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It's About More Than a Name

Anglo-Saxon studies group says it will change its name amid bigger complaints about where the field is going -- or isn't.

September 20, 2019
 

The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to change its name, the group’s advisory board announced Thursday. The move comes amid internal disputes about the direction of the group and of medieval studies more broadly. No news on what the group will be called now, however.

Anglo-Saxon studies “has always had problems, not unlike any other field,” independent scholar Mary Rambaran-Olm said this week. Yet “we seem to be one of the least equipped and slow to move ourselves into the 21st century with regard to tackling racism, sexism, inclusiveness, representation” and other issues, she added.

Resignations and Accusations of Inaction

Rambaran-Olm made waves earlier this month when she announced her resignation as ISAS's second vice president. She did so at the RaceB4Race conference held at Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library. The event was organized this year for medieval and early modern race scholars.

In comments to Inside Higher Ed and in her writing, Rambaran-Olm has said her field is rife with elitism, bullying and discrimination that graduate students and early-career researchers, in particular, either suffer through or flee.

Within ISAS, she said via email, “There was no way we were going to be able to ‘fix’ the multitude of problems in the field, but as the field's largest organization we should have moved more quickly to address the glaring issues which might then send a message to the field and more importantly to victims who we owe this to.” There are examples of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities succeeding in Anglo-Saxon studies, she said, “but very often they fit the mold and it is often a case where these individuals are ‘allowed’ in by gatekeepers.”

Irina Dumitrescu, a professor of English and medieval studies at the University of Bonn, in Germany, also publicly resigned from ISAS’s advisory board last week in solidarity with Rambaran-Olm. In her resignation letter, she cited the society’s “refusal to deal with certain pressing issues (such as greater inclusion in governance, protections of sexual predators and abusers, lack of clear complaint policy), and slowness in others,” such as the name vote.

“I regret very much that I did not do more to push for change,” she said, noting that she had both witnessed and experienced a culture of abuse -- and told the board this summer, to no avail.

One senior scholar named by multiple sources as a perpetrator of abuse against women in the field did not respond to a request for comment. But members of ISAS have repeatedly asked that his membership be revoked.

ISAS -- whose members study the language, literature, history and culture of fifth- to 11th-century England -- chose its name upon its formation in the early 1980s. Yet it’s “long been recognized that the term 'Anglo-Saxonist' is problematic,” the advisory board said in its statement about the name change. “It has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.”

In a separate email to ISAS members, the group's executive director, Robin Norris, said there will be a process for selecting a new name. Norris also resigned from that position, saying, "We made you wait too long for change."

Beyond ISAS

Scholars' concerns go beyond ISAS. Last year, for example, saw a proposed boycott of the Western Michigan University Medieval Institute's International Congress on Medieval Studies, and a related push for more inclusive, self-critical sessions for the 2019 gathering.

“Now is an urgent, contested time in medieval studies and in the world at large,” read an open letter of concern published by the BABEL Working Group, which supports the congress. “Responding to the field's evolution would mean acknowledging its heightened interest in the perspectives of scholars of color and creating space for these underrepresented voices.” The statement was signed by many individual scholars and along with the Medievalists of Color group.

There was backlash to the letter: Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote in Inside Higher Ed that he supports diversity but rejected “the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other.”

Scholars in a number of fields, including medieval studies, have said they're worried about the misappropriation of terms and symbols by white supremacist groups in recent years. And some of the “public interest (and some scholarship) is imbricated with some of the problematic traditions in the history of the reception of medievalia in postmedieval times (for example: nationalism, racism, toxic masculinity),” Utz also wrote. But instead of more “‘socially sorted’ sessions for intra-academic questions among those who already share a similar identity,” he said, “we need more occasions during which the academic drawbridge is lowered so that real and difficult conversations with nonacademic publics may happen.”

And then there was backlash to the backlash. Joshua Eyler, a medievalist who is currently the director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, for instance, wrote on his blog that Utz was missing the point.

Listen, Eyler said, “to the loud calls coming from many angles by medievalists of color, LGBT scholars, early-career scholars and more. Or listen to the whisper networks that have always existed. But we must listen. The project of inclusivity in medieval studies is a big one, and it will take a collective effort of all of us to make it possible." The field can't "reduce the efforts to pat solutions like counting sessions, because the issues are structural and will take a lot of work," he added. "The work is essential, though, and we must attend to it carefully.”

‘The Only Person of Color at the Table’

Ayanna Thompson, director of the statewide Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and a member of the RaceB4Race executive committee, said the organization is the result of a January symposium “by and for premodern scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern literature, history and culture.”

That symposium came about because many medievalists of color who proposed panels on race for the Western Michigan congress saw their ideas rejected, Thompson said. She thought her research center could be a venue for those scholars to present and dialogue with each other, and more than 300 people attended.

RaceB4Race now has the funding for symposia twice a year as an alternative to conferences that Thompson said “have not worked to be inclusive.”

Of Rambaran-Olm, Thompson said that she hadn’t met in her person prior to the Washington event, but “admired the way she has been working to make ISAS more inclusive.” Everyone was “shocked when she announced her resignation,” and there were audible gasps in the room, “but it was clear that her work with ISAS was taking a personal toll.”

Rambaran-Olm spoke about what it felt like to be the “only person of color at the table, and how her ideas were routinely discounted and ignored," Thompson said. 

She added that she's worked to make the Shakespeare Association of America more inclusive and so was "personally dismayed that Mary decided to step away from the table" at ISAS. Yet Thompson was a already a full professor when she “decided to stay and fight." Rambaran-Olm doesn't have that status. 

What’s In a Name?

ISAS’s name, then, is just one of a series of concerns underrepresented scholars and their allies have about medieval studies. But it’s arguably a relatively easy, meaningful change to make: Erik Wade, a visiting lecturer at Bonn, among others, has argued that the term 'Anglo-Saxon' has long been used to create and enforce racial hierarchies.

Serious discussions about changing the group’s name have been going on for more than two years, according to the board. An ISAS member submitted a formal proposal for a vote in May, and the issue was debated at length at the society’s summer meeting in New Mexico. Presentations and discussions there “showed a wide range of views on the topic, and that above all there was a strong groundswell of desire for change.”

The group said its timeline for the vote was bumped up as “pressure from members and social media mounted,” especially after Rambaran-Olm’s departure.

“The board is grateful to Mary for her many contributions to the society,” reads the ISAS statement. “At the same time, we recognize that many of our colleagues have felt marginalized and unwelcome within ISAS, and pledge to effect changes to the way the society is run. We accept that we were not as transparent or quick at responding to criticism as we could have been, and commit to do better.”

Other changes to the way ISAS operates are on the way.

“We are strongly committed to rapid and transparent progress on these important matters, which are critical to the future of our society and our field of scholarship more generally," the board said. "We are grateful for the patience and support of members as we begin to rebuild bridges between the divisions in the society.”

Timothy Graham, president of ISAS and distinguished professor at the University of New Mexico, said this week that it’s clear Rambaran-Olm “raised important issues that need to be addressed.” There has been “substantial online dialogue within the society over the last week,” he added, “with many members contributing thoughtfully from their perspectives as teachers and researchers within our field. It is clear that there are changes ahead for the society.”

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