at retro, medieval-themed instant photography. I did these things not to advance an academic career but because the Middle Ages provided a rich matière for the creative work that occupies my spare time—but if I had done these things as a scholar engaged in public outreach, or if academia had paid more attention to me, would it matter?
Utz writes as if the scholarly world is not just doomed, but scarcely deserving of survival:
The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Guédelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid. Moreover, sites like medievalists.net and publicmedievalist.com communicate valuable information more effectively to academic and nonacademic audiences than dozens of academic journals accessible at subscribers-only sources like JSTOR or Project Muse.
Scholars have indeed failed to bushwhack through old-growth clichés to reach the public; the late Norman Cantor identified the problem more than 20 years ago. But Utz points out an important and underappreciated supply-and-demand clash:
[T]here is now a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games on the one hand, and the decreasing number of medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues on the other.
When I was an adjunct, the director of the English department started me off with one medieval lit course and laughed at my hope that there’d ever be more. In the decade that followed, student demand let me revive the other three medieval courses in the catalog. Now that I’m outside Utz’s drawbridge, I wonder if there shouldn’t be less talk about impressing the public and more effort to win over university bureaucrats, especially lapsed humanities scholars who act like they’re managing a Walmart distribution hub.
I also wish Utz had clarified what he means when he says that students “request that we address their love” of the popular media of the moment. Do they want professors to pontificate about their favorite TV shows? That strikes me as a disheartening waste of brainpower and money—but my hope is that they want something more. Speaking as a kid whose medieval interests were partly rooted in childhood enthusiasm for fantasy games, I’d urge Utz and his colleagues to promise wonderful new realms to their students: history that illuminates human nature, the keys to unlocking eldritch languages, artistic and theological glimpses into the medieval mind—uncool things that endure deep within us long after entertainment companies neglect their latest love-child.
Utz alludes only briefly to “the health of the humanities.” I wish these discussions weren’t always so polar, with academia on one end and TV and video games on the other. What about other eclectic, unaffiliated souls? I’ve met or discovered the work of several such people: Lex Fajardo, author of Kid Beowulf, a series of all-ages graphic novels inspired by his love of world epics; Nancy Marie Brown, the admirably prolific author of mass-market books about the Lewis Chessmen, the Vikings, the Eddas, and Pope Sylvester II; remarkable medieval-inspired poets like Maryann Corbett and Becky Gould Gibson; or novelists like Tod Wodicka. I wonder: What would they do if they came to a scholarly conference? Would it still be a scholarly conference? Would scholars support them right back? Just as those retiring medievalists aren’t being replaced, writers and artists are watching their audiences fragment and shrink. The larger culture doesn’t care, but those of us who have never felt entirely at home on either side of the drawbridge would welcome new allies in seeking the true and the real. Sometimes it’s nice not to lurk in the moat.
11 thoughts on ““Ah, you are in your prime, you’ve come of age…””
Avoiding terms like “patristic exegesis” would be an excellent first step in engaging with commoners like me.
This year at my university, a small place with 12 full time history positions, we lost 2 and 1/2 of them — one retirement, one death, and one person going on half-time. I think we also lost two valuable teaching assistants. One of the things we lost in this cataclysm was modern British history; another was Islamic civilization and modern Middle Eastern history. For all the talk of academic snobbery, this shows an almost bizarre disconnect between the daily business of the nation and serious study and teaching of the relevant past. Canadians don’t need the opportunity to study Syria! We are only at war there! And Britain? It’s so over!
Just to let you know: a few of those eclectic souls who are medievalist poets will be gathering for a panel at the Medieval Academy of America conference in Boston next February. We’ll read poems to each other and anyone else who shows up. Most of those gathered have published their work in an anthology entitled *New Crops from Old Fields.* We’ll see how academic the gathering turns out to be (insert smile here).
Pete: For what it’s worth, since Utz was originally addressing his fellow medievalists, a term like “patristic exegesis” makes a certain sense. His audience would know what he meant, and the hint of pomposity would have suited the reference; D.W. Robertson had what most people would consider a severely narrow range of acceptable ways to read medieval works. What irks me more from professional scholars isn’t snobbery, but a false modesty, when they try to address the public using Internet slang that makes them sound like tenth-graders. I’m quite happy Professor Utz does nothing of the sort!
Steve: That is appalling. Those stats bolster my hunch, three paragraphs from the bottom of this post, that perhaps the problem isn’t necessarily the culture of professional scholars, but the stark awfulness of misadministration that an age of outreach can never undo.
Maryann: Indeed, the publishers of New Crops from Old Fields let me read an advance copy, and I really liked it. (You can read my blog post about it here.) Most of the contributors are active scholars, though, so they’ll no doubt feel right at home at the MAA conference.
Indeed, managing a university like „a Walmart distribution hub” would lead to administrators doing RoI calculations and following them, even if that meant investing more in some low-status but cheap humanities programs and less in high-status but expensive ones in applied natural science. But I have seen North American administrators infected with a certain kind of fashionable nonsense hear such numbers and reply with emptiness about difficult times and being sure that economies can be found while cutting what their theory says is bad and investing in what it says is good.
On the other hand, back in 2012 I attended a philology and archaeology conference in Seattle with booths staffed by Erik Shanower (Age of Bronze), a hairdresser trying to understand some of their hairstyles used by wealthy Roman women, and some of the more serious kind of Roman army reenactor. Medievalists have Kalamazoo. So while some people are cruel in trying to enforce the boundaries of their group, and many are blind, I don’t know that the people studying old things at universities who I know are generally hostile to interest from outside the university.
Utz might talk more about incentives, and how those shape where people who want to teach at a research university invest their time and effort.
Thanks for your comment, Sean! I’m sorry it briefly and inexplicably got stuck in the spam filter.
I particularly agree with the closing sentiment of your second paragraph: I don’t know that in 2015, scholars in general and medievalists in particular are hostile to public involvement and the pull of popular culture. Rather, when scholars suggest that organizations like the SCA can help save their field of study, I’m inclined to wonder if anyone asked the SCA if they want that responsibility. On the other side of the equation, what are the benefits to reenactors, hobbyists, and (I dare say) writers? Engaging with the wider public shouldn’t be a one-way relationship; amateurs should get something out of outreach other than reports from the Accuracy and Interpretation Police.
I’d be delighted if Professor Utz were to show up here for some friendly back-and-forth, because I’m likely underestimating him and perhaps misunderstanding him, but I don’t think I’m on his radar screen.
Certainly, from what I have seen, when someone tries to lead the SCA in a more historical direction, most of the community responds “bah, that sounds too much like work, and we like our filk songs and rattan and belly dancers.” (And it sounds like the communities within the SCA which police authenticity, such as the people who judge reproduction projects or decide whether a “SCA name” can be registered, have some problems which many academics would find familiar). And since nobody is paying them, its hard to object, as long as they don’t call the wilder things “historical.”
People who study old things can say to the public: “we can satisfy your curiosity about the past with things which are stranger and deeper and more finely worked than you can invent alone.” (for an eccentric Swedish version see Martin Rundkvist, Hope for the Humanities, 2010 http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2010/12/10/hope-for-the-humanities/) But as long as academics are rewarded for advancing the state of knowledge among a community of specialists, but not for improving the average level of knowledge or satisfying public curiosity, and as long as four people are awarded a PhD for each tenure-track job which is posted, academics won’t invest much energy in disinterested outreach or focus their research on things which interest the public. Even if Utz’s speech is aimed at academics who already have tenure, expecting people who have spent most of their waking hours for fifteen years struggling to find a place within a system to start working outside it as soon as they are secure may require more than stirring rhetoric. But of course we don’t have his full speech, or know whom he wanted to reach.
All good points, Sean. How can professors undertake entirely new projects with the vague and possibly quixotic goal of reinvigorating their field when they’re exhausted from years spent achieving some basic job security?
I have no idea if the Chronicle published one tenth of Utz’s speech, or half of it, or two thirds of it, or what. I don’t understand why they didn’t publish all of it, when space and printing costs aren’t a factor online. Perhaps he’ll make the whole thing available himself.
Is it a failure of the classicist community that people hold toga parties, or that “300” was a big hit?
George, it’s a good question, tongue in cheek or not, one that speak both to the allure the Middle Ages have in popular culture that the classical world can’t quite match, and to the weird position medievalists are in when it comes to trying to figure out what relationship they do have, or aspire to have, with the public. (I know I have at least one classicist among my blog readers; maybe he’ll weigh in.)
George, I know classics departments which hold Roman banquets and “lets mock a bad Hollywood movie” nights, or at least where the younger members do.
People who study the ancient world in the US struggle with “relevance” too. The trendy word for studying things inspired by ancient literature is “reception studies” and most departments have some kind of Ancient World on Film or Historical Novels of Greece and Rome class. Its just that most classicists at universities are busy doing things which they are paid to do (or exhausted from the struggle to get tenure), and they know that they won’t get hired or promoted for writing a blog, teaching Latin classes at the public library, doing a TV interview about the classical references in Hunger Games, or helping a wandering economist answer some questions about the ancient world.