This current contribution comes from Jeff Sypeck, who blogs at Quid Plura and has a nifty book (now in paperback!) on everyone's favorite Frank, Charlemagne.
Please comment/ discuss below. Or send longer responses directly to me and I'll be happy to add to the ongoing forum.
In recent weeks, blogging medievalists reacted to Charlotte Allen's article about Kalamazoo with calls to counter public misperceptions about what medievalists do. Some of you spoke vaguely but enthusiastically about the prospect of public outreach. Which makes me wonder: Why?
That isn’t a rhetorical question; nor is it a confrontational one. You have a lifetime to explain why the Middle Ages are important to study, and countless persuasive answers to give. Instead, think practically. Define why you're anxious about the image of medieval studies and what you'd hope to accomplish through outreach in the first place: More funding? Greater respect from administrators? Increased enrollment in your undergraduate courses? Social, political, or religious change? Your answer is bound to be deeply personal; medievalists do not, after all, speak with a single voice.
Nonetheless, the public would like you to speak. Oprah recently convinced millions of viewers to read a novel about cathedral-building. The death of Gary Gygax got the full-page Economist obit. A second Narnia movie is now earning millions. World of Warcraft boasts 10 million subscribers. Last year, “Barbarian Week” on the History Channel was advertised on bus stops and billboards. A Ren fest flourishes somewhere in the United States all but two weekends of the year. The medieval and the pseudo-medieval are everywhere. Short of a heavenly voice demanding Sing me hwaethwugu!, you will never hear a louder invitation to speak to a curious public.
For nearly two years, I've been promoting a book about Charlemagne for newcomers to medieval history. During that time, I've rarely needed to persuade anyone in trade publishing that the subject was "relevant," and when I set out to schedule public talks about the book, very few venues needed any real convincing either. I found receptive audiences at continuing-ed programs for retirees and also at libraries, where teachers and parents brought high-school-age kids. I spoke to university writing teachers about the medieval traditions in which they unknowingly work; I discussed Charlemagne's French mystique at a tea salon in suburban New Orleans; and more than 100 people attended my presentation at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. I've heard from a wide range of budding medievalists, including writers, teachers, genealogy buffs, and pilgrims planning to walk the Via Francigena. But the most heartening emails, the ones that hint at an expanding market for medievalism, came from satisfied readers who wrote, in effect, "I don't usually read this kind of book, but..."
If you really do enjoy discussing medieval subjects, then these sorts of exchanges are a pleasure. (It's both peculiar and satisfying when your neighborhood librarian shouts "Hey, Charlemagne Man!" when he greets you in the grocery store.) Unfortunately, these opportunities require time--a commodity that I suspect is in short supply when you're a young, energetic prof on the tenure track. Becoming a freelance writer or speaker requires you to build an entirely separate network of contacts and engage in activities for which academia has no real roadmap. Discussing your work with the general public runs contrary to your training, which emphasizes communicating with other specialists. An inclination to engage in outreach can't be learned, and scholars who shrink from the very sound of it shouldn't be pressured to try. But if the notion intrigues you, start by examining your own temperament. Are you comfortable putting on burlap and gamboling at Ren Fests, or are you more the public-library and book-club type? Scito te ipsum--and then decide whether to check out the calendars at nearby libraries and museums; contact your local chapter of the SCA; find out when the local schools are studying medieval Europe; look into adult-education programs; or submit op-ed proposals to local and national media. And if someone asks if you're "into all that Dungeons-and-Dragons type stuff," be patient; you're signing on to answer those questions, too.
Be warned: "applied medievalism" is fraught with peril. Sometimes, you'll have a blast; occasionally, you'll misjudge, and your audience will be depressing in its smallness. Regardless, you'll be happier and more productive if you see outreach as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. You may not win the minds of the professional culture warriors, but you can refute them through persuasive examples and the proper mix of passion and dispassion. They themselves may not care about the substance of your response, but others will be watching with interest. Whether those bystanders lean left or right politically, whether they're religious or irreligious, something medieval is bound to beguile them. So go ye therefore, medievalists, and demonstrate to all the nations that you really can answer those who hear what you study and ask, “What on earth do you do with that?”