Friday, August 28, 2015

Saving Medieval Studies?

I was somewhat perplexed to find a link to Richard Utz's recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, "Don't Be Snobs, Medievalists," a revised or abbreviated version of a plenary lecture he gave at the big Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this past May. I don't know Utz, and I was unable to attend the plenary, but I have plenty to say on the topic, and I guess I will go ahead and do so here.

Utz's solution to the increasing problem of medievalists' shrinking presence on university faculties is to ask them to connect or reconnect with an interested public. The underlying claim, it appears, is that medievalists have been too "snobbish" by writing primarily for an audience of specialists and by failing to respond in quite the right way to non-academic medievalism. The first claim, about writing for specialists, I'd point out, pretty much applies across the board to humanities scholars, and is really only half a complaint, anyway. While I do think humanities scholars might reasonably write more for public outlets, writing for specialists is (and should remain) a central mode of all work at the boundaries of knowledge. It is the essence of the scientific method, and in that sense, writing for an audience of specialists is perhaps where what humanities scholars do is most like what happens in pure science: we seek to understand something, more fully or in more detail.

In making his argument, Utz appears to rely on what feels to me very much like the humanities-bashing one might find almost anywhere:
The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Gu├ędelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid.
I frankly do not understand how one quantifies knowledge (or even "information") in this way. Nor do I think quantifying knowledge is necessarily the most effective way of evaluating scholarship. In the end, this kind of claim boils down to a familiar claim that humanities scholarship is pointless, arcane, self-referential, and isolative.

As the set-up of these comments indicate, however, Utz encourages medievalists to develop or harness connections to re-enactors, as well as encouraging more scholarship of medievalism: the study of how ideas about the middle ages reflect, shape, and are reflected in later periods, including the present. Doing so will enable medievalists to make a powerful claim for contemporary relevance.

Of course, many people, including many medievalists, are fascinated by A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. And I guess there's some value to seeing these creative works as having some connection to the Middle Ages: but studying these works and writing about them will not save medieval studies for the future, since the study of medievalism is only a topic (and a minor one at that) in the larger study of contemporary culture. Medieval scholars do have specialist knowledge that can help in that minor study, but other scholars of modern culture will probably continue to find the contributions of medievalists marginal. Yes, studies of A Game of Thrones may feel more relevant to people living in the twenty-first century than studies of Layamon's Brut, but all we're talking about here is choosing which marginalized space we medievalists wish to inhabit.

The problem with using medievalism to make the work of medievalists relevant is that it echoes or embodies the humanities' current focus on the modern. Medievalists hold a precarious position on the margins of the modern, and early medievalists have found themselves quite solidly placed upon the side of the pre-modern. But to simply try to make medieval studies more relevant to modernists gives the game up, it appears, by throwing the pre-modern period under the bus.

What medieval studies needs to do, I think, is to argue for our importance on the basis of multi-culturalism and diversity. Pre-modern cultures were different from modern ones, and they have much to offer us for understanding culture difference, cultural contact and conflict, and cultural change. These problems are vital ones in our time, and whether it STEM thinking or humanities thinking that urges us to see the pre-modern responses to these problems as too distant to be of value, it is short-sighted thinking. Medievalists--and others, working on even earlier periods--take the long view, and that is precisely what we have to offer to the world at large. We need to find ways to communicate the value and relevance of the long view, rather than shifting our focus onto more recent cultural formations.

But that long view is important because the middle ages are different from the present, not because they are similar. That is what the focus on relevance risks missing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Beer-Drinking Monks

Unglazed AE Tile plaque showing monks. About 6" long.
The general topic of this post deserves a far longer discussion than I can give it right now, I am afraid, but I wanted to share (i.e., show off) this cute little plaque I recently purchased. Made by the American Encaustic Tiling Company in Zanesville, Ohio, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, it shows a nice little grouping of monks. Floating somewhat loosely in the front right corner is the end of a beer barrel, because, as everyone knows, monks drink beer, right?

Somehow, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was deeply suffused with a dose of fascination with the Gothic--really, a fascination with the visual style of the late middle ages. William Morris in the UK and the Roycrofters of upstate New York both engaged in craft printing in a kind of conscious Gothic mode. The Pembroke Press of Chicago, in 1925, produced a handful of limited edition books, and marketed them in bindings that used authentic medieval manuscript leaves.
Manuscript binding: Queen Ysabeau
(Pembroke Press, 1925)
I've always been interested in recycled books, and it's hard not to find the ways that the Arts and Crafts movement recycled Gothicism--both literally and figuratively--interesting as well. And it mystifies me, somehow, to picture such recycling going on in Zanesville, which I know as an Ohio industrial river town, and not much of a cultural center at all.  But the Zanesville potteries seem to have been as active, in their own way, of recycling Gothic elements in Arts and Crafts ways as anyone else. The AE Tiles I usually see for sale are often very much in the Art Nouveau style, with flowing lines and floral motifs, but this tile plaque is a little more Arts and Crafts, not least on account of the monks--though the border has its obvious Art Nouveau elements.
Weller Dickensware Mug, ca. 1905

A more consistent Arts and Crafts effect is produced by the striking Weller Dickensware mug seen in my second picture, also made in Zanesville, probably around 1905. Weller hasn't quite yet gotten the Arts and Craft street cred of Grueby or some other concerns, probably because they used some mass production methods, but they put out some very attractive Arts and Crafts wares, I think. The Dickensware line has hand incised designs and hand-applied slip decoration, as here: the body of the mug is moulded, but a real artist has been at work.

But as both examples show, part of the American Arts and Crafts vision of the Gothic involved a strong link between monks and beer. Much of the modern appeal of Belgian beer, presumably, links up somehow to the famous Belgian monastic breweries, but I am not entirely sure just how the linkage worked in these Zanesville-produced examples. A topic for further research, perhaps.

As a part time home-brewer, maybe I should just keep these items in my collection. Certainly, I suppose I should really make the effort at some point to drink a beer from the Weller mug that shows a monk drinking beer from a mug. Or find a monk to drink from it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Behind the Eight Ball

This week’s “Post-Academic” post will be a guest post, from a good friend of mine who has recently begun to contemplate leaving the academic profession. She, like me, is the kind of scholar whose friends have a hard time believing that she might be willing to contemplate a different kind of professional life. She, like me, is uncertain about how—or if—the academic world can even make space for those in other professions. Like me, I think she worries that the label “Independent Scholar” is all too often interpreted as a sign of failure by those in academic jobs.
            I have certainly found that it is incredibly difficult to make oneself heard in the academic world, once one has left it. Most of my posts on this blog have probably been read almost entirely by those who know me personally, unless Historiann or a facebook friend has seen fit to link to one or another post. But the stories of those of us who are literally on the margins of academia should probably be heard by those at its heart.
            My friend, I should note, has asked to remain anonymous: having tenure, even, does not really protect one from the precariousness that is often associated with adjunct work. To say publically that academia is not worth every sacrifice, it seems, feels dangerous to many academics—too dangerous to say aloud. And that’s exactly why academics need to hear these stories.
            Her tale:

In 2013, I gave my husband a Magic Eight Ball for Christmas. It was only partly in jest. We'd been faced with a series of difficult choices that Fall, and we had both begun to question our respective abilities to make "good" decisions. While the decisions we were making centered on professional opportunities for my husband, the outcomes would have ramifications for our entire family.

We were especially wary of major change because we had just come to terms with the fact that our track record regarding such decisions was not good. Shortly after we married in 2006, my husband returned to school to get his PhD. We had agreed that he would apply to jobs widely, though only accept an offer that included a tenure track position for me, which I never really thought would happen. I was then tenured in a Humanities field at a mid-level university in an undesirable part of a very desirable state.  I benefited from extraordinarily supportive colleagues and determined students, but it was the sort of place that people always left. Since I had arrived in 2000, I had been among those constantly applying for jobs elsewhere, without success.  I had made peace with my current situation, especially after the birth of my daughter in 2007 and the impending arrival of a second child in 2010.  My job was adequate, my friends good, and we were close to family. And the more desirable parts of our desirable state were only a modest distance away.  

In spring 2010, everything changed. My husband was made an offer that, much to our surprise, included spousal accommodation for me. The department was bigger, the emphasis on research greater, and I would be able to teach courses that aligned more closely with my area of expertise.  While I would have to give up tenure, I would retain my rank of Associate.  My husband was in a newer field that was constantly evolving and interdisciplinary. It was difficult to predict exactly what role he would play in his new department, but there seemed to be a lot of potential.  We would have to leave family and friends behind, but what academic doesn't pay this price for professional opportunity? As academics, we knew that accepting a job offer more often than not meant a leap into the unknown—new location, new colleagues new expectations. While we had reservations about the move, we were optimistic.

After all, what academic in their right mind turns down a spousal hire—the elusive solution to the "two-body" problem. 

In July, we moved half way across the country to a state neither of us had visited to accept jobs at an institution that we knew very little about, with a 3 year old and a 6 week old in tow.  As the months passed and we attempted to settle in to our new lives, certain things became very clear. I was extremely fortunate to find a new department that accepted me as a spousal hire without reservation and supported my research and teaching. My husband was less fortunate, entering (unknown to us of course) a department notorious on campus for its dysfunction. As the most recent hire, he was assigned the least desirable courses because their lab component meant twice as many hours in the classroom each week, leaving me solo with our small children 4 nights each week.  Scheduling challenges were compounded by the content of the classes he was assigned, well outside his area of expertise.  His passion was teaching. His department was obsessed with grants. All attempts he made to improve his situation within his department or by reaching out to other departments that aligned with his interests were immediately stymied. 

Unfortunately, my husband's professional dissatisfaction was not the only negative aspect of our experience. We had moved from a state where it took 30 minutes to drive 30 miles to a densely populated urban area, where 30 miles could take 3 hours. Housing was expensive. Poverty and crime were high.  We lived on the dodgy end of a relatively affluent neighborhood, hearing gunshots on more than one occasion.  Public schools were abysmal.  We learned that 80% of the children in our neighborhood attended private schools, an option we were neither interested in nor able to afford. When we had first contemplated the move, the distance from family was not a deterrent. My life in academia had always demanded that I live away from family. But I discovered that travel for a family of four was much more difficult than travel for one. 

As time passed, our dissatisfaction grew, along with our concerns about the future. Our eldest was nearing kindergarten. Our parents were aging. There was no indication that, given time, things would improve. My husband's professional background gave him options. He was willing to leave academia if it meant we could move. Unfortunately, I did not have the same options. I had progressed straight from undergrad to graduate school to a tenure track job. I wasn't qualified to do anything else. The possibility of another tenure track job for an associate professor with an acceptable but by no means exceptional scholarly record in an already limited field was unlikely. Another spousal hire at a different institution, admittedly a long shot, seemed to be our only way out.

My husband began applying for other jobs.  Due to the nature of his field and his qualifications as a candidate, a number of offers soon followed, none of them with the potential of a spousal hire and all of them problematic in some way, shape or form: Ideal location for the family, decent job for him, but no immediate employment for me; Decent location, decent job for him, contingent employment for me; Equally problematic location, good job for him, three hour commute for me.  Weighing the wants and needs of four people was difficult, to say the least. Change was inevitable, but what were we each willing to give up? We weren't so naive that we expected to find a perfect situation. Compromise was also inevitable, and increasingly it seemed to center on me. Was I willing to leave a tenure track job? Was I willing to leave academia? As deadlines loomed, anxiety levels increased. But how to know what decision was the right one? Predicting the future was impossible.

Enter the Magic Eight Ball.

My friend plans at least one follow-up to this story, so look for it here in this space. All I’d like to add is to note how quickly my friend and her husband were to frame their predicament as a matter of their decision-making abilities: when I read this story, I noted rather that all of their options, the choices available to them, have often been bad, or at least ambiguous. The bad choices and options available to adjunct teachers are well publicized, though institutions seem to have little need to do much about them. But the choices and options available to tenure-track and tenured faculty members are often bad, too: so bad that many folks feel some pressure to hold onto a bad deal, because their options are—or appear to be— even worse. I don’t know what my friend will ultimately do: but I wish very much that it looked like she and her family had a better range of options.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fragments Reunited

A Book of Hours Leaf that has been in
my collection for years.
This week, I did something I’ve not done often before: I purchased a medieval manuscript fragment that I know with certainty belongs with another manuscript fragment that I bought several years ago, from an entirely different seller.

Now, my usual habit in buying medieval manuscript items is to look primarily for binding fragments or charters: items where I don’t have to even worry that I might be supporting someone who is active in cutting up manuscripts. Once in a while, though, I do buy a leaf that was never used in a binding, because the practice of cutting up books into smaller pieces is, by now, an old one, even a historical one, and when faced with damage that has been done, sometimes our best practice, it seems to me, is to do what we can to undo it.

So, while much has been made of the internet’s potential for bringing scattered leaves together again virtually, it is also true that internet sales, on occasion, allow scattered leaves to be brought together again in reality.

A bifolium I purchased recently, from the same
Book of Hours.
In the case of the bifolium I recently purchased, I bid on it on eBay because it looked to be very similar to a leaf I’ve owned for most of a decade, and I thought it was likely to be from the same book. To my surprise, when it arrived, I not only confirmed that it was part of the same manuscript, but that it had once been adjacent to the leaf I already owned. Not only did the text run on smoothly from one page to the other, but a wrinkle affecting both leaves shows clearly that they have spent a long time—centuries, literally—next to one another. My purchase has now brought them back together.

The recently purchased bifolium, as I hope the image below shows, is affixed to its garish red matting with lowly masking tape; signs of similar adhesive still remain on the single leaf as well, suggesting that it probably had been similarly mounted. I suspect that these mountings might date from between the 1970s and the 1990s: the tape is not as thoroughly dried and crackling as older examples of masking tape I’ve dealt with.  Perhaps these pages were not split up before I was born, but they were probably separated before some of my readers were born.

The two fragments now together. The word "drachones" is split across
the page boundary: "dra" on one fragment, "chones" on the other.

I have committed, as part of my own business practice, not to break up old books, even if they are already fragmentary.  And though I cannot expect it to happen often, I will go farther, and do what I can to bring items like these back together, and try to find them homes where they will be kept together, at least for the foreseeable part of the future. 

This is not something I could do, if I didn’t have a good chance of recognizing a page from a familiar book simply from a picture, and it’s not something I could do if I believed that those who buy and sell manuscript leaves must always be causing harm to old books.

It is easy enough to get on eBay and see numerous medieval leaves for sale from the same book from a single seller. And I don’t condone what those folks are doing. But books have been being broken up into individual leaves for a hundred years or so, and thus many, many leaves are out there: sometimes we can still do good for them, by buying them and gathering them back together. Why shouldn’t we, if we can?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Merle Johnson's High Spots of American Literature

Johnson's High Spots, in sadly
damaged condition.
Off on vacation to the surprisingly horsey horse country of Northern Virginia last week, of course I toured various antique malls and bookstores. I bought more glass than books, as it turned out, and none of the books was especially exciting (though for a moment I thought I had found a rare first state dust jacket of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca: but it was a later state, as it turned out).

I did, however, come across a copy of Merle Johnson's High Spots of American Literature. Published in 1929 in a limited edition of 750 copies (my copy is number 509), the book has become, in some ways, a kind of high spot of American bibliography and book collecting, known and appreciated for its role in defining the field of collecting American literary first editions in the twentieth century more than either its completeness or, in some cases, its precision.

My copy, as the photo no doubt shows, is not in good condition: it has seen some rough handling in its 86 years, though it was a very attractively produced book in its day. But at twenty-five dollars, I thought it would be a great book to own.

Some of the character of Johnson's assessment of American literature can help illuminate, I think, why this idiosyncratic book can still be valued: "Poe's Tamerlane," he writes, "is perhaps the scarcest American book of a renowned author. Yet it has no place in a list of great and readable books" (6). On the other hand, writing of the manuscripts of many of the classics in his list, Johnson writes: "Dr Rosenbach predicts the greatest value for American manuscripts in the writings of Herman Melville and Eugene O'Neill. I respect the Doctor's sage judgment but it seems to me that 'The One Hoss Shay,' 'The Raven,' 'The Red Badge of Courage.' 'Snowbound,' 'The Last of the Mohicans,' 'The Sketchbook,' 'Ben-Hur,' 'Tom Sawyer,' among others, would all step ahead of his choices. Melville and O'Neill have created no characters that live in the popular mind" (107). The popular mind, it seems, has changed.
Title page.

And yet, as little known as "The One Hoss Shay" might be today (though I am fairly certain I recall my dad reading it aloud when I was a child), Johnson's judgment is, in other ways, surprisingly accurate. Writing of what he calls "so-called 'realistic' books of the present generation," Johnson seems almost prescient in his comment that "We list our Dreisers, Lewises, and Andersons, full of hope for the future, realizing their insight and power, but unable to foresee if, or no, 'Pollyanna' may be a household word years after their names have been forgotten" (7). English majors, perhaps, may know of Dreiser, Lewis, and Anderson, but "Pollyanna" has will almost certainly sound far more familiar to many Americans' ears.

It's a book about books: how could I not find it fascinating?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Catalogue Link: Some American Children's Books, 1794-1986

Bluebeard, with Cruikshank illustrations
about 1860. 
It's been a while since I've been able to post anything here. July was a month of intense writing for me, as I tried my best to crank out the bulk of an academic book: I got only about half way through. Last week, we took some vacation days in the horse country of Virginia (no riding for us, though) and in the DC area. Oh, and yeah, I finished up my latest mini-catalogue, with a selection of about three dozen American children's books, from 1794-1986, including some first editions, some signed books, and some unusual ones.

Follow the link to download it and peruse it; email me at tabrede (at) gmail (dot) com, if there's anything you can't live without.