Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?


Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.

The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”


In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”


Christians like to believe that they are the heirs to the covenant, but they don’t like you confusing them with the original holders of the covenant. Thus they retain some Jewish practice, but they make sure to change it in certain ways, e.g.:

• they take one day off per week, but it’s Sunday, not Saturday.

• they use the Psalms in worship, but will often Christianize them by adding the Gloria Patri at the end of each one.

• Easter, like Passover, is a moveable feast, but Christians have arranged things so that Easter is never on the same day as Passover.

• something that until recently escaped my notice: a detail from the seal of Dartmouth College:

The Hebrew reads “El Shaddai” and means “God Almighty,” but note what it’s on – a triangle, obviously referring to the Holy Trinity. It’s as though to say, “Look at us, we know Hebrew! But please don’t confuse us with actual Hebrews.”

If you’re interested, more information on the Dartmouth seal may be found in “Notes from the Special Collections: The Dartmouth College Seal,” which appeared in the April 1997 number of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin. I’m still proud of my first real article but I would like to note that Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, was not an Anglican priest, the mangled Hebrew in figure 1 does not look like “Arabic” (or any script at all really), and the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on which the Dartmouth seal is based, looks like this (this image was not included in the original article):


The Leeds Conference

An article on the annual Leeds conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds, but I liked this commentary from… Commentary:

Apparently, There Is an Academic Medievalist Far Left

Even “Game of Thrones” has not quite rescued medieval studies from its reputation for stodginess. Yet the organizers of this year’s International Medieval Congress must have thought their fellow scholars would think them a teensy bit cool for selecting the theme “otherness.”

There were plenty of panels on gender, gendering, ungendering, and various gendered things. There was one devoted to “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity: Rethinking the Status Quo.” There was plenty on ethnicity, a bit on race, and, for those who like their politics unsauced, a panel entitled “The Historical Is Political: Understanding the Backlash against the Study of Race, Gender, and Representation in Medievalism.”

I note these titles not to bash the conference, whose program contains many interesting things, or to suggest that medieval studies can cast no light on contemporary problems. I am saying only that the 2,400 scholars from 56 countries who descended on England’s University of Leeds earlier this month may have thought they’d gone some way toward appeasing the academic left.

Nope. Some of their fellow medievalists are accusing them of abetting white supremacy.

This remarkable charge, though related to longstanding discontent about the field of medieval studies, is at the moment tied to a panel entitled “The Medieval Concept of Otherness.” For the sake of focus, invited panelists were all historians of the early Middle Ages. The idea behind the panel was that whatever the medieval understanding of “us” and “them” or “self” and “other” was, it is was quite different from what ours is today. So the Leeds International Medieval Conference had a white supremacy problem because—no, really—this one panel consisted of “white Europeans” who were not steeped in critical race and postcolonial theory. You cannot have a discussion of how people in the early Middle Ages thought of “the other” without panelists of color versed in highly politicized contemporary theories of oppression.

More at the link.

Washington’s Teeth

An update to the post below about Mount Vernon, in particular about the nature of George Washington’s dentures. A web comic that goes by the name of The Oatmeal, earlier this year, used Washington’s false teeth as an example of beliefs that fundamentally challenge us. I recall that this one was widely shared on Facebook. The relevant bits:

You may have heard that Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood.

Except it isn’t true. In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth.

Upon learning this information, how did you feel about George Washington’s teeth?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably, your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

But what if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials?

What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves? (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

Now, let’s try this again. How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington?

Any of the friction I mentioned earlier?

You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, goes on to examine this so-called “backfire effect,” which occurs when we encounter beliefs that fundamentally challenge us and prompt our limbic system to respond as though we are being threatened with physical danger. This phenomenon deserves wider attention, if only to make people ashamed of it and encourage them to get over it, perhaps through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. After all, we cannot have universities, devoted to the free pursuit and communication of ideas, if everyone is running around being “triggered” by ideas they disagree with, equating those ideas with “violence,” requiring “safe spaces” as protection from them and soothing expressions of parental concern from the university administration, who have better things to do. Alas, this fundamentally adolescent mode of behavior is becoming all the more common in American academia, doubtlessly because the anti-bullying movement has encouraged people to believe that any difficulty they encounter is not only unpleasant, but morally illegitimate (requiring “emotional labor” to overcome), because university staffers feel the need to justify their employment by “doing something” about whatever is brought to their attention, and because liberal academics are desperate to be seen as being on the correct side of things politically.

But I digress.

I swear that I was not particularly upset to discover that Washington’s dentures were made of the teeth of slaves, although it doesn’t reflect all that well on him. My first thought was that surely they extracted them from dead bodies, in an early form of organ donation? Apparently not! But the evidence is somewhat oblique. It comes in the form of an entry in one of Wasington’s account books, which:

details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.

“Source 2” above (the Washington Papers Project at UVA) provides more information:

The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books. The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.” While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.” That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

Sad, if true. But at least he paid something for them, rather than just taking them without any compensation at all…

The Uses of History

From AHA Today. I appreciate this demonstration of the value of the study of history to everyday life (even if I don’t quite agree with the politics…)


Thinking Like a Historian in Scrubs: How I Use My BA in History
By David Glenn

Twenty seven years ago, I was a newly declared sophomore history major. I’d fallen hard for labor history. I wanted to study the American workplace as a site of both solidarity and alienation, a place where people can sometimes break free of the chains of class, caste, and gender, while at the same time falling prey to other kinds of oppression. I wanted to write books like Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (1986) or Walter Licht’s Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century (1983).

It turned out that I don’t have the discipline to sift through archives without getting distracted. (I thankfully realized that early, and never applied to grad school.) Instead, I found an internship at a political magazine, freelanced for several years, and then was offered a job as a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Eventually I got sick of sitting in a cubicle and decided to find an exit.

Today I’m a nurse. I work 12-hour shifts on an oncology unit. I spend my time double-checking chemotherapy orders, taking vital signs, managing Foley catheters, comforting family members, paging pharmacists and physical therapists, changing central-line dressings, and listening to patients’ stories. I love this work. I wish I’d started it 20 years earlier. Sometimes I think that if I could live my life again, at age 18 I’d go straight into nursing school (at Hunter College; this is a very specific daydream). But then I catch myself—I wouldn’t be the nurse I am if I hadn’t spent four formative years as an ambitious-but-undistinguished history student.

Every day at work I draw on skills and habits of mind that I absorbed in my undergraduate history program. I start each shift at 0700 by synthesizing data: Spoken handoff reports from the night shift, lab numbers from the morning blood draw, physicians’ progress notes. That task isn’t so far removed from what I was asked to do in 1989: weave together credible interpretations of 19th-century newspapers, diaries, and census data.

The history major also taught me how errors and fables can take on the mantle of fact through sheer repetition. Just as a sloppy or sensationalized newspaper account of a military battle can feed decades of popular myth, a single inaccurate note in a medical record can propagate itself hundreds of times over. This is especially true in the emerging era of highly integrated electronic medical record systems. If someone at one hospital erroneously charts that you have diabetes or schizophrenia, your primary care physician a thousand miles away might still be fed that “fact” six years later. When I write nursing notes, I try to create reliable artifacts.

If nothing else, my college years taught me to be a decent reader of history. Two books in particular have helped sharpen my understanding of the things I see at work. Patricia D’Antonio’s American Nursing: A History of Knowledge, Authority, and the Meaning of Work (2010) and Barbara Melosh’s “The Physician’s Hand”: Work Culture and Conflict in American Nursing (1983) are both subtle accounts of how gender ideologies, racism, and hospitals’ bureaucratic imperatives have shaped workers’ and patients’ experiences. I’m still thinking about the questions about work, autonomy, professionalism, and resistance that Christine Stansell and Walter Licht opened up for me in 1989. I just didn’t realize that I’d be doing it in scrubs.

“Terrible Student Gets Ph.D.”

I was interested to read a post by my grad school colleague Donald Leech, at his blog Long Slow Run Through History. Don is now at UVA-Wise, and took a rather circuitous route to get there. If you were to speak with him, you would notice his English accent, but I did not know the rest of the story:

I scraped entry into college on my test scores… I went with a friend to the University of Arizona, 2,000 miles from home, and with no study habits whatsoever. I had a lot of fun that year. I failed almost all of my classes, and came home.

It’s a bit of blur for a few years after that. A semester at Eastern Michigan resulted in trips to the Wooden Nickel bar rather than to class. A year at Wayne State resulted on some passed classes and a lot of dropped classes.  Meanwhile, various jobs paid the bills while I lived in Detroit. I did get a certification as an Electronic Technician. This allowed me to work for a few years repairing equipment at gas stations. It paid pretty well.

Then I got married. First we focused on my wife finishing her degree. Then I went back to school at a good small liberal arts college (Madonna University). I graduated with honors while working 45-50 hours a week. Finally, I had done it!

I regret none of it. It had been my own story, my own adventures.

I have students now who struggle, who drop out, who fail. I understand that some of us take a more winding path. I wish I had known then that I wasn’t failing, really I was just better and happier not in school. I was living life in different ways. I hope I can help some of my students find the path they are to follow, to accept that path, and to make the most of it. For some it is finding the course of study they love and to pursue it – their parents may not like them taking History or Theatre, but it’s their love, their life. For others it may not yet be school. They may need to explore a different path. Even if it’s just for a while.

More at the link. I fully agree with the idea that just because you’re not good at school, doesn’t mean that you’re “failing.” Not everyone is cut out for college, and it would be great if more people realized this earlier in their careers, left and done something useful or at least properly compensated, and returned when older, wiser, and more motivated. My profession has an interest in encouraging as many people as possible to go to college (and to incur massive debts in the process), but I have never liked this scam aspect of American higher ed.

Liberal Arts for the Win!

From the Atlantic, as though it isn’t totally obvious:

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program….

[B]usiness majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

A 2014 study of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test—administered to some 13,000 undergraduates as they entered and exited university—found that business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The authors then adjusted their results to account for the academic abilities of students entering these majors—and found that business and education majors still showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking by the time they’d graduated.

Read the whole thing.

Historians of Slavery

My friend Lynn Rainville is featured in the Chronicle (subscription required):

Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own Institutions

JUNE 21, 2016

Crystal S. Rosson had spent years tracing her family roots — poring over courthouse documents, asking relatives to show her the unmarked graves of their ancestors, even quitting her job at a Virginia high school to devote more energy to her research. With every new picture and article she uncovered, one thought lingered in her mind: Where had her great-grandfather Sterling Jones lived? One day she found her answer. It was a well-kept cabin, once a farm-tool museum, now mostly vacant. And it sat only a stone’s throw from the back door of the mansion of the president of Sweet Briar College.

Ms. Rosson had chills. She lives just three miles down the road from Sweet Briar, and she says her family always felt a connection to the women’s college, but she never fully understood why. Since the first day she stood outside that cabin, she has learned more about that connection.

Her great-grandfather was a bricklayer; in fact, he was employed by the college to construct some of its first buildings after the former plantation became an institution of higher education. The cabin, she discovered, was also where Jones’s father probably lived as a slave.

A collection of news and commentary from The Chronicle can provide a starting point for discussion of what might be done to improve the climate and conditions on your own campus.

Ms. Rosson called administrators at the college to see if anyone knew anything about Jones. That’s when she met Lynn Rainville, a research professor in the humanities. Ms. Rainville is director of the Tusculum Institute, which she helped create in 2008 to research and preserve local history. For the previous 15 years, she had been doing just the opposite of Ms. Rosson — tracing Jones’s descendants to find out where they ended up.

“It was a fluke,” Ms. Rosson says of meeting Ms. Rainville. “We had long, crazy, amazing conversations that started us on this path together to piece my great-grandfather’s connection together to the college.” In 2014 the two researchers reopened the cabin with an exhibit to teach students and the public about the college’s historical ties to slavery.

The collaboration between Ms. Rosson and Ms. Rainville was accidental, sparked simply by their own curiosity. But the professor and the genealogist are by no means alone. As more institutions grapple with their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging into public history and raising questions about colleges and universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to slavery and racism.

That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. “Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional history,” he says. “They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but they think it’s great for students to do.”

More at the link (behind paywall, alas).

Helpful Hints for Conferences

1. Just because you have written a paper, does not mean that you have a presentation. Papers are meant to be read silently to yourself, and when you do so, you can go at your own pace, and reread sections that you might not have gotten the first time around. For a live performance, however, you need to overcome the fact that people can’t do this, so don’t just read your prose word for word quickly, in a monotone, and without ever looking up. (As someone said once: “We know you can read. So can we.”) At the same time, don’t simply give a “report” on what you are working on (“now, in this section I explore some of the implications…”). I am amazed at how many academics continue to do either of these things. No, if you give even a little effort, you can craft a genuine presentation, in which you actually engage the audience with your message, which should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I am only too aware of the criticisms of PowerPoint, but it can be used effectively, and frankly it’s pretty much standard these days – why not show key points and a gratuitous illustration or two on principle? (Although there is a problem with this that I have not seen addressed elsewhere. If you are going to use PowerPoint, just make sure that when you insert your thumb drive, and open it, that you do not display to the entire room all your personal files. Empty the drive of anything but your talk, or make sure that the projection screen is off when you download it.)

2. If you are the session chair, here are a few things you can do to make things run properly:

  • State your name and affiliation clearly, and welcome the audience graciously
  • Clearly explain the theme of the panel and why it has a claim on people’s attention
  • Clearly introduce the panelists
  • Tell everyone to silence their cell phones 
  • Keep everyone within their allotted time
  • After the talks, mention how you enjoyed the papers, and if at all possible point out some commonalities (don’t just pop up and say “any questions?”)
  • Manage the questions gracefully

It helps if you have gotten all the papers beforehand, and read them, but this is not always possible.

3. If you are organizing a conference, why not consider reviving the medieval custom of the academic debate? Think of Johann Eck vs. Martin Luther in 1520, or Peter Abelard vs. William of Champeaux in the twelfth century. The fall of this form, I assume, has to do with the denigration of scholasticism and the dialectic mode of enquiry that it promoted; lately, we’ve all become “professional” as well – we’d never publicly contradict a colleague! But I think it could be a lot of fun if you actually got two people, each representing a different side of an issue, and let them go at it. It might even lead to greater clarity of thought.