The discussions in FORUM V activate at a time of increasing challenges for humanities scholars operating in the modern university. Funding is scarce and questions of value have begun to emanate from within institutions themselves. At the same time, opportunities for publicising medieval studies are but a few clicks away and there is increasing recognition of audiences whose engagement with the Middle Ages are shaped outside of learned culture.
The contributions featured in the fifth FORUM for postmedieval create a space within this context to think through a burgeoning public Middle Ages. This conversation follows upon panels at Kalamazoo and the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. In her Introduction, Holly Crocker highlights some of the key questions explored by our contributors: “[W]hy, we might ask, are such learned scholars going public with their renderings of the medieval past?… If we’ve lost our institutional public, mightn’t we find or forge new ones?” and yet “… don’t we facilitate the erosion of the humanities if we give up on the university as an intellectual home that provides institutional backing for our study of the Middle Ages?” She also invites readers to confront the difficulty of contemporary scholarship that is “the pressure to be in public in all our academic endeavors: should I blog, tweet, or post? Do I need to write articles, stories, or books that reach a popular audience? Do I become an intellectual or political interventionist? If the answer to any of this is ‘yes,’ is the answer to all of it ‘yes’?”
I wrote an essay on how complicated it was for me to operate in two registers, at once a journalist and a medievalist. It’s much easier to be just a journalist, or just a medievalist. I said, in my essay:
When I write about disability and police violence, for example, I am informed by academics in criminology and disability studies (and other fields), but I know I am not a part of either field. I am a journalist, writing to as big an audience as I can muster. I just hope that academics in those fields will deem me a competent interlocutor. When I discuss the Middle Ages in relation to current news, on the other hand, I have to operate in the context of my field. I am deeply aware of the rich citation history I am circumventing with a few choice sentences or links.
Take, for example, the recent flare-up over the National Prayer Breakfast, in which some conservative pundits and academics took issue with President Obama’s mention of the Crusades. I pitched this piece to The Guardian, successfully, as medieval history once again entered a hot news cycle. Then I had to write in such a way as to serve the public audience, conform to strict word limits, and not say anything that would irritate other medievalists. Suffice it to say, I failed.
But for me, this failure is positive. It generates an iterative conversation that flows into the next essay, the next twitter dialogue, the next conversation over coffee. We can’t let the limited format of the short essay and all its tensions silence us.
Please read my essay and all the essays. Over the next week or so, depending on breaking news, I plan to post excerpts and comment from each of the outstanding contributions, along with a few thoughts.
Thanks to Holly Crocker for organizing this. More to come.