Work in progress: rereading / #medievaltwitter #seriousacademic kindness

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It may be a symptom of midlife crisis. Perhaps I should worry. On the other hand, there’s already plenty to worry about without adding any artificial worries to one’s burden.

I’ve been thinking about the past. 

Not just in the usual medievalist way. This thinking has been epochal—about significant dates and paradigmatic events within eras—and as much about historical perspective, historicising, and historiography.

Monday’s historical meanders took me to fifty years ago. Since then I had been rereading something from ten years ago, in relation to two pieces in progress on medieval Occitan a.k.a. Tro(u)bador poetry. Deities and muses and all help me: my PhD dissertation. (No, I am not going to publish it as an academic monograph. It’s not that kind of dissertation and not on that kind of material. It would be disrespectful of its subject-matter, would do it dishonour, and would show a gross lack of understanding what little I do understand about it; thereby erasing five years’ doctoral research and another ten years’ further reading, research, and thinking.)

Thinking about the dissertation happened again today, along a different angle. Here is what happened in one of my Twitter feeds this morning. It’s the calmer “easy reading” one of the several (I’m not a morning person), not requiring reading several strands simultaneously; being a Twitter “list” of mostly medieval things, mostly from museums and libraries and research institutes:

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And so I met the #seriousacademic discussions.

I won’t bore you with them, nor with my own contributions. Go forth and read the thread that spins itself out of that hash-tag.

There is much good there. There is less good. There are comments on the original piece in the Guardian, comments on its British academic context, comments on academia more generally and globally. See for example this response in the Guardian, this medievalist’s one, and this one from another medievalist. There are knee-jerk reactions and comments on the writer rather than the ideas expressed; and there is much to bewail. There were comments on the comments; it was they, I admit, that took me to a second reading to feel sympathy and sorrow for the writer of that original piece, to wonder how much courage it took for them to write in what are clearly difficult and troubling times. I hope they are getting support. If Twitter and the rest of the online academic community is any good, what we ought to be thinking about is support and mutual aid: outside, across, and despite institutional and systemic boundaries.

Actually, on second thoughts, if you only have the time (or energy) to read one commentary-thread—and that’s fair enough!—make it this one by @kriemhildsrache. She self-identifies as (inter alia) a “lowly […] undergrad, millenial medievalist™” and exemplifies all that is great and good about intellectual activity and interactions on Twitter. I thank her again for making me (and many others) feel valuable and valued; worthwhile; optimistic, uplifted, and relevant.

The Serious Academic isn’t a new topic; any woman will recall some similarly-well-orchestrated clickbait from the same newspaper some years ago, returning periodically, about women (and people of colour and other visibly different human persons) being taken seriously (or not) based on their exterior appearance, hair, and sartorial choices. Any person who fits any part of that description, let alone more than one, will have lived experience of the question. Case in point: I was asked if I was seriously an academic just yesterday, Thursday, evening in random conversation with a stranger—doing live action academic outreach by having conversations with random strangers—on the way home from work.

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It’s a big debate as it contains and intertextually refers to a whole network of related sub-debates and associated larger social and political issues. There’s much to be said about the reification and corporatisation of academia disguised as “professionalisation.” I won’t go on because I would rant, and this isn’t the time or place for it; and colleagues elsewhere suffer far more terribly than I do.

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#medievaltwitter may perhaps have taken a lighter approach, with more posts in gentler good-humoured fun-poking. We’re perhaps more used to thinking about seriousness, from both extremes, often simultaneously.

Medievalists are a strange sort of academic.

We are always in the minority and on the outer margins of our academic departments. In French, for example, we’re a prehistoric monster before Enlightenment, Revolution, And Modernity; monstrously impure in our multilingualism (writing in what’s now France but not in French) and multiculturalism (writing in French from outside France). Ours is the hand that’s always raised, from the outer fringe of a crowd in a room, to point out that a Grand New Theory doesn’t actually work for medieval literature; all too easily quashed by The Theory and the majority pointing out that medieval literature isn’t literature because it doesn’t fit The Theory because it’s prehistorically marginal so it doesn’t count.

Medievalists are all multilingual. You cannot be a medievalist without a working knowledge of at least one of the Classical languages in addition to the language of the cultural area with which you deal; plus at least a reading knowledge of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish so as to read secondary materials (including manuscript descriptions, archive catalogues, etc.).

And medievalists are necessarily and essentially multi-disciplinary scholars: “Medieval Studies” was indeed one of the first such areas of integrated inter-disciplinarity.

We read a lot. We have to. And our super-powers of fast close reading are awesome.

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Then again, we deal with weird alien stuff: things that look heavy turn out to be light, things that look light turn out to be heavy, most things are both, things tend to be at least two things at once, and everything’s allegorical or at least polysemic. Some examples from recent posts on this present blog:

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(the image above was used in On kindness, curiosity, & worrying)

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(image above: in Constructing & deconstructing a medieval joke (1))

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(image above: in Constructing & deconstructing a medieval joke (2), continuation of (1) above)

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(image above: On matters that matter (4): what next?, last of a Black Lives Matter set)

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(50 years ago: philology, decolonisation, deconstruction)

No wonder our non-medievalist colleagues are confused by us, and unsure whether we—and our material and world—are serious or not.

Sometimes we may look so super-serious and avant-garde advanced as to threaten the gravitas of other areas of study in a department, or other fields of study across departments around a university. All the senior medievalists in my ken are highly computer literate. Nearly all are active on at least one social media platform and have been early adopters (and creative adapters) of new digital technologies. My first doctoral adviser (RIP) had a digital humanities project that started in the early 1990s and is still at the forefront of the field; he had been talking to computer scientist colleagues about IT possibilities for decades previously. My second reader was a smooth early mover from old-fashioned printed newspaper to blog, where he continues to write his regular weekly column long after his so-called retirement. A colleague elsewhere has or had punch-cards from an early phase in the digitisation of a complete literature (500 years’ worth, millions of words) with associated searchable database: that was the 1960s, and the end result is the Concordance of Medieval Occitan.

Such approaches of intellectual curiosity and questing for knowledge are adventurous in a very medieval, medieval literary, way: on a journey, accepting deviations digressions complications, learning from them; with the wisdom and foresight not to plan with minute exactness, not to expect to be able to control its progress exactly, and not even to expect a predicted end result. This is true research at its purest, as open-minded creative experimental play. It includes the imagination and intelligence to innovate: to take something that is already there, change and add to it, and remake it in a new way. #MedievalTwitter and #AcademicTwitter are doing this right now, reshaping Twitter to other purposes while exploring its possibilities. That means deviating from its current mainstream “Web 3.0” capitalist colonialist egocentric use. That includes conscious independent critique, proudly queering that minority independence as a positive marginality. How and why? To bring back a semblance of traditional communitarian universitas by subverting Twitter into “Web 2.0” free open sharing combined with “Web 4.0” caring compassionate community, as a sustainable biodiverse ecosystem beyond individuals, institutions, nation-states, borders, walls, and prescriptive controlling authorities. Utopia.

Being a serious academic incorporates creative adventuring.

As with medieval romance, there are as many possible adventures and ways to adventure as there are adventurers. That includes Twitter, but is not limited to it and should not mean that every serious academic is or should be on Twitter; nor that a “serious academic” should be defined as such—determined, delimited, limited—by someone else’s imposed prescriptive redefinition; nor that definition should be extended to include prescribed ways in which to use Twitter. And the same goes for any social media and for working with any specific technology (digital or otherwise): these are mere tools, supporting supplementary aids. They are no substitute for having and developing ideas. They cannot substitute for, only supplement, actual active intellectual work. That is an essential difference between an art, artistry, art-work, and being artistic; and craft, tools, techniques, technology. Both are wonderful; together, they’re awesome; but they should not be confused, conflated, or falsely combined so that techne is erroneously made to look like ars.

Being a serious academic is the everyday exercise of an art.

  • No serious academic should have to use any social media.
  • No serious academic should not use social media.
  • No serious academic should have to use (or not use) any specific tool, nor in a way prescribed by a non-academic administrative authority (and yes, that includes para-academic Centres With Long Names And Acronyms who shall not be named).
  • No serious academic should be defined as “serious” (or not) or “academic” (or not) based on whether and how they use social media.
  • A serious academic is and always will remain a person like any other, with all the inalienable rights and responsibilities that entails: private life, rest, leisure, the cultural life of a community, freedom of association

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And sometimes we look silly, frivolous, and our fun-loving dark humour (reflecting that of the medieval) looks facetious rather than sunnily sardonic in the face of adversity.

Even in a very large research university, medievalists are always a small group (especially if you’re in Anglophone academia and not in an English department nor dealing with English material). This is one of the reasons that we’ve also been one of the scholarly groups that’s been online for the longest, and active in creating and maintaining complex virtual communities worldwide. They are a tremendous support through what can be harrowing isolation; and for keeping scholars in the larger continuing universitas beyond their student days and beyond the groves of academe. As university budgets have been cut and priorities—how shall I try to put this delicately—revised, fluffy fringe areas (especially if misunderstood or if there’s no attempt for understanding by ignorant slow-reading simpler-minded non-medievalist Suits) tend to be excised. This risks the annihilation of knowledge, cultural erasure, what I like to call “The Actual Dark Ages.”

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Many (most?) medievalists who are working in academia are therefore working in other areas: either as well as or instead of the medieval. Our general training usually means that we’re capable of, for example, teaching later literature and modern language to at least a final-year undergraduate level; whereas the contrary tends not to be true of colleagues trained in later periods. Medievalists are useful, polyvalent, adaptable.

Many medievalist scholars are working outside mainstream academia—i.e. research universities—in all manner of fields; many apply their medievalism in amazingly creative innovative ways to what they are doing. But there is always a sense that all of us are medievalists, in all of our ways; that we live in a more sophisticated “both-and” world where identities can fluctuate and be multiple, an idea perhaps carried over from our medieval subject-matter itself.

Once a medievalist, always a medievalist.

And serious.

And “academic” in a shared basic training that creates a virtual “academia” that goes beyond institutional walls, that’s larger, that’s a continuation of the older idea of universitas. So, for example, we have pan-trans-academic virtual medievalist scholarly collectives and communities like:

While our field is more accepting of variation in its kinds of institutional affiliation (or fluidity therein, or lack thereof), and has been for some time, that is not to say that all is well and all are happy.

For many medievalists are frustrated.

Even medievalist colleagues in actual medievalist academic jobs are frustrated: because so much of their time and energy is eaten up by pointless and often counter-productive or destructive tasks, administrators’ makework pseudoprojects, grant applications for a lottery or rigged system (depending on location), para-academic workshops and leadership training (see: makework). And like other scholars in the arts and humanities, our research doesn’t fit authorities’ prescribed preconception (which is very much not a description or definition); worse, it usually scores so low as to be utterly irrelevant and useless for the intents and purposes of any National Priorities.

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Let’s not forget, and it would be hard to for we are always being reminded of this Fact: Medievalism is a dead field. Dead people and crumbly old stuff from long ago. Like all things antique and classical and pre-Modern. What innovations can possibly come from there? Innovation, of course, in the sense of entrepreneurial schemes that make money for an institution.

But we don’t add value so we’re neither valuable nor valued. Paradoxically, our work may be on value and values, what we work on may be about value or of value, and medievalists (and many other useless arts and humanities people) might actually be value itself. We are, after all, artists.

As a medievalist who works and otherwise spends time with non-medievalists, I am always acutely aware of how very lively and living medievalism is in comparison: because we have to work so damn hard to keep it alive. Showing that we aren’t relics in reliquaries is already a sizeable chunk of “outreach” work: attempting to inform and maybe even educate our immediate “public” within our own departments and institutions. I am always optimistic that one by one, ever so slowly, we may be able to seduce some of them over to our Dark Side. Not necessarily to becoming medievalists; but to bringing a little medievalism into their lives, after all medievalism is so easy to combine with other things without being in conflict or competition with them…

(Yet poetry—medieval and otherwise—and other unnecessary beauties are also more obviously and immediately relevant and useful as they save lives. That’s a post for another time; and a substantial part of Twitter outreach work.)

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For many of us, then, the online world is where, how, and why we are still medievalists. For a short time or for longer; to a greater or lesser extent. My own Twittering, for example, is far from being purely medieval or medievalist. The Web where people manage to keep alive even a small part of their medievalist identity through the interactions they have with other medievalists. Conferences and suchlike help: the fact that every conference I’ve been to in the last several years has included people labelled as “Independent Scholar” is heartening, that I am in a field that embraces (even if it doesn’t always do enough to actively encourage) all its members as a whole friendly family. But not everyone can afford to be at a conference; and not everyone is physically able to be there. Online communities can help, through the live reporting and recording of such events, ideally with opportunities for virtual participation.

What we are doing is emphasising the social in “social media”: not transactions between vendors and consumers but genuine human reciprocal relationships, bonds of mutual aid, ethical and political commonwealth; building, growing, and nurturing a fragile living community of trust and friendship.

Twitter has been a revelation. Plain simple human support and solidarity. Daily acts of charity. Kindness. Sharing resources. Talking through ideas. Sparking off new ones. True collaborative research work. Reaching out as outreach. Outreach in all senses, including that towards the general public, which is after all one’s duty as someone who works in a public institution. Reaching out to each other, learning from one another: yes, we continue to learn. That is what it is to be an actual “serious academic”: to be a lifelong learner, a philosopher and philologer in the full senses of both words.

While I am obviously very pro-medievalist, the #medievaltwitter community is far from being unique in its embrace of online engagement. It is a very real engagement: with one another, and in the social and political r/Resistance engagement of staying alive in subversive ways, resisting rot, being resilient, the cheeky outgrowths that thrive like weeds and monkey around in the margins.

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Here follows one example of academic seriousness.

My PhD was very serious, from a very serious university, working with very serious senior august academics. Here is my thesis:

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I’m sharing it here now and have shared it here before because, why not, while there’s plenty here that I disagree with (or thing that I got wrong), there’s some decent stuff too, and it might be helpful to someone else, somewhere, sometime. It’s just a PhD thesis: if it’s any good, that’s as a contribution to knowledge (and that was one of the criteria for its acceptance) and that includes its contribution to a continuing conversation. It’s not a be-all and end-all of serious academic existence. It’s a node in a network. The more nodes and connections and interconnections, the bigger the knots, the better and stronger the net.

Like any other dissertation, this one had a very serious defence. Here’s the start of it:

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One reason I’m rereading the dissertation is that key word that ran through it, often in undercurrent, and was not in the title: ENTENDEMEN. Connected words and ideas: intention, sustenance, contentment, the prefix con- / Latin cum, connectivity, flow beneath a surface. And, in relation to this present essay: reaching out and “outreach.” (Add a related lexical group mentioned on here previously: soulever, élever, relever, “relevance,” and “relationship” itself.) (Also: puns.)

Being about a polysemic polyphonic work about a polysemic polyphonic work, the defence talk had more than one handout. Here is one of them (as well as the original talk script & both handouts):

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Yes, I passed my defence; yes, that first and only time, no revisions and resubmissions and so on. (I kind of submitted it accidentally in the first place: that St Patrick’s Day, my adviser gave me back a last chunk with last minimal corrections and told me I’d therefore finished and should book a date and put the whole thing together and make copies for the other two readers. Defended a month or so later, paperwork filed, graduated a month after that. Sure I now find glitches, yes I could have worked at it for another month, six months, year, … but boy am I glad I had a wise, kind, sensible adviser who didn’t let me. Academic kindness is a serious virtue; or, being a serious academic ought to entail being good and kind.)

There are, surely, as many ways to be a “serious academic” as there are “academics” and as there is “seriousness.”

With one exception. Return “serious” to its actual meaning: do not let it be perverted—like so much language gets used and abused—into being synonymous with a certain (also perverted) sense of “being professional.” “Professionalism” has come to signify a certain conservative kind of propriety, correctness, attitude towards authority (a.k.a. the oft-misused “respect”), and bland self-effacement; with an association of “objectivity” (also a semantic perversion). Part of me wants to blame the Victorians, which isn’t entirely fair, but it’s definitely nothing to do with what the codes and oaths of actual professions say, do as performative speech-acts, represent, and mean. This kind of professionalism is deployed as an abusive means to discipline and control. Pseudo-professionalism is a substitute for actual courtesy, respect (which is earned), personal morality, and ethical behaviour as a responsible adult in relation to their larger environment: social, political, human and non-human, synchronic and diachronic.

Join medievalists, the experts in celebrating joy and delight, courtesy, and fair welcome. Be more inclusive. Resist common foes. Revolt against objectification, instrumentalisation, and commodification. Rise up against mindless growth in straight-line blinkered progress, profit over people, and a pseudo-culture of destruction. And support one another; yes, in being frivolous and finding luminous happiness even in small light delicate things and making terrible jokes online too. We’re all human and that’s the most important and difficult thing to maintain and protect here: the unbearable lightness of being against the fell forces of dehumanisation. Share, care, and be compassionate and kind. That’s a much taller order than being seriously professional or professionally serious.

It’s also closer to the core idea of seriousness:
—weightiness, heaviness, graveness (and the deadly earnest of the grave);
—critical importance, difficulty;
—necessitating the kind of deep hard thinking that figuratively and physically weighs on your mind and makes your brain feel heavier thus making your head bow down to the forces of gravity.

It’s a humbling and grounding experience, yet elevating.

Being a serious academic means aspiring to being the nec plus ultra of being a human being.

In the immortal words of a great medievalist:

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