I've intentionally waited until tempers cooled a bit before writing this post. Emotions were running pretty hot about "A Dark Age for Medievalists," an article taking to task the Kalamazoo Congress and those of us who present our work there. Scholars who were named either directly or by paper title wrote both publically and privately to me via e-mail. Now that we've had time to catch our collective breath, let me offer a bit of advice:
Chill. Out. Dude.
First of all, let's admit that though there were a lot of unfair or invalid accusations in Allen's article, there were some that had a grain of truth. There are a lot of half-baked papers at K'zoo, but Allen's interpretation of that fact (that K'zoo is for bottom-feeders) is backwards. In fact, so many people slap together such papers because they need funding to get to K'zoo because it is the BIG SHOW. That means you're going to find a bit of detritus around if you aren't careful to avoid it. If, like Allen, you go looking for it, you'll find the stink of it all over you.
Second, let's also admit that there are some serious faultlines between how historicist literary theorists think about history and the way certain historians think about history. Allen is firmly encamped on one side, so can it be any surprise that she lobs a few grenades at the other side? She doesn't develop those arguments, but she doesn't have to -- this was an article in a popular publication, and the arguments are (or should be) well-known to the scholars in the group.
Let's also admit that one could make a firm case that the proper study of medievalists is the medieval (not medievalism), and if so, folks like me who examine and promote medievalism are wasting our energies on something frivolous. I rather obviously disagree with that position, but I think the medieval need always be the center of medievalism, so I understand her point there. It might be wrong, but it is a point-of-view with a fine pedigree.
Frankly (and here's where some of you are going to become angry with me), I don't think our response to "Dark Age" was the online medieval community's finest hour. Far too many of our critiques of the article were actually ad hominem attacks on Allen -- and the public attacks were tame compared to some of the e-mails I got. Aside from my preference for a more civil academic discourse, what does that really prove? Even if Allen is a kitten-beating, slave-owning, plagiarizing, telemarketing, cattle-raping, book-burning, Prius-driving, Keith Olbermann-watching, crack-smoking, Jesus-hating, baby-shaking, illiterate, left-handed daughter of a Klansman and Stalin's transgendered clone, none of that necessarily invalidates her arguments. While many people took her to task regarding the accuracy of what she wrote, too many of us lost our tempers. You might argue that her article had an ad hominem flavor to it, but as I tell my children (and frequently have to remind myself), you can't control what other people do, but you can control your own behavior.
Aside from all of the above, I think we've missed what's really noteworthy about Allen's article -- It is good news for medievalists. The Weekly Standard, an extremely influential publication with a circulation of more than 60k (some sources put it at over 80k) saw fit to run an article about the state of current medieval scholarship. The piece was not a fluffy article, but was seriously bemoaning the scholarship.
In other words, we're important. Medieval studies matter. They matter enough that the editors thought their readers would care about the supposedly-poor state of medieval studies. The old cliche that there is no such thing as bad publicity comes to mind.
A weird thing has happened since I started writing the Wordhoard: I've become a sort of bush-league public figure. No, I'm no Stanley Fish, but perhaps I'm a Stanley Baby Guppy. One of the side effects of that "success" (if you can call it that) is that perfect strangers e-mail me all the time to tell me what they think of me. Often it's nice, but I get my share of hate mail too ... in fact, I got a couple of anonymous pieces today. At first, when I these sorts of messages, I used to get my stomach in knots. I was angry at how they had unfairly accused me, or how they had twisted my words, and would lay awake in bed at night fantasizing about meeting that person and laying waste to them with the perfect comeback.
Over time, though, I came to realize that even the negative e-mails are an odd sort of compliment. They are affirmations that what I write on here is read by people and taken seriously. As such, those that try to make a valid point (beyond "you suck") deserve the respect of being taken seriously even if the writer didn't mean to offer me any respect. When the person offers a return e-mail address, I try to respond politely and respectfully. As Proverbs 15:1 says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath," and I've found that to be the case. In a few cases, I've managed to turn angry rebukers into friends.
So, cheer up! People care about your scholarship! People think you are important! If you want to respond, do so by finding a public forum to present your work to interested people outside the scholarly community. The Wordhoard is one such place, but if you seek out opportunities and learn how to present your work in a way non-specialists can understand it, I think you'll find you're satisfying a real hunger to hear about what you are doing.
Plus, if you were one of the people criticized in the article, next time someone asks you why your research is important, you can simply look surprised and respond, "Haven't you read about my work in The Weekly Standard?"