Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another... Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues. -From D Perry's "My Initial Public Offering," Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2013.
So the scene is set, is it not? Now, to the action.
|I've been waiting to use this pic since December|
I was able to make some great connections, especially with the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Brandon Hawk, who pretty much makes magic on his Studying Judith blog. Even more wonderful was the fact that my father had moved heaven and earth to fly in just for a few hours in order to see me. So as a whole it was a good time, but I was nagged by a feeling that I didn't belong-- a feeling that had not begun with, but was articulated by, an observation that an eminent, male scholar had made to me when I first arrived: "You don't look like a medievalist." Perhaps he was right; I certainly didn't feel like one, and I could only hope that he hadn't been referring to something like this:
|Iris Van Herpen 2012 collection|
In late July I presented the Map at SHARP's conference on "Geographies of the Book, where I was one of 14 presenters at a Digital Projects Showcase.
During the three hour showcase, not one minute passed without someone asking great questions or offering truly helpful advice. This really surprised me; most at MAA hadn't seemed curious about any digital work presented at the conference. But here I was, surrounded not by medievalists but by book historians, and their feedback was extraordinary. So what was going on? Was I in the wrong place after all, or for the first time in the perfect place?
Medievalists as a whole are awkwardly interdisciplinary. We deal with a range of 1000 years and literature that is, by design, always derived from earlier works. But in none of the conferences I'd attended had there been such a special interest in and performance of academic activism and outreach as there was at SHARP.
For the last day of the conference Ian Gadd invited twelve new scholars to participate in a new kind of plenary, whose aim was to "assess our own current conceptions of book history by mapping the newer, emerging geographies represented by the conference’s papers and participants" and consider "the potential new vistas and pathways that lie ahead."
I was among the twelve who spoke for 5 minutes each; no one knew who was part of the plenary until the session itself, when we stood up from different points in the crowd (and could finally wear our name tag badges, seen below).
As planned, Ian Gadd thoroughly "eschew[ed] the traditional format of a small panel of very senior scholars for something more open, participatory, and dynamic" by speaking from the back of the room, leaving this rather stark scene at the front (though live twitter stream was projected).
I began my five minutes by boldly exclaiming, "I am Rebecca Shores, and I am an Anglo-Saxonist." What had I done?! Did they know I still use cribs for my translations? Did they care that I'm still really confused by prepositions and complex constructions in the prose I study? Maybe, maybe not.
But I spoke expertly on my own reservations about attending such a conference and pointed out that, although I thought SHARP was a stretch for me to attend, it ended up giving me a 3-hour platform for my project and role as a plenary speaker. As an Anglo-Saxonist. At a book history conference. AMAZINGNESS.
I encouraged the audience to continue to reach out across disciplines, institutions, and platforms-- sharing our own love for our fields is the only thing that will keep us afloat. And then I looked to the live twitter stream projected on the wall. Right in front of me, in the words of my new friends and colleagues, was the image I'd been seeking for so long: this is what a medievalist looks like:
|photo from Nicholas Morris's Twitter feed (@Nickmimic)|
And it is this image I took with me when I flew to Dublin for the meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists-- a conference that began with an eminent, male scholar raising his hand to say, "Everyone please, remember to turn off your phones." But more on this soon.
So keep sharing, readers, lest we forget who (and what) we are.