Whose (Medieval) Congress Is It Anyway?

If we brand our colleagues our enemies and make winning a social media altercation more crucial than the common good, then collegial compromise, negotiation and tolerance will be stamped out, argues Richard Utz.

August 2, 2018
 
 
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University of Bologna/15th century

Higher education has not been a comfortable habitat for the humanities in the 21st century. Many of the causes for their steep decline in student enrollment, faculty members and reputation are external: conservative legislatures, economic pressures, technology and the ascent of STEM disciplines. Sometimes, as if there weren’t enough external strains, colleagues in the humanities turn their formidable arsenal of critique and suspicion against their own.

This time, the organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”-- allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Forbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject 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. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

The letter of concern also charges the organizers with a “lack of transparency around the process by which ICMS programming decisions are made” because they do not publish the names of their program committee members. Considering the volume of questions and complaints about the roughly 600 conference sections and close to 3,000 participants, the ICMS policy is reasonable. It protects faculty and staff members from angry and entitled senior colleagues as well as the harassment common in online culture.

In addition, Western Michigan is unionized and boasts a proud history of faculty self-governance: hiring, curricula and processes regarding the ICMS are determined by faculty members, not administrative fiat. However, that may not satisfy the members of BABEL. Their credo is that higher education is moribund, and all one can do is work “in the ruined towers and rubble of the post-historical university.” To BABEL, the ICMS may well be such a rubble: valuable enough as a public platform to demand access or control but undeserving of civility.

As one consequence of BABEL’s attacks, Western Michigan administrators may think twice about supporting the Medieval Institute in the future, as it exposed the university to negative worldwide attention. Moreover, graduates of the Medieval Institute may have to answer for the unwarranted accusations when applying for doctoral programs. Finally, it should be noted that the ICMS volunteered information about this year’s proposed and accepted sessions to those unhappy with the decisions. The organizers have nothing to hide, and their official response to being slandered on social media (beyond the letter of concern) is collegial and rational.

In contrast, all we know about BABEL, except for the names of those who compiled the letter, is that it is “a pack, not of subjects but of singularities without identity or unity, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit and build temporary shelters for intellectual vagabonds.” Is “multiplicity” the same as “transparency”?

The letter of concern and social media conversations claim that “traditional” sponsoring organizations are somehow less deserving (intellectually, politically) of receiving congress space than “progressivist” ones. The letter mentions some of those less-deserving sponsors: Cistercian Studies, affiliated with Western Michigan since 1973 and one of the Medieval Institute’s research areas, adds two dozen members of religious houses to the conference crowd; De re militari (Society for Medieval Military History) attracts a portion of the roughly 100 Kalamazoo community members who attend conference sessions for free; the Pearl-Poet Society hosts well-attended sessions on complex medieval poetry.

Once a session proposal from those and numerous other organizations has been accepted, the conveners may accept “progressivist,” “traditional,” pastist and presentist submissions. Thus, the topics requested by the letter’s authors cannot only find inclusion in a BABEL-sponsored session but may also compete for a space in one of the numerous other sessions, as hundreds of us do every year. It appears BABELians do not want to be subjected to external evaluation. Since they believe their work is more relevant, they want guarantees that everything they propose will be accepted.

The reason why the ICMS’s confidential selection process functions is that the organizers balance matters evenhandedly. While not all sessions proposed by all sponsoring organizations may be accepted every year, the faculty-led process is effective over time. Therefore, the participants trust the organizers and return every year. Instead of gatekeeping, the organizers have been inclusive of diverse topics and methodologies for more than 50 years. While other medieval conferences make highfalutin statements about their inclusivity and exclude those not employed by well-heeled institutions via unreasonable registration, hotel and banquet fees, I’ve found that the ICMS has kept costs low: registration rates for the four-day event are at $160; students pay $95; on-campus all-you-can-eat meals range between $12 and $18; single (dorm) rooms are available for as little as $38. These prices make it possible for more colleagues from community colleges and comprehensive universities to attend than at any other international congress I know.

And the ICMS has been inclusive of issues of disability, gender and race long before this year’s social media assault, as even a cursory look at past programs proves (1962 through 2018 are searchable at the congress archive). The 2018 program, for example, features the term “race” nine times, “disability” nine times and “gender” and “feminism” 48 times; the plenaries are focused on racial minorities (William Chester Jordan) and gender (Sara Ritchey). Were BABELians in charge, I fear certain groups, topics and scholars might be banned or ousted (as happened when the founder/moderator of the [unofficial] Facebook site, International Congress on Medieval Studies, felt obliged to resign due to social media pressure), and the congress might institute secularist and “progressivist” litmus tests.

For more than half a century, the ICMS has provided an inviting and equitable public space for students, amateurs, Kalamazoo residents, members of religious orders and independent scholars and academics, regardless of rank. Close readings of Averroes, feminist critiques of scribal mouvance, the military strategies for the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa and the role of racism and ethnonationalism in the history of medieval studies have all been welcome at ICMS meetings. And the ICMS belongs to all these persons, groups and topics equally because all of them -- organizers, participants and sponsoring organizations -- have invested precious resources and work in co-creating and sustaining the event.

To subject this precious polyvocality to the kind of “social sorting” that has turned Republicans into the party of white, evangelical, rural, conservative voters and Democrats into the party of nonwhite, nonevangelical, metropolitan, liberal voters over the last 30 years would be a grievous mistake. If we brand our colleagues our enemies and make winning a social media altercation more crucial than the common good, then collegial compromise, negotiation and tolerance will be stamped out. Such an intra-academic “lining up of identities,” as our colleagues in the social sciences remind us, promotes “emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence.” More important, it further alienates our most important constituents: the citizens whose often enthusiastic interest in medieval culture sustains public support for research and teaching in medieval studies. Because some of this 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), we need more occasions during which the academic drawbridge is lowered so that real and difficult conversations with nonacademic publics may happen.

Therefore, instead of adding more “socially sorted” sessions for intra-academic questions among those who already share a similar identity, I would encourage the ICMS to continue to expand its offerings to groups and topics that specifically provide engagements of scholarship with the public, to exemplify research that reaches out. This kind of public medieval studies, similar to the public humanities, is the best way of ensuring the relevance and inclusiveness of our field.

Bio

Richard Utz is chair of the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism.

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