Friday, June 27, 2008

Blog Forum 4: Jeff Sypeck on "Applied Medievalism"

Welcome to the 4th (and perhaps final, unless I get more submissions...) of our Blog Forum posts. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of these have generated, I think, some good discussion, so I encourage you to check them out and add your thoughts to the comments. It's never too late to talk about interesting stuff.

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?”


theswain said...

This is really a comment for both #3 and #4 (and for Scott Nokes should he read this). But the last 2 posts in the forum have been by medieval historians, and while there are some very good points about general medievalist approaches to the topic matter, I'd be interested in how an HISTORIAN sees the role of Medieval LITERATURE in these efforts (or LANGUAGE for that matter). Related, Scott, who has done some outreach and does literature, how much of a role has literature and language played in your outreach, or has it been more the historical side?

Anonymous said...

This is a challenging post, and invites some very careful responses. As ever, I don't know how my UK perspective matches the USA-or-elsewhere one, but my initial thoughts go like this, firstly on Jeff's question 'why outreach anyway'?

Firstly, although it's nice to find that one has a public, that is only the ultimate aim for those who want mainly to sell books. For the career academics, or those who want to be such, the actual strategic goal is beyond this. I think that goal is job security and job creation. We want the general public to find the Middle Ages fascinating and relevant, because we want students to enrol on our courses, and we want people in control of funding to be aware that these things are popular and worth supporting, which student numbers also help. The result, we hope, is no threat to our jobs and more jobs in our sector. So our outreach in that sense is eventually directed to getting the public to speak for us, through the media and other engines of popular cultural perception. As such, I think it is kind of hopeless. The fact that medieval-themed films have been all over the cinemas in the last few years and have done well is not likely to affect national policy or substantial donors, I'd have thought; more traditional lobbying is more likely to achieve that aim. There is also a kind of Malthusian consequence of success: if we get and/or keep our jobs, we train many students, and many of these students themselves want to do as we have done. The sector will not expand accordingly, but more slowly; and this means that the bigger it gets the harder it will be for any individual to get a job, because he/she will be up against so many more highly-qualified applicants...

There is a more local version of the 'secondary target of public outreach' idea, meanwhile, whereby rather than appealing to the national or international funding bodies one is instead appealing to one's own university or institution not to cut courses wth medieval content because of irrelevance or lack of interest. The problem is that there, outreach to the general public may be seen as missing the university's target, viz. the paying students. People who aren't paying the university shouldn't be getting tuition, goes the argument, and from it or beside it hangs the argument that such outreach is draining time and energy from one's core responsibilities of research and teaching, a dilemma that is behind several academic blogger's preference for anonymity. This latter at least seems to be beginning to change, as this post from the UK academic jobs site,'s tame blogger, who is a medieval historian, describes: so-called 'third stream' work is increasingly beginning to look hirable. This is only, admittedly, because of the same distant goal: such outreach to the public is, over here, increasingly a condition of the assignment of public money. But, I personally think, fair enough! I have not heard of much support for any similar trend in the USA though. Does it exist?

What I mean to mean by this is that though Jeff may well be right that the audience is there – and the number of people I find interested when they ask what I do, even if they ask mainly about some fairly predictable things (Arthur, Vikings...), suggests that he could well be right – this may not actually do us or the profession much good. But it could well mean that there's better luck to be had writing books for a more general market than an academic one...

Matthew Gabriele said...

Larry, can you divorce the literature side from the historical? I'd think you'd have to teach/ engage with Beowulf (for example) by talking about the context a bit, wouldn't you? The language question is an excellent one too though. Man, it'd be awesome generally if people learned languages, even if only dead ones...

Jonathan, so much here to talk about. On your 1st point, about outreach generally, I think talking to general audiences does indeed help sell books and gets people interested in our subjects. These are no small things as they, at least implicitly, justify our very existence (to some degree). But, given my experience and guessing at Jeff's, the people we're speaking too are well past college age, so we're not necessarily putting butts in the lecture seats. What we might be doing in that case, however, is talking more generally about the place of the Humanities and what they can speak to. This, in turn, can lead to better funding if this kind of outreach is tied to activism (or begging)...

And to answer your other question about the "third stream" in the US, well, it's definitely there. I'll be judged, I've been told on my research, teaching, and service. Now that 3rd category is slippery and, especially since I teach at a land-grant univerity who's mission is service to community (i.e., as I understand it, this kind of outreach that I'm talking about). I can't really speak about other institutions but I'd guess it'd be similar at other public (taking governmental $) institutions.

theswain said...

But do we "teach" when we do outreach. Jeff for example mentioned the SCA; some members of the SCA may have read Beowulf, but my limited experience is that those in the SCA ask me about material culture (dress, weaponry, food, structures), societal structure, daily life, etc. As a general rule most are less interested in literature, or in knowing what the theological debates of a given time frame were, in reading Beowulf or Song of Roland, much less using them in their recreations: thus a divorce in the outreach between history and literature.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, all of you, for such terrific replies.

Larry: I teach medieval lit as an occasional adjunct, and in the mid-1990s, when Georgetown had a great evening program of non-credit lit and history courses, I suggested a basic Old English class. Some of the students were linguists who wanted to dabble, but many more were D.C. locals who, amazingly, wanted to read Beowulf in the original. (And this was before Heaney or the Zemeckis movie.) Unlike many supposedly more "relevant" courses, mine wasn't canceled for lack of enrollment the two times we offered it. So even though I've noticed a general audience for medieval lit, I do think you're right to see that audience as different from the crowd that's into social history, military history, or material culture. I wasn't surprised when Armitage's translation of SGGK sold well earlier this year after the poet read an excerpt on NPR, but I'll bet the book was bought and enjoyed by people who strongly identify as readers of fiction rather than as readers of nonfiction. My recent adventures in trade publishing have taught me that most people insist that they're either one or the other.

Matt: While the audiences at public talks about medieval-themed books do tend to skew older, I've seen parents and teachers bring their kids, I've signed lots of books for adults who tell me it's for a child or younger relative "who's into all this stuff," and at one library talk I met a high-school kid who was newly jazzed about studying the Middle Ages in college next year. The thing is, these people rarely attended these events because of me (after all, I'm a virtually unknown author) but because they were intrigued by the subject. Most of them would have attended a similar lecture by someone who wasn't hawking a book. That's why I think it's not unreasonable to envision full-time scholars giving library talks and museum lectures that ultimately do help popularize medieval subjects and thus increase enrollment later on.

Jonathan: I agree that it's a challenge to figure out how to turn popular interest in the Middle Ages (or in the humanities in general) into something that directly benefits the field. I like to hope, though, that when someone who enjoys what I do later goes on to become a politician or bureaucrat, he'll find what you do less obscure or esoteric as a result.

Like you, I wonder how attitudes in North America differ from those in the UK. My hunch is that over here, detractors are likely to roll their eyes at the obscurity of the medieval, while over there, they're more likely to roll their eyes at its ubiquity, e.g., "oh no, not more of this knights-and-castles stuff again." Perhaps this is a subject for a separate post, but I'm increasingly convinced that the manifestations of popular medievalism on opposite sides of the Atlantic are two rather different beasts.

Anonymous said...

Matt, I agree with you that talking to the public is to champion the humanities generally – I've certainly been asked, in my time, why my interlocutor's taxes should go towards letting me study tenth-century people in a different country. What I question, and this to an extent to Jeff as well, is whether there's any more than the fuzziest of links between convincing that person that the humanities do add something to their lives and that his local medievalist is a part of that noble endeavour, and institutional preservation of such studies. Does he really get inflamed enough to write to his representative when humanities budgets are under threat? Well, maybe not him, but some of them do; but it's a lot of rather wobbly steps between us and the representative. It's obviously still worth doing, because as Matt also says we can get some sense of justification out of it too. But that might be the big benefit, really.

As to the difference in popular medievalism, I think this is ineluctable and unquestionable, and you can see it in a regular reading of News for Medievalists quite easily. In the US, as far as one can tell from the blogosphere anyway, the principal foci of popular enthusiasm for the Middle Ages is manifest through reenactments of various kinds, the SCA, Ren. Fayres and the like. Now over here that's nothing like as big, because it doesn't need to be. Even in towns where the Middle Ages isn't just standing on the street still, as with York or Cambridge or wherever, towns with any kind of roots in the Middle Ages will display them proudly at annual fairs, put their borough charter on show, dress up in costumes and parade and so on. It's usually civically funded, quite small and embarrassingly inaccurate, but that's the audience getting their costume fix, so they don't need the self-organising stuff as much. And the different advert items that News for Medievalists posts really illustrate that difference, to me.

But then of course, in Europe at large, there's archaeology coming out of the ground all the time, making good television... There's buildings to look at and there are museums to go to, any of which will give you something, even if little, to link where you live or where you are to the people who were there before. It seems to me that that level of enthusiasm looks down rather on the town fair stuff, because it involves more knowledge and also work, and because the town fair stuff is of course political, celebrating how great the current council and sponsors or whoever are as much as anything. The, well, antiquarian resources are less contaminated by advertising and attract a different and more bookish kind of interest that would have much less to feed on in the USA. But now, I'm well out beyond what I could prove from media and even anecdote and would have to stress that my perception, living in an ancient university town, is probably quite different from what you'd get in the industrial North. Caveat lector...

Anonymous said...


The use medieval historians make of literature depends crucially on what their interests are. Because I work on gender and mentalities I draw a lot on literary sources (though probably in a way that would make literary scholars wince) and would use those to illustrate my themes as much as any 'historical' sources. Such historical use of literature have got into some unusual places: Jon has blogged on Stephen White talking about chansons de geste and legal culture.

As to medieval language, it's potentially another tool for a historian in showing both connections to the present and differences from it, which is particularly important for medievalists. As a few examples there's 'servus' and its changing meaning over time, 'lord' as from 'hlaford' (which is revealing on the domestic roots of lordship), 'dominus' and 'senior' as showing how different relationships get coneptualised in the same way, and the studies of kinship that have started from kinship terminology.

And when I was first teaching myself Latin and one of the early sentences was 'otium est bonum', that made me sit up and think. Meanwhile my husband got inspired to do a degree in classics largely because when he was taught Greek at school they started with Herodotus on crocodiles and mummies and it was more exciting than French lessons about weedy European families doing boring things.

Matthew Gabriele said...

This seems kind of relevant. Stanley Fish has a new book out telling professors to stay in the classroom and, otherwise, shut the heck up. I don't quite know what to make of it, or I should say, the interview on Parts of it make a certain amount of sense. Other parts make me think he's an old curmudgeon.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan: I agree that the link between convincing someone that studying the humanities conveys lovely intangible benefits and preserving the institutional study of the humanities is fuzzy at best, at least at the moment. I wish I had suggestions for strengthening the connection; all I can really do is stress the existence of a large popular audience and hope that smarter people than I can see more direct ways to help the profession.

As for the transatlantic differences in popular medievalism, what I was getting at (badly, I now see) wasn't the differences in how it's done but more the contrast in public reception and what that means for institutional support and funding. To an American, a book about, say, the Bayeux Tapestry is more of a novelty than it would be to someone in the UK, because we're not immersed in overt medievalism in school or in our daily lives. I want to give this question much more thought, but I suspect that the North American sense of novelty is more likely to help sustain the field over here than it is in the UK, since we don't worry about the thorny political and civic complications that arise when discussing medieval "heritage."

theswain said...

Hello Magistra,

I guess I didn't clarify very well what I'm after. When I teach, as well as when I am doing research, I delve into history and historical texts all the time. Taking what no Anglo-Saxonist can ignore...Beowulf...when I teach the text of course I'm delving into history, material culture, etc anything and everything to help enlighten the text. And my grand Beowulf paper, some 55 pages long now, about the interpretation of one line likewise delves into history and archaeology as well as philology and folklore to illuminate what I think that line means. I'm not really after what we do with the perceived divide between history and literature in those contexts of teaching and research/writing. And I'm very aware that your categories in your excellent post to the blog cover "the past", which would include literature and intellectual movements etc (in spite of your mention of specifically history ;) ).

Rather, I'm interested in the outreach aspects. As mentioned in a previous comment, I pointed to Jeff's mention of the SCA which in my experience is far more interested in the historical and archaeological aspects rather than the intellectual and literary. How do we help them cross the line? How do we find those people Jeff found who might want to do Old English just because? Or Old French? So when you do outreach, how do you include the whole shebang?

I realize this may again be a more acute issue in North America and Asia than in Europe, per the discussion of Jeff and Jonathan.

bwhawk said...

All of this discussion of outreach, the "why" of it, and the comments so far posted remind me of, primarily, questions of pedagogy as a secondary education minor in undergrad. Perhaps the most influential course I took was on the "History & Philosophy of Education," in which we discussed the Why of education in any sense. Most of the discussion here reminds me that, as educators, our major goal is in teaching in any capacity--not merely in the classroom. I have a feeling that's the major reason to answer the questions of "why" raised here.

Especially influential for me--and still on my mind a lot--is the book Cultural Miseducation by Jane Roland Martin. Essentially, Martin takes "the standpoint of the culture" in approaching education (2), and proposes that education is a cultural necessity--not merely to be relegated to the classroom and the teachers, but exists in the very fabric of society. She points out the "cultural liabilities" and "cultural wealth" that we hand down in our culture, and focuses on how all of culture has an obligation to minimize the liabilities and increase the dissemination of wealth--institutional educators or not.

My main point here, I think, is that we should see ourselves as educators in all of culture. It may be a reality that much of our actions are toward (as pointed out already) "funding" or "tenure-track positions," or institutional approval--but this is really a sad approach to what we do, and perhaps one we can change. Of course, these aspects will always exist (they necessarily must in the milieu of institutional education), but perhaps to these goals we can add "applied" outreach in academia, as Jeff has called us to. Even more, in Martin's hope--and, I think Jeff's, as portrayed here--we can build such outreach and "application" into the very work we do. It should not be secondary to want to apply our institutional education in outreach to the whole of culture; we should, at the core of our work as teachers, desire to pass on our passions as the "cultural wealth" necessary to keep it alive in future generations.

I think there's a lot more that could be fleshed out between Jeff's ideas, Martin's philosophy, and what I've said here, but I would need to reflect on them and develop them some more. For now, I'll leave these thoughts for your reflections.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Even more, in Martin's hope--and, I think Jeff's, as portrayed here--we can build such outreach and "application" into the very work we do. It should not be secondary to want to apply our institutional education in outreach to the whole of culture; we should, at the core of our work as teachers, desire to pass on our passions as the "cultural wealth" necessary to keep it alive in future generations.

Absolutely, Brandon. And, as you mention over at Unlocked Wordhoard, there seems to be a great deal of similarities between what you, Jeff, Dr. Nokes, and I (I think) are suggesting. There's a need to get out there -- to reach people who the university might not otherwise touch.

Anonymous said...

Larry: You ask how we track down people who are interested in people who are interested in this stuff. I wish I knew! People who are interested in the Middle Ages are sprinkled throughout the population at large, often in clusters, and only some of them will overlap with, say, local SCA membership rosters or the recipient list of local continuing-education catalogs. I've discussed this question both with Scott Nokes and with a friend of mine who's a reenactor and folklorist: there's really no single Web site, network, institution, or organization for the public to turn to when they want to explore medieval interests, and there probably never will be--although this loose network of medieval-themed blogs certainly helps. My guess is that the exact "publicity and promotion" techniques will vary based on where you live--but if Scott can round up enough people in Alabama to have a Beowulf-themed party, then anything is possible.

Brandon: I couldn't agree more. Scholars who engage in "outreach" need to consider it a facet of their teaching--although in their public presentations, they may need to stop and define their terms more often than they would if they were speaking to a classroom full of undergraduates.

Matt: Along those same lines, it's worth pointing out that medieval history courses from places like the Teaching Company apparently sell pretty well. I don't think the academic world needs to fear these sorts of commercial programs as competition, because (as I understand it) they're being sold to people who want to learn about a specific subject without enrolling in a costly degree program. The fact that these programs on CD and DVD are thriving suggests to me a market for reasonably priced, non-credit, face-to-face courses--but, as I suggested to Larry above, actually finding would-be medievalists (who may live a block away from the university!), and getting them to find you, is the tricky part. Ideally, the outreach-eager medievalist will be aware of focal points for local, off-campus intellectual culture, from book clubs and library programs to SCA chapters and reenactment groups. All medievalism, one might say, is local.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post a comment a day or two back, but the system must have swallowed it and I didn’t keep a copy. So here are some rewritten comments on outreach for medieval language and literature. I think it all needs to start from one basic insight. Most people are only interested in another language if there’s something they want to read in it. (I made several fruitless attempts at learning Latin, as a generally good thing to know, but only succeeded when I actually had Carolingian sources I wanted to read).

What this means, crucially, is you need to find an interest point/potential audience specific to the language. There are some obvious connections here. Old French, for example, has potential interest to those interested in Arthur. Medieval Latinists should probably start targeting Catholics. Medieval Welsh specialists are forced to cultivate those into Celtic mist/mysticism. Those doing classical or medieval Greek might find a way in via New Testament Greek courses.

For Middle English, I think there are two possible ways in. One is, again, via Arthurian stuff. The other is getting to Chaucer and Gower via Shakespeare. And I’d say that the easiest way into Old English is via Tolkien fans, since anyone seriously interested is likely to be into philology and dragons.

If you can find such interest groups, you can then target them by promising to tell them more about a subject they’re already interested in, and then possibly broadening out the topic. As for finding such groups, I think that internet forums now offer an obvious way in. Once you locate the sites where your target interest group discuss such things, you can find out whether there are existing real-life groups to whom you could talk, whether they’d be interested in some kind of virtual lecture, what sort of things they’d be interested in learning about etc. I think you need to be careful not to go crashing into fora, and market too blatantly, but I suspect many of these kinds of internet-based groups would offer opportunities. You just have to make sure you don’t crush any pet amateur theories too brutally, but show yourself willing to start from where they are.

Anonymous said...

Also, since I can't work out how to do a trackback to this post (any answers?), can I add that I've just posted the first section of some of ny thoughts specifically on UK mediavalism

Anonymous said...

On the technical question, my experience is that Blogger will only allow trackbacks from people who can log in via Blogger/Google itself. At least they've taken to accepting OpenID logins for comments, but I don't know why they didn't enable OpenID trackbacks at the same time.