The Academic Sandbox

The always-entertaining Charlotte Allen weighs in on the recent kerfuffles in medieval studies, in First Things. A choce excerpt:

Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-­justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW ­idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”

All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which ­graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.

The field of medieval history, in contrast to ­medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.

“How serious is this whole thing?” a colleague asks. In honesty I have to reply that, given the numbers of people involved, it’s not all that serious. Medievalists might not be “monkish” but, from what I can gather, most of them don’t even know about the Brown-Kim feud, and cannot muster the interest to care when they are apprised of it. It seems to be one of those things that becomes all-consuming if you’re a social media junkie. People with actual lives and real research agendas tend to have different priorities.

Alas, you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So-called “woke” medievalists, the “SJWs” of the discipline, while numbering perhaps 100 at most, are influential beyond their numbers, for the reasons that Joseph Epstein noticed. Some of them have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Medieval Academy, where they bend it to their will by instituting a risible Professional Behavior Policy, sending around an email asking the membership to “thoughtfully consider” a statement by the Medievalists of Color essentially accusing the entire field of being racist, or giving free lifetime membership to Dorothy Kim on account of the alleged harassment she received from fans of Milo Yiannopoulous. And if no one pushes back against this sort of thing, it will eventually become the new normal, and given the online behavior of its proponents they will end up ruthlessly excluding anyone holding contrary views from the Medieval Academy. This is not an exaggeration – they truly believe they are in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of evil, and anything done to further their cause is morally justified. This is not even a conflict between the “left” and the “right,” it is between emotionally secure adults who have an expansive attitude toward other opinions, knowing that they themselves might not have all the answers, and people who believe, e.g., that refusing to ban Rachel Brown from attending a session at the Kalamazoo conference “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom” (cf. Joseph Stalin on “true freedom“), or who say things like this:

Georgia Regional PAT Conference 2019

On Friday, March 30, Reinhardt students Jessie Fanczi and Grant Ashton traveled to the University of West Georgia in Carrollton to participate in this year’s Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference. There were four concurrent sessions of three panels each over the course of the day, and the overall quality of the papers was very good. Jessie presented a paper on Stanley Porter, one of the pioneers of racial integration at Reinhardt College in the late-1960s, while Grant gave a paper on the Gaelic Revival of late nineteenth century Ireland.

Grant Ashton and Jessie Fanczi, UWG, March 30, 2019.

There was no keynote speaker for this conference, but a poster session, a novelty for me. I especially liked one by Lesley Jones of the University of North Georgia on women and the occult in the nineteenth century, complete with Edward Gorey-style original illustrations:

Other interesting papers I heard addressed the Astor Place Riot, the German Student Movement of 1968, NBA star Allen Iverson as a hip-hop icon, US Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Presidents James Madison and John Adams, and Baptist minister John Leland. A session that I chaired featured papers on Catherine the Great, the policy of “salutary neglect” toward the American Colonies in the eighteenth century, and the Spanish Civil War as represented in the Daily Worker, the official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

I repeat that the quality of these papers was very high. The swag was good, too! It was kind of the nursing school to lend us their beautiful new building for this conference. Thanks to Colleen Vasconcellos and Stephanie Challifoux of UWG’s History Department for organizing such a great event.

Code of Behavior

The Medieval Academy of America, following a survey of the membership taken last year, released a Professional Conduct Policy on January 2. I quite liked this coverage of it, on the College Fix. Excerpt:

According to the document, it is meant primarily for the protection of “those in vulnerable positions” from other medievalist members, who could potentially “assert a relationship of power” over them.

What actions does the policy define as troublesome? While it is highly specific as to what constitutes sexual harassment, all of the other potential violations in the categories of “harassment,” “microaggressions,” “bullying” and “social media” are very general.

“Harassment includes demeaning, humiliating, and threatening actions, comments, jokes, other forms of verbal and/or written communication, body language, and physical contact,” the policy states.

This generality has been taken by some to be problematic; despite the academy saying it “will not take breaches of professional or ethical behavior lightly,” what exactly constitutes a breach in its judgement appears to be lightly outlined, if at all.

Much of what is written about is based upon an individual’s personal judgement or feelings. For example, the academy strictly prohibits harassment in the form of “demeaning” or “humiliating … body language,” but does not state what types of online actions are considered violations of either. It also says that bullying “may include refusal to recognize … personal constructions of work,” which, as the word “personal” implies, differs from one professional to another.

Under the category of “microaggressions,” instead of detailing in the policy what types of behavior are restricted, it links to a Tumblr blog titled “Microaggressions.” The blog’s last post was from over a year ago, and in the FAQ section in response to the question “What makes you an authority on microaggressions,” its authors admit that they “aren’t.” They do, however, define the term as “the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities.”

Rachel Fulton Brown comments that:

If feelings are going to be the way in which we determine whether or not people belong in the conversation, then… it’s a change in the character of the professional body, from one of mutual interest to social belonging, and that will change its effectiveness.

For my part, I was amused by this nugget from the policy:

Harassment is a form of discrimination and misconduct by which the harasser asserts a relationship of power over the harassed through behavior that causes feelings of fear or distress.

Apparently every single meeting with one of my grad-school professors was “harassment.” 🙂

Kalamazoo

I enjoyed the 53rd annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, held this past weekend on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I have been attending this conference since 1995; this one was my fifteenth. It was great to see old friends and make new ones. Some highlights:

• The state of Michigan, it seems, has been willing to invest in WMU – or at least the place attracts enough students that it can do good things with all the revenue generated. The dorms have been given a makeover, and there was a new one that conference attendees could stay in for some extra consideration. There is also a massive new dining building, and the pond has been extended and has a new bridge across it (although there were no swans this year, to my chagrin).

• Enjoyed a lovely dinner with my friend Kevin Harty of Lasalle University in Philadelphia. Kevin has been a major source of St. Georges for me, and I appreciate his two latest ones:

• To my great delight Michael Wood was a participant in this conference. He is most famous for his history/travel videos, which are always popular with my students (including one from the 1980s on the Trojan War). I did not know that his original training was as a historian of Anglo-Saxon England, and his presentation on Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (who died 1100 years ago, in 918) was illuminating. Episodes of Wood’s series King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (“Alfred of Wessex,” “The Lady of the Mercians,” and “Aethelstan, the First King of England”) were shown on successive nights.

• Enjoyed the plenary session by William Chester Jordan of Princeton University, who spoke about the converts to Christianity that St. Louis made on his crusades, and their subsequent integration into French society. I did not know about this.

• Attended two sessions of the American Association of Irish Medieval Studies in preparation for my trip there later this month. I was happy to see my old friend Lee Follett from my days at the University of Toronto. 

•  Pleased to talk with Michael Gervers, who had supervised my Master’s thesis at Toronto. He has numerous scholarly interests beyond medieval England, including medieval Ethiopia, in which capacity he was at Kalamazoo this year. His work on Ethiopian rock-cut churches was noticed by the Toronto Star late last year, and Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie has awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia in recognition of his research.

• My own paper, featuring my work on St. Michael, was given in honor of the retirement of my friend D’Arcy Boulton, emeritus of Notre Dame. Again, a great session and a lovely dinner afterwards with D’Arcy and co-panelists at the Great Lakes Shipping Company, a longstanding Kalamazoo institution.

Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference, 2018

The 2018 Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference took place on Saturday, April 7 at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Carla Gerona and Daniel Amsterdam were the main organizers. Thirty students representing ten Georgia universities presented papers over the course of the day. I was impressed by the overall quality of these presentations.

Reinhardt was represented by the talented Madeline Gray, shown here seated between Jake Schenberg (UGA) and Carolyn Wood (Georgia State), participants in a session on local Georgia history. Mr. Schenberg spoke about the people displaced by the construction of the Buford Dam, which created Lake Lanier, while Ms. Wood addressed the integration of the Atlanta Police Department, which was made difficult by all the Klansmen who were members of it. (Something I did not know about: the Columbians, “the nation’s first neo-Nazi political organization,” formed in the summer of 1946.)

Ms. Gray presented her paper on the racial integration of Reinhardt College in the 1960s. Written as part of Ken Wheeler’s Town and Gown IDS course last fall, it featured interviews with some of the still-living participants, and primary source research in the Reinhardt newspaper, yearbooks, and trustees’ minutes. President James Burgess deserves much of the credit for ensuring that this process ran as smoothly as possible.

I’m pleased to say that Ms. Gray’s paper won an honorable mention award at the closing ceremonies! Well done! (The photo shows her between Profs. Amsterdam and Gerona.)

The keynote was a very interesting presentation by Douglas Flamming, professor of history at Georgia Tech. Entitled “Red, ‘Pink Gold,’ and Blue: Southern Shrimpers and Soviet Shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, 1945-1975,” it took as its starting point an incident that occurred in March of 1963, some five months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The shrimper Ala, out of Fort Myers, Florida, had been fishing for several day on the Tortugas Banks off Key West when it lost power and started drifting eastwards through the Straits of Florida – a little too close to Cuba for Cuban comfort, apparently, which sent three Soviet MiG fighter jets to intercept it, one of which actually fired on it. (The Ala’s difficulties may have been deliberate, as the Americans had just installed a radar station on Key West whose signal was impossible to fly under, and they may have wanted to test it – the MiGs were chased off in under five minutes.) This incident served to open up an investigation into the application of technology developed during World War II (e.g. diesel engines and sonar) to shrimping, which entered a golden age in the mid-twentieth century (this is the era when breaded shrimp appeared in TV dinners, and the shrimp cocktail was an emblem of sophistication). The Soviets, for their part, in a search for more protein to feed their people, sent out massive fishing expeditions, organized like a naval battle fleet and complete with processing factories on the flagship. (As you can imagine, fishing in international waters produced a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation, and Gulf shrimping is largely moribund these days – the shrimp that most Americans consume today is farmed in southeast Asia.)

I had been to Georgia Tech before, but hadn’t really had the opportunity to see the campus. The parking lot was quite a ways from the Hall Building, so I was interested to discover such details as the Tech Walkway, the Tech Green…

the Kessler Campanile (reproduced on the logo above)…

and this engineering-themed sculpture in Tech colors.

Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.

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.

Symposium

I just received word of this. It looks interesting:

A SYMPOSIUM AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES AT ATLANTA

5780 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, Georgia
Saturday, September 16, 2017
9:00 – 4:30

The holdings of the National Archives at Atlanta include approximately 10,000 cubic feet of records relating to the World War I home front.  These records document the federal government’s attempts at food conservation, promotion of the war effort and the purchase of Liberty Bonds, as well intelligence investigations by the U.S. Navy. Other historical records tell the story of the 24 million men who registered for the Selective Service and of other men who were prosecuted and incarcerated for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917. This year’s symposium, The Great War Over Here: Stories from the Home Front, encourages research in these diverse records, features scholars whose published works were based on these holdings, and promotes the discovery of new scholars from universities and colleges across the Southeast and the nation.

Presenters Include:

Dr. Ernest Freeberg, Professor of History and Department Chair, University of Tennessee, Author of Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent 

Dr. Jeanette Keith, Professor Emeritus, Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Author of Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War

Dr. Carol White, History Professor, Clayton State University, presenting on:Poetry of World War I

Nathan Jordan, Archives Specialist, National Archives at Atlanta, presenting on An Introduction to World War I Era Records Held at the National Archives at Atlanta

Joel Walker, Education Specialist, National Archives at Atlanta, presenting on Political Prisoners in the Atlanta Penitentiary: Anarchists, Socialists, Ministers, and More  

Pre-registration is required. Registration is free and limited to 200 participants.
To register online, go to: https://www.archives.gov/atlanta/symposiums/wwi
To register by email: atlanta.archives@nara.gov

Sponsored by the National Archives and Georgia Humanities.

Georgia Regional PAT Conference 2017

Mercer_University_logo

On Saturday, April 1, Reinhardt student Kyle Walker, alumnus Alex Bryant, and Prof. Jonathan Good traveled to Macon to participate in this year’s Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference. Many thanks to Abby Dowling and John Thomas Scott for their hard work in putting together a good one. Mercer last hosted this conference in 2011, and it was a pleasure to return, as the Mercer campus is gorgeous, especially in the spring. The papers I heard were all very good – especially Kyle’s, who spoke of how the domino theory of Communist expansion in southeast Asia was applicable to Indochina only, largely on account of all parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all having been part of the French empire. Communism did not spread beyond these places because Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, etc. had different histories (i.e., communism and nationalism did not converge there, as it did in Indochina). Plus, the US commitment to containing communism entailed a great deal of support for the non-communist governments of these countries, which helped to protect them from that particular ideology. This was the silver lining of the Viet Nam war – it didn’t prevent the North from taking over the South, and from backing the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge as they took power, but it did prevent the spread of communism beyond Indochina.

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Kyle Walker ’17 at the Georgia Regional Phi Alpha Theta Conference, Mercer University, April 1, 2017.

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Participants in the “Eastern Front” session: chair Joshua van Lieu (LaGrange College), MiKaylee Smith (LaGrange), Daniel Garrett (LaGrange), Kyle Walker (Reinhardt).

The plenary session at lunch featured a very interesting presentation by Maurice Hobson of Georgia State University, professor of history and African-American studies, whose book The Legend of the Black Mecca: Myth, Maxim and the Making of an Olympic City is about to be released by UNC Press. Dr. Hobson’s talk, entitled “Using Hip Hop as History: From the Black New South to the Dirty South,” referenced W.E.B. Dubois, Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson, the 1996 Summer Olympics, artists like OutKast and Goodie Mob, the Atlanta Child Murders, and Hobson’s own personal history, to demonstrate how not all African-Americans were uplifted by Jackson’s post-segregation New South.

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Alex Bryant ’15 and Kyle Walker ’17 flank a Mercer bear.

Announcements

For those in the area:

Please join us on Saturday, February 4, 2017, when the Bandy Heritage Center presents the 2017 Civil War in the Western Theater Colloquium “Written in Blood and Carved in Stone: Remembering the Civil War at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.” Three prominent scholars will discuss how the nation’s earliest military parks came into existence, how each contributed to the memory of the war, and how their commemoration of the historic landscape changed over time. The program starts at 10:00 a.m. and will be held in the Lecture Hall of the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center (2211 Dug Gap Battle Road, Dalton, GA 30720) in conjunction with the Chickamauga Civil War Show.

*****

Looking for a date night idea in Cartersville?

January 28, 2017, 7:00-10:00 p.m.

Red, White, and You!
Live Jazz – Dancing – Cocktails – Refreshments
Come dressed in 1940’s attire
(Rosie, WACS, G.I., Starlet, Comic Book Hero, etc.)
Obtain your enlistment papers (tickets)
www.BartowHistoryMuseum.org.
For more information call our recruiter, Nicole Masters, at 770-382-3818, ext. 6288 or email her at nicolem@BartowHistoryMuseum.org.
Bartow History Museum
4 East Church Street, Cartersville, GA 30120

 *****

Evening Lecture: Touring the Wilderness of North America with Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer
January 19, 7:00 pm

Bergman Theatre, Booth Western Art Museum.

Join the Prince of Wied, Maximilian, as he takes you on a tour of North America as he saw it in 1832-33-34. Using Karl Bodmer’s illuminating illustrations, Prince Maximilian will escort the audience on an adventure from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the Great Falls of the Missouri River, from New Harmony, Indiana to New Orleans, Louisiana. Travel with this intrepid explorer to meet America’s best scientific minds, explore the West in the wake of Lewis and Clark, camp among the Mandan, Lakota, Crow and Omaha and participate in traditional American Indian drumming songs. Storyteller and author Brian “Fox” Ellis steps into the shoes of Prince Maximilian allowing the audience to step back in time. Blending history, science, art and cultural anthropology, the Prince gives us a unique view of America as he saw it in the early 1830s. Much of the text for this performance comes directly from his journals. The backdrop includes the landscapes, portraits, and scenes from everyday life painted by Karl Bodmer. Program included with admission.