On Monday, December 9, 2019, Fordham University hosted the book launch of Whose Middle Ages? by convening a roundtable to discuss the book, its genesis, and its critique. Roundtable panelists and contributors to WMA? included Lauren Mancia (Assistant Professor, History, Brooklyn College), Cord Whitaker (Associate Professor, English, Wellesley College), and Maggie Williams (Associate Professor, Art History, William Paterson University). The conversation was moderated by Thomas O’Donnell and Andrew Albin. A full transcript of the event, prepared by Frances Eshelman, follows.
Laura Auricchio: Thank you and hello everyone, one week later, but we’re all still here. It’s a delight to see you. My name is Laura Auricchio. I am the new dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center and it gives me great pleasure to be here tonight. Just to say a few words of welcome. First, I just want to express how grateful I am to the editors, the contributors, and the speakers for putting out such an important book. I personally am an art historian, specializing in the eighteenth century, and the eighteenth century also right now is very hot in terms of relevance to contemporary politics, but I would say it is rivaled by the Middle Ages. And so I am grateful to all of you for what you’ve done, because I think this is exactly what Fordham should be doing—taking the liberal arts, looking at the liberal arts, and understanding how the liberal arts and history of the past actually is really important today. And engaging with the world around us. And so I am proud to be here and to be part of this. I also just have to add a personal note, which is that I am here not only to welcome you in my capacity as dean, but also as a very good friend of Maggie Williams. Dr. Williams and I met before either of us were doctors. We met in our very first year of graduate school at Columbia University, which was in nineteen*ahem*. And Maggie has been a dear friend since then. So I feel as though the stars have aligned for me tonight. So, thank you all for coming, and I turn you back to Tom. Thank you.
Thomas O’Donnell: Thank you, Laura, and thank you all of you for being here today. I’m so impressed that so many of you look so dry. You’re doing so much better than I am. My name is Tom O’Donnell. I am an associate professor of English here at Fordham and one of the co-editors of Whose Middle Ages? We are here to mark the publication of our book, Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. The book aimed to inspire reflection and debate around the uses of ideas about the Middle Ages today, especially in popular culture. To this end, we invited Medieval Studies specialists in a variety of fields—history, literature, art history, theology—to bring their expertise to bear on some of the distorted views of the medieval past in the media, in journalism, and in popular discourse in general. We are delighted that three of our contributors have agreed to join us this evening to speak about their work and engage in reflection that considers where we might take the discussion going forward. In the first half of the presentation, I’ll be facilitating that debate. In the second half, I’m going to hand the baton over to my colleague Andrew Albin. He’s going to introduce the editors’ sense of how the book came to be and the systemic inequities within medieval studies that its production helps bring to light.
So, at the beginning, I would like to introduce our three panelists. So, first, we have Cord Whitaker. He’s a scholar of literature. He’s an associate professor in the department of English at Wellesley College and is an expert on late medieval literature, especially Chaucer and romance. This year, while in residence as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Cord is working on a new project on nineteenth and twentieth-century African American medievalism. His contribution to Whose Middle Ages? is called, “The Middle Ages and the Harlem Renaissance.”
Then we have Lauren Mancia. Lauren Mancia is a historian. She’s assistant professor in the Department of History at Brooklyn College and is an expert on devotional culture and monasteries in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with particular emphasis on the role of emotion in piety. Her contribution to Whose Middle Ages? is called, “What Would Benedict Do?”
Maggie Williams is an art historian. She is an associate professor in the Department of Art at William Paterson University and is an expert on Irish high crosses of the early and high Middle Ages and the modern appropriation of them as signs of identity. She’s also a founding member of the Material Collective, a scholarly working group that encourages a humane, collaborative, and creative approach to analysis of objects and their social and historical meanings. Her contribution to Whose Middle Ages? is, “‘Celtic’ Crosses and the Myth of Whiteness.”
In addition—you don’t see him here, but he’s here in spirit—Simon Doubleday, professor of history at Hofstra, has submitted a few words of reflection on the classroom use of the Middle Ages. Simon is recently the author of The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance, and he has asked me to read the following statement on his behalf. And, indeed, as we go through the discussion today, he has a few reflections that he’s asked me to share. So, to begin with Simon’s opening statement:
He wanted to thank us but particularly Nina Rowe, who organized this part of the discussion, for offering to read these brief comments on his behalf. He regrets not being able to join us. A family emergency has meant that he is writing from Santiago de Compostela, a place which, as David Wacks suggests in his essay for this book, is full of particular resonances for the current political moment. It was David Wacks, like Simon a scholar of medieval Iberia, who first drew his attention toWhose Middle Ages? Having read a draft of David’s essay, Simon immediately decided to assign the book for his medieval survey course at Hofstra this fall. Students have been universally positive, seeing the book as engaging, refreshing, and accessible. Even at the end of a long semester, they have told Simon that it offers radically new and original insights into subjects to which they have often been exposed—the history of Nazi Germany, for instance. William Diebold’s essay on Heinrich Himmler’s twisted medievalism was a big hit. Simon has been interested in the currency of the Middle Ages—the way in which it circulates and has been of value in the present day—for a number of years. Almost a decade ago, Simon edited a book, along with several other activist scholars—Celia Chazelle, Amy Remensnyder, and Feliz Lifshitz—entitled, Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Social Injustice. These essays may perhaps be worth reading in conjunction, Simon suggests, with Whose Middle Ages? Amy Remensnyder’s chapter on torture, medieval and modern, is one that the students have found particularly compelling. But Simon says [laughter]—I know right? I wasn’t planning that—as a whole, according to Simon, Whose Middle Ages? may be even more successful in reaching an undergraduate audience and tapping into many of the immediately urgent contemporary issues of the late 2010s: the Trump moment of crisis. Simon looks forward eagerly to the second and third editions. He wishes to congratulate everyone all around, particularly Cord, Lauren, and Maggie for their marvelous essays. And indeed, I will be channeling Simon at various points throughout the discussion. I’m not going to do a voice, but you can just imagine him. But, to turn things to the important people in the room, to our contributors, I’m going to just ask a few questions, and we’ll go through and get some responses to their insights.
So, I was wondering, first of all—we’ll start with you, Cord—could you tell us about one classroom experience that made you realize that what you do in your essay, or the volume does as a whole would be a necessary and useful intervention for the students?
Cord Whitaker: This story ends in the classroom, but it begins in my broader classroom, which is the world. I do a lot of nuanced speaking for various societies, some scholarly, some quasi-scholarly, some very much in public intellectualism. And—at the risk this getting a little bit autobiographical, but, hey, I’m going first—I was raised in a small town about 80 miles south of here in Southern New Jersey, right outside Philadelphia. It is a historically African American town founded for freed and fugitive slaves in the early nineteenth-century. It’s very, very small. Most people don’t know where this is, but it remains the only African American self-governed municipality in the United States. So, the town only has about 3000 people. And when you grow up in that town and become a professor of anything, you start getting called on for certain public intellectual tasks. So, that town is also the birthplace of a woman named Jessie Redmon Fauset, who I write about in my essay. If you read my essay, you’ll find out that she went on to become a major player in the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, the “New Negro” movement, whose literary and artistic efflorescence came to be called the “Harlem Renaissance,” was really developed and organized—in many ways born—at the book party for her first novel, There Is Confusion, right here in New York City. She was quite important at the time. She was the first editor to ever accept Langston Hughes’s work, for instance, shepherding his career from thereon out. But then she was really written out of the history by the mid-twentieth century. And you’ll see, as I argue in my piece, that’s because of her medievalism. But, because she was born in Lawnside, New Jersey, the Lawnside Historical Society, of which I am an associate member because I came from there and I’m a professor, began holding an annual literary series of talks and events about ten years ago. And I was helping with the grant materials for this and everything was copacetic, and, you know, we were inviting African Americanists to come speak about it, and so forth. And then we won a major grant and got an influx of more money so that we could grow it, and now we would have a keynote, etc., and that was 2011. And the rest of the Society turned to me and said, “Cord, will you keynote this?” My response was, “I am a medievalist. You need an African Americanist for this. I am a medievalist.” And then I was reminded that I am a professor of English and I’m from Lawnside so Iwillkeynote. So then I went away and said, “Oh right, well, now I need to now read all of her work.” To my surprise, I found it was shot through with late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century medievalism. And then I found that none of the literary critics who studied her had treated this—occasionally there was passing mention, but no real critical mention. And it seemed essential to her work. So I gave that talk, which was very, very well received in the community. So then I started taking various works of hers, not only the piece I treated there but also other pieces that demonstrate her medievalism, and using those in my classes, and found that those were very well received, too. And then I found that students of color in my classes, in classes where I used her pieces, were coming up to me saying how excited they were to read her work. That, sure, they liked my Chaucer class the previous semester [laughter] but that this had done something different for them. So their reception—not only was it well received by them, it excited them in a different way, and it began to show up in their papers. Almost categorically, when it came to final paper time, those students who were students of color who had said to me that reading her was important, their final paper was on one of her texts. So, all of that represents about a ten-year span, but when I was approached about Whose Middle Ages?, my response was immediate that I would have to write a piece on Fauset for it.
Lauren Mancia: So, I teach at Brooklyn College, which has an incredibly diverse student population, and, over the last ten years, the administration and faculty have been working very hard to decolonize the curriculum so that it can better speak to the students who we have. And one of the things that was on a potential chopping block was a class on medieval Europe, which seemed to be completely disconnected from students, not only because it was perceived to be a class about white Europeans, but also because many of our students are social studies educators, and unfortunately the global history regents exams now starts at 1750 and not earlier, which is a discussion in and of itself. As part of my argument for why medieval Europe was an important class for students, I gave a presentation on the contribution that I have in this volume, and then gave a little synopsis of what else was in the volume. And in that meeting, there were deans, there were faculty members, most of whom, I think, were modernists, and all of them were sort of dumbfounded to see how relevant the Middle Ages was and how their understanding of the Middle Ages had been skewed by their educations—I’m assuming piecemeal education—or by popular culture about the Middle Ages. And so I’m happy to say that Medieval Europe, with a different title, is still in the curriculum, and that many of my colleagues who teach topics like the Nazis have actually adopted some of the essays for their curriculum because they find them relevant.
Maggie Williams: Hi, good evening. I’m Maggie. I have actually written out some thoughts because I’m nervous, and they are also autobiographical. So thank you, Cord, for letting me do that. So, for me there was no single classroom experience. I’m going to talk about a series of life experiences. I did my graduate work at Columbia with Dean Auricchio, and by the time I was defending my dissertation, I had learned quite a bit about the politics of academia and a little bit about medieval art along the way. And as I was completing my degree, I began to work as a union organizer, and I left the college classroom for several years. I trained during that time with some of the most experienced union folks in the city, and I learned a tremendous amount from them about strategies that can impact public discourse. So after I left union work, I then taught public elementary school here in the city, in South Bronx and Brooklyn, and it was during that time, as I completed my second Master’s in education, that I really began to learn how to differentiate pedagogy in a diverse classroom, which is similar to what Lauren was just saying. Most doctoral programs, at least as far as I know, in the humanities still don’t require any real pedagogical education, particularly with regard to issues of diversity and inclusion. And so I think that area remains a relative blindspot for a lot of faculty. So today, I teach at a public university with a student population that is “majority minority” and nearly half first-generation college. So, at William Paterson, I am always focused on empowering my students to question the sources and accuracy of the information they receive. In recent years, that critical focus has shifted to consider issues of race and inclusion more directly. So, what I mean by that is I regularly teach a class called “Caves to Cathedrals” in which I ask students to consider whether the category of “western art” or, even the broader idea of “western culture,” is a viable one. The course includes Egypt and Mesopotamia, and we spend time discussing whether it’s appropriate or useful to label those areas of the world “western.” We also talk about paint and ancient sculpture. I’m sure a lot of you already know this, but there is plenty of evidence to say that Greek and Roman sculpture, for example, was originally very brightly painted, and there’s also, unfortunately, concrete evidence that some of the earliest scholars of Greek sculpture actively buried evidence of paint because that individual had an aesthetic preference for the pure white surfaces of the sculpture. So I talk to them about all of that history of art history. And so, when we discuss this in the classroom (this is sort of similar to what Cord was saying) I do notice a shift. What I see is that the students of color start to speak up more, and not just on the specific topic of whether or not “western” is a viable category, but it creates a more comfortable atmosphere once I’ve introduced the idea of questioning the bigger picture of history. And so I chose to contribute to this volume because it was a chance to use my organizer training to revise my so-called scholarly work into a kind of activist statement. Ideally, I hope the book will provide a resource for faculty of any ethnicity to introduce these difficult discussions, and particularly for classrooms that don’t look like mine I think it would be especially useful.
O’Donnell: Before we go to the next question, I do have another message from Simon, who has been teaching this book, so his sense of the classroom experience is coming from what it looks like to use this book in the classroom. And Simon says (sorry!)—and I will just simply read his words:
Having now read the first half of the book with students at Hofstra, it may be helpful to underscore what has been especially resonant for them. Our campus is highly politicized: we held presidential debates in three consecutive election cycles, including the Trump-Clinton debate in 2016. Mark Ormrod’s essay on medieval integration and diversity addresses questions that are central to national politics, although it might not be a bad idea in another edition of the book to expand on the question of what medieval history can teach us about frontiers and about historical legacies of the hispanophone world. It might also be worth engaging with the subject of the International Summit that is unfolding currently in Madrid: climate and environment. History makers tend to be distinctly left of center, Simon reports, but in survey courses attracting other majors, there is more political diversity among his classes. We have a ROTC program and collected memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are very much in the air, even if the 9/11 attacks, which were a major stimulus for another book that Simon edited, entitled In the Light of Medieval Spain, are already historical for our eighteen-year-olds. The essays by Fred Donner and Ryan Szpiech both convey the concerns about our society’s relationship with Islam. Donner’s demolition of conservative assumptions about Shari’a law is extremely accomplished. Ryan’s essay was also especially interesting to teach in a politically diverse body of students because it questions easy liberal readings of Jefferson’s Qur’an as a sign that Islam was an integral part of American life from the time of the Founding Fathers. Ryan Szpiech wrote an essay on three ways of misreading Jefferson’s Qur’an and understanding the medieval legacy within that artefact, which people cart out for various induction ceremonies. The strongest student, Simon says, in his class is also the only black student in the class. Simon said that he believes that, later on, we will be discussing one critique of this book: the limited number of contributions to the volume by scholars who identify as medievalists of color. Pamela Patton’s excellent essay on color in medieval art is one of the number that successfully addresses crucial questions of race. But an essay like Cord’s addresses and embodies the ways in which the Middle Ages has been reclaimed by African American intellectuals. For students of color like Simon’s, this really matters. The limited number of contributions by scholars who identify as scholars of color will have to be an important consideration for further work in the field. Finit Simon.
So, I want to now turn to another question, which is about an experience where you engaged with the public in some way or read some public-facing discussion that made you realize that your essay, or the volume as a whole, could contribute to or help redirect popular conceptions of the Middle Ages. So, from the classroom to the public sphere…
Whitaker: Well, I’m happy to jump in here. When I was first contacted by the editors, the proposed title, Whose Middle Ages? jumped out at me, not only because of the work I was already doing on folks like Fauset and, even better known than Fauset, W.E.B Dubois, who had a fair amount of medievalism in their work, but also because this was a question that immediately characterizes my own engagements with the public: sometimes in that public, of course, there are audience members, but sometimes in that public there are students who have not become my students yet, and sometimes that public is colleagues. The experience of hearing “Whose Middle Ages?” immediately brings to mind all of the many times where people have subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, suggested that it is not my Middle Ages. I will tell you a story—I like telling this story because it seems shocking and then you realize it’s not. When I was in my early years of graduate school at Duke, we were hosting prospective students for the next year. And there was a young woman of color, not African American but of color, who sought to study African American literature. And we were at the prospectives’ party, and, you know how you should be trying to—I mean, if you’re a prospective student, you might want to try to impress the second or third or fourth years? Anyway, so we’re talking, she tells me her interests and she asks my specialty. And I said, “I’m a medievalist.” She looked at me—stood back—she looked me up and down, she really clasped her heart. She looked me up and down and said, “You’re a medievalist?” with the greatest disdain. And the immediate suggestion was that, you know, it wasn’t that she had something against medievalism in general; it was that she saw it as a waste that I, as someone who identifies as African American, would work on medieval literature. To her mind it was simply wrong. For several reasons: it wasn’t mine to work on; also to her, it wasn’t that relevant; and, thirdly, it made me a race traitor. And she is not the only person I have had that reaction from. On the other hand, I have had reactions from—just a few weeks ago actually, a well-known senior African Americanist, very senior African Americanist, at a university where I just gave a talk, came up to me and said how happy he was that I had come. Even though he became an African Americanist, when he was in grad school, and even before—we’re talking, you know, the ‘70s—he had wished the Middle Ages could be his. Ultimately, he felt that it could not, and so he did not complete a PhD in medieval literature, and he still wishes he could go back and do that. So it’s a very resonant title, Whose Middle Ages?, and a very resonant subject with deep, deep political implications. The Middle Ages, and certainly its iteration in big headline events such as Charlottesville, shows us how politicized the Middle Ages is, and always has been. So do personal stories of people’s engagement with it—both their rejection of the period and their feelings of having been rejected by it.
Mancia: In addition to teaching at Brooklyn College, I sometimes lecture at The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, and there are a couple of objects in that collection that always elicit interesting comments and conversations from the general public as we’re walking around the museum. There’s a tomb effigy of a crusader knight, there is the famous Cloisters cross with an anti-Jewish inscription down the sides; there is a collection, or sort of group of sculptures of the three Magi, depicted as if they were from the three different continents that medieval Europeans knew about, so one of them is an African magus. And these objects always, without fail, elicit conversation that requires explanation and sometimes involves people putting forth their understanding of how the Middle Ages was. And often, those conversations end with people asking me for a bibliography, and I always feel uncomfortable suggesting that they read an issue on race in postmedievalbecause I think it will be too theoretical or maybe it will put them off in some way, but this is exactly the kind of thing that I can now recommend to them because it’s incredibly accessible and yet also incredibly scholarly. I feel like I’m selling the book, but it’s really gonna be great.
Williams: See, I knew this was gonna happen. I wrote all this out and then you say things and now I want to change it all, so, I’ll do my best to make sense of what I have and what you maybe think about it. So, on this particular topic, I don’t want to take up too much time because I think that this is gonna come back around when we talk about the critique because, for me, the biggest arena in which any sort of public-facing medievalism is happening is social media. So, coming back to this activist idea, this is what was making me think about Whose Middle Ages? and what Cord was saying—in a different way, I wonder about my own access to the Middle Ages these days? So, I’ll go back to what I was originally planning to tell you, which was that, beginning about a decade ago, I worked with both Babel Working Group and Material Collective, which are two progressive organizations in medieval studies. In both groups, one major goal was to make space for alternative kinds of academic work along the lines of the Boyer model of scholarship, for those who are familiar with it. So, those of us in those groups who were tenured or more “established” hoped that we could promote and support the work of under-recognized groups in academia, whether that was scholars of color or early career researchers, that kind of thing. In some sense, I still hope that that earlier work was a small step in helping bright young scholars to come forward. But a great deal of that work was conducted via social media. This was in the early 2000’s, and, as we all know, over the last few years, the realm of social media has changed a bit, and things in medieval studies circles have gotten tense at a minimum. So, I’m just going to share a couple of words that a dear friend and colleague recently wrote on Facebook because I think he puts it very well:
Medieval studies from about 2007 has been fantastic, collaborative, boundary-breaking. It’s been a heady time. It’s been a godsend to work among scholars who dream big and create and affirm and welcome. So it’s horrible, but I suppose not surprising, to see recent backlashes—backlashes that have been directed often at medievalists of color and folks young in the field. It saddens and sickens me to think what young scholars aspirationally interested in our field must think as they see some senior scholars use their prestige and distinction to protect their turf, maintain the status quo, and otherwise try to freeze in place just those aspects of the field that have been changing to make it in many ways more accessible, welcoming, and just.
So, I share that quotation because in the world of social media over the past two or three years, I see people of color and their allies being attacked and punished for expressing anger and frustration. I see senior and established scholars who are unwilling to educate themselves and/or move past their own hurt feelings, in a lot of cases. So, perhaps my training as an organizer taught me to deal with verbal conflict in a way that academics tend to struggle with. I’m not really sure. But I do know that I would be just as angry if I had been politely pointing out the same problem for decades, generations, even centuries. So, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from young scholars of color posting on social media and in blogs and so forth. And I strongly encourage everyone to breathe through their own emotional responses in order to really process the content of what’s being said. So, I don’t know if that sounds, at the end of the day, disconnected from what everyone else is saying, but I think that I wanted to bring tonight, just for myself, the activist angle of what I’ve been doing and how a book like this can help push for change in academia and more broadly.
O’Donnell: That’s not disconnected at all. I do have one last thing from Simon, in terms of thinking through this public spirit question. And this relates to where we begin thinking about social media. So, recently, says Simon, the English historian Tom Holland suggested on Twitter that efforts to undercut the use of the term Anglo-Saxon—now fatally compromised by its association with racist agendas especially in the United States—are a reflection of what Holland calls “a cultural imperialism on the part of witless American academics.” As a historian of Spain, Simon would suggest that it might be worth considering the fate of the terms moor, moorish, moros, once respectable terms that have thankfully been jettisoned because of their racist associations. The venom of Holland’s retort reflects a moment of crisis for conservative Anglo-American elites. We should fight against the patterns of thought and language that enable racism through books such as this and in a wide range of other media. It’s been clear for some time that misrepresentations of the term “medieval” have often been deployed in public rhetoric to de-legitimize right-wing agendas and military interventions, often facilitated by racist patterns of thought, particularly the Middle East. This is true both in the US and elsewhere, including Spain. Over the last year alone, conservative and far-right politicians in Spain, many of them xenophobic and misogynistic, have repeatedly invoked the idea of a conquista as a vehicle for reestablishing control for winning the culture wars against socialism and other leftist agendas. The rhetoric has filled the Twitter sphere, particularly as Spain has had several national elections this past year. In Whose Middle Ages?, David Wacks’s essay on the racialization of Jews and Muslims in late medieval Spain goes a long way towards reclaiming a different conception of medieval and early modern Iberia as a culture that remained profoundly shaped by its Muslim and Jewish communities, even long after their expulsions. The task of reenvisioning what it means to be Spanish and reclaiming it for an essentially conservative Catholic framework has major implications for the present. The task of reconceptualization is also being taken up in a different way in an excellent ongoing exhibition in Santiago de Compostella called Galicia, un relato en el mundo, “Galicia, a story in the world.” The exhibition, which will be open until the spring of 2020, goes beyond the conventional representation of Galicia as the endpoint of a Catholic pilgrimage route, and, instead, places Galicia in a complex series of international, especially Atlantic, frameworks, many of them secular, political, and commercial. This exhibition draws on the expertise of a number of Galician medievalists, reminding us that, alongside valuable book projects such as ours, museums, videos, and other forms of public engagement are also vital forms of redirecting popular conceptions about the Middle Ages. Could there perhaps, asks Simon, be a Whose Middle Ages? initiative engaging with media as well?
Finally, this is explicitly autobiographical: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the process of conceptualizing your essays, repackaging scholarship that was originally shaped by the ambitions and expectations of the academy but now framed for an undergraduate audience with little knowledge with it. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience now?
Whitaker: I’ll say—and this may be far from representative, I don’t know—but for me, it didn’t require that much reconceptualization, and it’s because the work that I present in the piece was very much developed in presentations, developed in conversations including public lectures as well as in the classroom. But furthermore, it’s because the African American medievalists that I write about in the essay were writing from and for a popular—not as much from, definitely for a popular perspective as well—they’re writing for people whose engagement with medievalism is in the realm of fantasy. So they’re not presuming a lot of high-end intellectual knowledge about the period. I will say they are presuming a sometimes more direct popular medievalizing knowledge. That is because many of the most popular novels of the late nineteenth-century were exceedingly medievalist in nature. And we still do have that, something like the Harry Potter series, and even Tolkien’s work in its latest iterations. But medievalist fantasy perhaps doesn’t control the fantasy empire in quite the same way it did in the mid-nineteenth through the very early twentieth centuries. So there’s that. They’re presuming a more popular medievalist knowledge. I will say, in terms of reconceptualizing it, if I had my druthers and if I were to revise this essay, I would actually go back and include a critique our values in the academy; I would address the value of objectivity and empiricism versus the value of affect and personal comportment toward our work. I am of the school—and some would disagree—but I am of the school that no one’s work is objective. Objectivity is a fallacy. I think we should strive for it in order to try to see as many sides of the circle as we might see—right?—in order to try to look at an item of inquiry from as many angles are available, but that will always only be a trying, an imperfect attempt. It will never be fully successful, and it will never be fully successful precisely because our comportments toward our work are personal and they are affective and they always will be. I think that’s something important for undergraduates to hear us talk about, to hear us debate, to sometimes quite heatedly debate, and I think that’s important precisely because the undergraduate moment is when you are being introduced into a culture that expects objectivity and empiricism, right? So, I think the counternarrative to balance that is important to hear from pretty early on, especially when dealing with a body of evidence that is as politically fraught as the body of evidence that medieval studies works with. So, of anything, I would say my reconceptualization ended up being the removal of a lot of that argument and, in hindsight, some of the other arguments that I ended up privileging in order to make the essay a faster read or to make it more palatable, I suppose. I would actually excise some of those and strengthen this one.
Mancia: So, for my contribution, I was asked to respond to a 2017 book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option. And in this book, which David Brooks hailed as the most important book about religion of our decade, Dreher says that in order to respond to the Dark Age that Christian conservatives are now living in, they should make like St. Benedict and live in arks: little communities that are isolated from the rest of the world, just like Benedictine monasteries. And so because I study Benedictine monasticism, I of course did the first read of Dreher’s book and just wrote, “No, no, no, no!” all over my notes and sort of wanted to score points for knowing the esoteric details that he didn’t know. And that in some ways is often the mode in which we engage as academics, in which we discuss with each other various pieces of esoteric details about things, but that is not the mode that is going to engage undergraduates or the general public. And more than that, the stakes for correcting Dreher’s argument were much larger than just, you got Benedictine monasticism wrong. The stakes were that he was depicting a world, a medieval world and a monastic world, in a completely black-and-white way, and there was no complication, there was no paradox, there was nothing to be wrestled with. Everything was crystal clear. And he was using that world as a mirror for our own society. And that’s not the way that society works. It didn’t work then that way, and it doesn’t work now that way. So, what I thought I needed to do, even though sometimes it was complicated, was try to explain in my essay about the complications of medieval society, about how medieval monks wrestled with contradictions, wrestled with paradoxes, wrestled with understanding two opposite things at the same time. And that, when you come to the Middle Ages in that way, it looks like a whole bunch of grey areas instead of a black-and-white world. And yet that’s the world that we need to hold the mirror up to us with, or whatever the construction of that sentence is—right? We need to be looking at the past and understand how it was complicated instead of looking at it and understanding how it was simple, to understand who we are too. So that became a priority for me as I was writing this piece, and then everything—all the esoteric details that were required to do that sort of fell into place.
Williams: I found this question really tough because I don’t know that I ever really follow the ambitions and expectations of the academy. I guess I must have but it’s certainly not a top priority in the last couple of decades, and I think similarly to what Cord said, a lot of my ideas about this were developed in either activist circles where language has to be much simpler or in public presentations. But I will say, I think just to add to what the two of you have said, because it’s interesting how we’re all coming at it from similar angles. So, my big goal, I guess, in terms of shifting between an academic conversation and a more public-facing conversation, is the issue that scholarship that I’ve written in the past—I’ve written dissertations, several articles, and a book about Irish crosses, and I’ve never once in my entire life referred to them as “Celtic” crosses, and I have often had cocktail conversations about why that’s not acceptable, but I’ve never spoken about that in a public or professional context. And the reasons for that, the reasons for not calling them “Celtic,” essentially is what I explain in the essay: that word in and of itself implies an ethnic generalization that I am uncomfortable with. So, I regret now that in my earlier work I wasn’t explicit about the white supremacist version of the “Celtic” cross, and so part of my goal in publishing this and making a public statement about it was to have that conversation beyond just a chit chat discussion. And I also am not so sure how much it matters, the specifics of the subtle visual differences between the medieval stone cross and a modern symbol of hate, but that seems like the next part of the conversation. I’ll pause there.
O’Donnell: Thank you very much. As I said earlier, we heard from our contributors, and now Andrew is going to come up and lead the second part of the discussion. So thank you very much.
Andrew Albin: Just an initial thanks to everybody for showing up tonight. Thanks to the panelists for our first half of the conversation. As Tom mentioned, for the second half of the round table today, we wanted to shift the framework of our conversation so that we could talk about how Whose Middle Ages? came to be and, in particular, some of the systemic inequities within the field of medieval studies that this production helps bring to light. I’m going to do a little spiel to give us some materials to think with, and then we’ll open up the conversation. Hopefully it’ll be a bit less directed around specific questions, and more of an open conversation through those questions.
So, to start the conversation, I wanted to take a minute or two to set the stage with a few pieces of text that have served to shape this book and its reception. The aim here is to build discussion with our panelists around three questions which we pre-circulated and which we’ll work through together—although, of course, more questions might arise during the conversation, and those will be really interesting to dig into. So, here are those questions, which I’ll pull back up later so we can wrestle with them. The three questions which we sent out were: How successfully does Whose Middle Ages? realize its initial conception? What are the strengths and shortcomings of the initial conception, in light of the book’s critique (which I’ll say more about in a minute)? And how do we conceive a more equitable process and outcome for Whose Middle Ages?, and what needs to happen to bring this about in practice, for this and future projects?
So, a few words about the genesis and reception of Whose Middle Ages? I wanted to present three texts for us to have available, which we can revisit as needed during the conversation. I’ll try and keep this as quick as possible. Geraldine Heng writes in the afterward to Whose Middle Ages? that “[t]he essays in this volume are troubled by uses of the past in our present time; instrumental manipulations powered by currents of desire, both implicit and explicit in public discourse.” I think this statement is a pretty apt summary of the sentiments that led to the conception of the book in the first place among the editorial team at Fordham, particularly in the wake of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. I think there was a pretty wide sense of urgency among medievalists writ large at the time that we needed to respond to the appropriation of “our field”—and who is counted in “our” there is a worthwhile conversation to have. We felt a need to respond to the appropriation of our field in some fashion, even if the “currents of desire,” in Dr. Heng’s terms, that powered our sense of urgency went at times unexamined. Out of that sense of urgency comes the first text that I’d like us to have available: this is the invitation email that each of the editors sent out to the contributors we solicited. I have it up here. I’ll read through it quickly just so we have it available. The invitation reads as follows:
Together with a group of faculty from various disciplines, I am helping put together a collection of essays to be titled Whose Middle Ages?: A Reader. The idea behind this book is to identify important flashpoints in popular culture that depend on distorted views of the medieval past, and then commission twenty short essays aimed at undergraduate readers, offering background on and discussion of these flashpoints from the perspective of a professional medievalist. Since many of the distortions that come to mind have become widely influential, we wanted to find a way to disseminate corrective views that commonly only circulate within the academy more effectively.
Our plan is to create a short, small volume of about 60,000 words useful for classroom teaching and intended for the widest possible access. We very much hope that this book will be of use to students whose knowledge of the Middle Ages has come mostly from popular culture—the media, received wisdom, myths of national origin, etc. We are asking friends and acquaintances we know to have written and reflected on relevant subjects whether they would be willing to contribute.
We are asking authors to prepare a short essay of 2,500 words (ten typescript pages), with five “Suggestions for Further Reading” but no notes. Our deadline is February 1, 2018, since we are aiming to publish as soon as possible. If you feel you’re able to contribute, would you send us a short abstract of three sentences outlining the content of your prospective essay? We would appreciate receiving this abstract around a week from the time you receive this letter. At that point, we might offer some further directions in order to ensure the balance of the volume as a whole. You may also have thoughts on others who could write on these subjects; we would be grateful to have these suggestions.
So, a general invitation laying out some of the basic parameters and the aims of the volume, trying to begin to create a conversation and create a body of contributors. Flash forward to the book’s release this October when an important critique of the book identified its complicity with institutional and systemic forms of erasure of the intellectual and public labor of scholars of color. Dr. Sierra Lomuto, who blurbs the book and affirms its value, balances her praise with needful recognition of just how white the book’s table of contents is—two scholars of color among 24 contributors—and just how white this editorial team is. Her critique reads as follows. I have it up here; I’ll read it through:
Whose Middle Ages? is out, and while it is a great teaching resource for your classes, there’s an important discussion that should accompany your using it. I blurbed the cover so I obviously think it’s valuable, but don’t overlook how overwhelmingly white it is. The impetus behind this volume was a white supremacist rally, and the introduction makes explicit its anti-racist aims. Yet, the volume was exclusively edited by white scholars and only two of its essays were written by scholars of color. When I gave my blurb, I told one of the editors that I was disappointed by the lack of diversity. He acknowledged the problem and said they were trying to figure out how to address it. I’m curious what they came up with and if we will hear more about it from them directly. The whiteness of this volume isn’t just about who’s in it, though. It is also about the process by which it was produced. It wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the intellectual work of people of color and the risks we take starting difficult conversations long before white people ever care.
Dr. Lomuto then gives a couple of examples of work that’s been done by scholars of color that has been overlooked in the production of the volume, and continues:
As much as this volume furthers our discussion about pressing issues facing medieval studies, it also hides the most important one: how whiteness thrives on the backs of people of color. Don’t ignore that when you read and teach this volume. Let it deepen the learning experience. If we can’t also talk about how this volume is itself implicated in the whiteness of the field, in power dynamics structured by white supremacy, then that would be missing the point of why it came to exist in the first place.
And I want to also include a bit of the conversation that happened in this Twitter thread a little further down, where a participant in the conversation asks for recommendations on either alternative or companion resources they might read with Whose Middle Ages? In her response, Dr. Lomuto reiterates her simultaneous praise and critique of the volume, and hints at some good things to come. She writes:
I recommend this volume. My thread is not saying otherwise. This is a great introduction to the topic. One of the problems with medieval studies is that this volume’s exclusion and erasure of people of color voices is the norm. There isn’t another volume like this that isn’t predominantly white. Our work is scattered around for now. Stay tuned.
I’m excited to see what that “stay tuned” is hinting at. And now, the last of the three texts I wanted to offer. I wanted to reference a reflection on Dr. Lomuto’s Twitter thread that came from one of our contributors, Helen Young, who expands the meditation on whiteness’s structural centrality not just in the field of medieval studies but also in practices of scholarly publishing. This is her response to Dr. Lomuto’s Twitter thread:
This is an important thread, and one everyone involved in the volume needs to read, and then work out what we could have done better, and then do it next time. For me, this includes asking the right questions. I made sure mine wasn’t going to be a token chapter on race, but I didn’t ask how many Black/indigenous/people of color were contributing. This is a question we ask people who propose volumes to the book series I’m an editor for, and we say no to all-male collections, no to collections without Black/indigenous/people of color when we get enquiries. These are issues we need to be active on in all of our roles, especially when those roles have prestige and/or power attached in any way. Also, don’t leave it to Black/indigenous/people of color to have to say no to blurbing, contributing, or anything else. Make whatever your project is something Black/indigenous/people of color want to be a part of and can be safe, and not tokens, if they do choose to participate.
So, these are the three texts that I wanted to offer for our consideration. We can return to them as needed. They’re here on the slides so we can reference them as we build our conversation. Before we launch into these three questions, I want to—two quick things—first to express my gratitude and the gratitude of the editorial board to the medievalists of color community, especially to Geraldine Heng, Sierra Lomuto, and Kris Trujillo who have been active, thoughtful, and very generous interlocutors as discourse around Whose Middle Ages? has developed. And secondly, I wanted to invite us as a community in this room, in this space, especially white folks like myself, to acknowledge that honest conversations about racism and white supremacy can get uncomfortable, and that rather than react and try and get rid of that discomfort, we instead need to sit with that discomfort and productively engage that discomfort as the conversation we’re about to have evolves and emerges, as we open it up to conversation involving y’all. So, we have a few questions: How successfully does Whose Middle Ages? realize its initial conception? What are the strengths and shortcomings of the initial conception in light of the book’s critique? And how do we conceive of a more equitable process or outcome moving forward? Why don’t we just start with the first one and see where that conversation takes us: how successfully does Whose Middle Ages? realize its initial conception? Who’d like to open, jump in as you like.
Mancia: Well, I’ll start just by saying that I think laudatory and critical conversations on the book are successful, right?—just to have both of them at once is a success. To open this up and to have conversations is what we need.
Audience member: I can’t hear.
Audience member: Lauren, Lauren, could you all talk louder? We can’t hear anything back here. It’s not just that I’m deaf.
Whitaker: You know, it’s quasi-ironic (but it’s not ironic) that a book that asks the question, “Whose Middle Ages?” ends up embodying the question, “Whose Middle Ages?” You end up looking at the composition of the book and first, you have to question, was this a matter of resources? Are there so few people practicing in medieval studies that it was just going to have to have this makeup of identities among the contributors? And then, if you find out that’s not the case, then you have to ask, okay, well, why? What else happened to make it appear that the Middle Ages do belong to people who share an identity involving European descent? Right? So, in that regard, the question the book sets out to ask, the book makes its reader also have to engage in asking. Now, I am certain the editors would have preferred that the book not embody the question in this way. But since it has, and we’re here to deal with that fact, in a way it is a success, because there’s something the book is doing that’s actually true to the state of the field that makes us have to question the state of the field and what can be done, not only about producing another volume of Whose Middle Ages? that does a better job of achieving equity, but, how do you arrive at a medieval studies that does a better job of achieving equity?
Mancia: And, just to build on that, I think that’s something that has to start at the undergraduate and graduate level too, right? It’s not just looking at people who have academic jobs now and pulling from them, but actually making sure that students who might not have the resumés of a white student from an upper-class background from Yale, or whatever, can actually get into the academy as well. So one of the things that I spend a lot of time doing when I write recommendation letters for my students is to try to explain in my recommendation letters why they couldn’t take an unpaid internship, or why they’re an older student because they’re a veteran, or why there are gaps in their resumé because they had to take care of their children. So, you know, we’re not talking about diversity based on skin color alone, we’re also talking about veteran status and socioeconomic status and all kinds of statuses that need to get into the academy to give us a diversity of opinions on all kinds of things in medieval studies.
Williams: Yeah, I agree with everything that people are saying. I think the only thing I would add really is something that stuck out to me in the initial invitation, the second page of the invitation, and I’m sure it’s just honest truth, but “we are asking friends and acquaintances we know to have written and reflected about…”—right? So, that to me immediately is problematic not just in terms of race but in terms of the politics of academia, the way it’s always been. With stuff like that we’re back to the same old Old Boys problem. So…
Albin: And I think there’s a sense, further down, of the quick turnover that the book itself wanted to latch onto, right? That also builds into that kind of dynamic, right? If you want a quick turnover, you’re gonna reach out to the people who already have work out there that’s doing the thing you’re looking for, and you’re gonna rely on your network that you already know rather than spreading out the net: actually doing the work of inquiring and soliciting from the community that you want to see represented.
Williams: Well, and on the flip side of that, the turnover issue to me also has to do with the hierarchy of academic positions. For someone like me, with two kids, who teaches a 4-4 load, it’s a little different than someone who doesn’t have kids and has a 2-2 load, whatever. So finding the time to actually…
Whitaker: And to add to that, in addition to the kinds of demands on time that face someone who teaches a 4-4 load with multiple children, there’s also the fact that scholars of color—whether they in some cases are teaching a 4-4 load or are those who have a prestigious job who are teaching a 2-2—still have what a lot of us call the “black tax,” and the “black tax” is that you doing more service than mostly everybody else in your department. And the reason is that students of color come to you. They come to you for informal advice about how to deal with racism they are experiencing on campus. They come to you looking for advice about things that they’re dealing with that don’t, at first, seem like they’re due to racial stress, and then when you start digging deeper and playing therapist because you have to, you realize that you do have to deal with racial stress. They also come to you first for recommendation letters because, just like Lauren suggested, you’re the one who’s going to probe and/or know enough to write about their situations, to be able to say, “Don’t discount them because they didn’t do this, don’t discount them because they didn’t do that.” So, that’s already affecting your time too. I will say when I got this invitation and I looked at it, I thought, “You know, this is great in many ways.” But I also wrote the editors back and said, “You will not have an abstract back in a week. You’ll get one, but not in a week.”
Mancia: One of the things—my husband is in the children’s book world—and one of the things that has become a best practice there is what Helen suggests, which is to write back and say, “Who is in this collection?” and to advocate so that it’s not just on the editors to do this work, but it’s on the contributors also to nudge the editors to have a more diverse showing among their contributors. One of the things that the week turnaround might not have let happen is for that to grow beyond our scholarly networks, as you were saying also.
Albin: To reiterate some of the points that were made about the structural difficulty of having a representative body behind a project like this: when you’re constituting an editorial board and your institution doesn’t have a medievalist of color, or, as in our case, the one medievalist of color that has come into the community is right there in their first year, they’re onboarding at the university. You want to protect junior scholars so that they have the time to do their projects, so that they can go up for tenure and get tenure, but you also want to make sure that representation is offered and extended, right? So, it’s also this quite difficult problem of constituting an in-house editorial board, or of an in-house initiative where equitable representation is just not part of the makeup of the university, which gets to the larger questions of, How is the field constituted? How are we educating graduate students and undergraduates? How are we making job searches available? How are we making resources available? How are we mentoring all the students that are coming through our doors, so we can bring more people into our discipline who can constitute a group that makes projects like these more equitable in their conception and execution?
Whitaker: Sure, you do have to work with what you have, but you also have to think quite creatively. I will say that, were I in the position of being a person not-of-color who is trying to form an editorial board, my next question would be: “Yeah, we’re not going to draft the person who just got here and who needs to focus on getting their own individually authored scholarship together. So, do we have any senior African Americanists around who know a lot about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Victorianism, after all, naturally engages medievalism. Or do we have any early modernists of color? And maybe somebody who’s not in one of the fields we already have represented. We’ve got a board where we’ve got a couple of literary people, a couple of historians, maybe even an art historian. Well, maybe we have historically-interested sociologists around or an anthropologist who is a person of color.” So, you can begin to open up your disciplinary structure, in the same way. Now, it is certainly possible that such a thing could happen at an institution—I don’t think Fordham is one of them—but you could find yourself at an institution where the answers to all of those are “no.” Then you really have to start looking at, well, can we open this up to including somebody or somebodies from a neighboring institution? And that’s going to slow your process down, but that’s where you have to start looking at what’s going to make for the most effective process? Can you sacrifice speed for efficacy?
Albin: And you raise a really interesting question about why that much value is placed on speed, right? What’s the thinking or, as Geraldine Heng says, what are the “currents of desire” that sit underneath this push to make this book happen as fast as possible? I think, especially in the wake of the Unite the Right rally, there was a desire to respond, but the urgency of the drive behind that need to respond could have used further reflection and more time to think through what actually drives us, what could be involved in the making of a book like this that would be more considered, that would take its time, as you say, to get you the best book possible, rather than the quickest book possible.
Andrée Hayum: Sorry to interrupt, but I just was wondering, how is it different from saying “Whose Renaissance?” You know? What’s the medieval part of the question? When you started by giving the example of that woman who said to you—What did she mean? I don’t think we can assume you know… What did she mean? Did she mean something about values that are medieval? What, that it’s too scholarly, that it’s too this, that it’s too that? What’s the most bewildering discussion is the medieval side of it. I’m not a medievalist. That’s not the issue, you know, but—
Whitaker: Well, you know—
Audience member: Could you repeat that, please? We can’t—we couldn’t hear any of it.
Albin: So, I’ll try and make a habit of repeating the question. So, the question, and correct me if I’m not getting this correct, the question seemed to be: As we’re having these conversations, what might we be losing with respect to the medieval? Right? If we’re thinking about the medieval as—
Audience member: No. What is it about medieval that makes you ask the questions?
Albin: Got it. Got it. So, what’s specific about the Middle Ages that invites us to ask these kinds of questions?
Maryanne Kowaleski: They really are having a hard time hearing—
Audience member: We can’t hear back here.
Kowaleski: —so if people from the audience are going to ask a question, they need to stand up and probably face the larger audience.
Albin: Great. Thank you.
Whitaker: Well, you know, I mean, to your—and I think you’re asking a broader question than this—but to your very specific question, as to the woman who asked me that, I went on to know her for several years. She did come to that institution, so I can say for sure that her feelings were very strong that people of color should not be practicing in medieval studies because the field was too white. The field was by white people and for white people; it was her belief that people of color, scholars of color, should use their intellectual energies to advance fields for people of color. She was a person of color, and this was her perspective. I have had other people, though— You know, for her, the Middle Ages was always already rejected. But I have had a lot of other people who felt rejected by it, and who wished that, felt that, they really wanted to do medieval studies at some point or another and felt that they couldn’t—because they wouldn’t be accepted or taken seriously. There are two sides to that experience.
Nina Rowe: I also want to say that I think it’s a disciplinary difference too, particularly for those of us who were in graduate school in the ‘90s. In the field of art history, medieval art was always seen as something alternative, because at the center was the Renaissance, and then there’s antiquity, and then there’s Impressionism. And so, if you do something—and particularly when we were coming up, it was Michael Camille, who was saying, “Look, the Middle Ages itself is queer, and this is a place where all these different discourses can run wild.” And so there was a sense of inclusivity, that the Middle Ages was for everyone in art history.
Mancia: Whereas in history, the historiography is such that the Middle Ages is a place of origin, right? Traditionally. So, it’s the origins of a persecuting society, right? It’s the origins of the nation-state, right? And so, for that reason, we could understand why the Middle Ages would be a hotbed of the origins of all of the problems of contemporary society as well.
Albin: And as various contributors to the book point out, also the origin of modern myths of—
Kowaleski: Speak up, Andrew.
Audience member: Speak up and talk out. [laughter]
Audience member: Believe me, they can’t hear you.
Albin: Sure. Sure, sure. So, just pointing out that we were talking about origins, and the Middle Ages being a place of origins. As contributors to the book do point out as well, the Middle Ages—especially under the influence of the Victorians, as well as their predecessors—the Middle Ages became a place of origin for narratives of whiteness and white ethnic origin, white ethnic launching points, emerging points.
Whitaker: A central tool of British imperialism, and other European imperialisms as well. Especially British imperialism.
Albin: We have other questions that we might play around with a bit. The two other questions that we circulated were: What are the strengths and shortcomings of the initial conception? And we’ve touched on that a little bit, I think; if there are other topics we want to expand on, I’m happy to build that in. And then we had the question: How do we conceive of a more equitable process or outcome for Whose Middle Ages? and what needs to happen to bring this about in practice for future projects? I think in some ways our conversation has begun to gesture towards the idea that it’s not necessarily a specific fix we need to find that attaches to the volume as a whole, but that the volume, as Dr. Lomuto’s critique pointed out, becomes symptomatic of larger inequities inside the field of medieval studies and the academy and modes of academic publishing. And so I think that would be something interesting to think through and talk through. It might even be something that we can open up to the audience a bit: As we think through ways by which we can take on projects like this, build projects like this, and want to create them in ways that are more equitable, that are more representative, and that encourage the field to continue to move in directions of greater justice, greater equity—What kinds of things can we imagine that would help achieve that project? How does Whose Middle Ages? become an object lesson that we can learn from? I’d be curious to have us talk this through a little bit, but also perhaps the audience has ideas or thoughts, either in response to the book, response to things that you’ve been doing, response to the conversation that’s been emerging in the field writ large. I think it would be an interesting conversation to build about how we can continue moving in the directions that a book like this opens up and invites us into, and how that effort might continue moving forward.
Williams: I just would love to—I don’t know if this is—I already mentioned that I’m a trouble-maker, so maybe I’m making trouble, but I feel like that question—I would like to hear what everyone else has to say, because I feel like I’m not sure how many medievalists there are. I’m not sure how many academics there are. You know what I mean? I don’t know whether we’re having a conversation about the Middle Ages, or about academic publishing, or about activism. And so, I’m sort of curious to know what you all are thinking… Because it seems to me that the public-facing—I guess the connector there—
Williams: —if we’re talking about public-facing scholarship—
Williams: You know? We’re facing you. [laughter]
Laurel Wilson: It occurs to me that it’s a little hard to have clarity about making a change when we don’t seem to have clarity about how you got to the problematic place in the first place, unless it’s simply a matter of not being able to respond in a week with an abstract. Do you have a sense of how the book came out in the shape that it did, and were you aware that it was perhaps lopsided?
Albin: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I do think that there was, that some of the things that we’ve discussed thus far, the sense of urgency—as I said at the beginning of the conversation, there was a need to sit inside discomfort and not necessarily react to that discomfort. I think in a lot of ways, the genesis of the book was a reaction to a disciplinary discomfort we were feeling around Charlottesville that brought these issues very blatantly to mind. And also, in some ways, it was quite local: up at The Cloisters within the past two years Identity Europa dropped their banner across the bridge that overlooks the Hudson River, saying—I forget what the exact text was, but it was something like, “Immigrants are not welcome here,” with the Cloisters Museum in the backdrop, right? And that is not a chance placement of that message. So, our sense, I think, as people living in New York, as medievalists, wanting to respond to this in a pretty speedy and student-facing way, public-facing way, felt very, very key. And I think, as we were saying earlier, some more time to think about the keenness of that need to respond might have been a productive way to think about how to reformulate this volume in a way that would have been less inequitable.
Auricchio: Sorry; so I think you can all hear me because I’m very loud. Okay, I think that this is in fact not strictly a problem of medievalism, and I think it’s important to note that, because I think that we all have lessons to learn from this experience, and I’m just going to describe very briefly an experience I had at a previous institution, so I am by no means impugning Fordham in this. Fordham was a glimmer in my eye when I had this experience. I was at another venerable institution with very progressive values, and we were seeking—I was in charge of a search for a new dean, and there was a lot of time pressure. We had to get it done, we had to get it done, we had to get it done. And I had a very diverse committee that was very committed to the work of diversity, and we pushed back, and it took effort to push back against the provost and against the president. And to say, “You know what, we’re not rushing. And the reason we’re not rushing is that we’ve looked at our pool—we actually built into our process a moment at which we were going to stop, look at our pool, and assess, is it sufficiently diverse? If not, we’re pausing, and we’re all going to reach out to our network or our friends’ networks.” And we did that. And we pissed off the president and the provost, but, you know what? At the end of the day, they survived [laughter], and at the end of the day, we had—the head of HR came to me after we had the finalists on campus, and he came to me and he said, “Laura, I have never seen such a diverse group of finalists for such a high level position.” And I said, “Thank you. It wasn’t rocket science.” But it did take effort. And so I think that we have to learn how to build into our practices these questions, these moments of stopping and asking questions, and I’m not saying that it was a perfect search. It wasn’t. It was flawed in many ways, and I don’t want to hold myself up as any kind of ideal. I just want to say that there are practices that we can all learn and I think will help us all in academia and outside of academia, in life. Yeah.
Susan Greenfield: Hi. First of all, I just want to congratulate all of you. I mean, this is really a remarkable accomplishment, and I’m very impressed. As usual, pretty jealous. That said, I want to ask a question related to the question of there not being a lot of people of color in the book, and then I want to ask a kind of longer question, more historical question—
Audience member: Stand up.
Greenfield: Did it occur to you? [laughter] Was it a priority, and did it occur to you?
Albin: This is an important question. I think there was definitely a desire—
Greenfield: I have another question. [laughter]
Albin: Yes. I think there was a concerted effort to reach out to those scholars of color who we knew, right? Who had done work that we thought would fit into the volume pretty seamlessly and pretty quickly because, again, the desire to put out the book quickly was the one that seemed to be driving the process. So we did it, and, invariably, many of the scholars of color we reached out to were occupied with—I mean, one was fighting off Identity Europa that was attacking them pretty ferociously. With another, we had a series of back and forths about the shape of the contribution, and our desire for a particular kind or style of contribution didn’t match the kinds of writing that that scholar wanted to offer, so they stepped out of the project. There was a third we reached out to who I believe did not get back to us, for all the reasons that highly tax scholars of color with lots and lots of responsibilities. I know when we reach out to our personal networks of people that we know, we know them because, in part, we encounter them at professional events. They’re widely circulating figures. They have forms of recognition. They’re able to do the networking in the spaces of professional encounter. And so we build our networks that way, but our networks are our networks—and there’s a conversation to be had there too, right? Where’s our desire to build our networks that move outside of our immediate areas of intellectual or research expertise? Our desire to build outside of our field? Our desire to build connections with colleagues in our institutions and other institutions that sit outside of our immediate corner of academia? I think these are things that—even in the sense that, once you’ve built a research agenda, the desire to keep reading diversely outside your research agenda introduces you and makes you familiar with names so that when you go to the conference, you recognize that person, and you go up and introduce yourself, right? I think there are norms to how we, how many of us operate as scholars, that rely on the demands of how academia works. The desire to publish in a specialized field and the valorization of those publications as the way that we get professional recognition oftentimes is something that limits our ability to continue building our reading and our scope in ways that might encourage, at a structural level, a wider network that would lead to a different kind of conception.
Greenfield: Can I ask my follow-up question?
Albin: Yeah, yes.
Greenfield: So, granted that that’s—as much as I’ve got a complimentary—
Audience member: Stand up.
Greenfield: Arguably, I have another question, which is—I don’t know, it never occurred to me to be a medievalist either. In what way—actually, it did, but— [laughter]
Whitaker: It occurs to everyone at some point.
Greenfield: It was a brief period. Reading Chaucer. But, that said, the problem stated: 30 years ago, how many people in this volume would not actually be in this volume? To what extent does this volume represent changes in the field in terms of gender, in terms of perhaps sexual orientation, in terms of religion?
Albin: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a good point. I think maybe that would be an interesting question for others in the audience to reflect on as well. I certainly can’t speak well to the state of the field thirty years ago.
Greenfield: I just remember the people who I learned from…
Albin: Yeah. One thing to point out is the constitution of the volume and the topics that the volume address do reach pretty broadly, right? The book addresses in a significant way questions of race, questions of whiteness, but also questions of sexuality, questions of class, questions of gender, questions of faith. So the book itself, in terms of the topics that it covers, is quite broad, and I think, in that sense—
Greenfield: But I’m also thinking about the contributors.
Albin: The actual embodied contributors themselves. Yeah. I don’t know that I have the frame of reference to compare the state of the field thirty years ago, but—
Rowe: But I even think that the state of the field is different now than it was in 2017. I mean, things are happening, things are changing in exciting ways and dynamic ways, in part because of the state of social media, because of the work that was done by those people involved in bringing other people up, so that were we to put together another volume now, it would—there would be a different kind of makeup automatically because of who the leading voices are. So, the point is, at the end of the day, it’s sort of an optimistic thing to say, but I’m not afraid to say it: I think things are looking up in the field.
O’Donnell: I think we could just maybe give all of our contributors, especially the contributors who showed up today, a hearty round of applause.
O’Donnell: On behalf of Medieval Studies here at Fordham University, on behalf of all the editors and all the organizers of this event, we’d like to invite you to stay, have something to eat, have something to drink, and take a look at the Fordham University Press table. We not only have a copy of Whose Middle Ages? for perusal, but also Cord Whitaker’s recent book, Black Metaphors. You can take a look at that. So please stay for a while, talk for a while. We’re so glad you came. Thank you very much. Thank you.