I've had a great deal of difficulty in writing this post, because every time I think of a proper response to Jeff Sypeck's "Applied Medievalism
," it ends up being all about me, me, me. I hate those kinds of posts on other blogs, so I try to avoid them on my own. In this case, Sypeck showed the wisdom to know that "[y]our answer is bound to be deeply personal," so I'm going to try to work my way through the personal to get to the universal. If you'd rather not read the confessional stuff, I've divided this into to parts, so just skip down to the professional part.PERSONAL
When Sypeck writes, "Some of you spoke vaguely but enthusiastically about the prospect of public outreach," he pretty much could have linked to a picture of me gesticulating wildly, which is probably why the very first comment in the thread
addresses a question to me. The over-all question that Jeff asks is a very good one: Why public outreach? What exactly am I hoping we achieve?
A little history: When I started the Wordhoard, it was not a medieval-themed blog. Back in those days, a colleague convinced me that all professors have a social obligation, to a greater or lesser degree, to be public intellectuals.* In those early days, the idea was something like, "Hey, write a blog about the topics of the day, and try to say smart things about them." If you go back to the earliest days of the Wordhoard, very few of the posts even mention anything medieval.
As time went on, though, I began to limit what I wrote about, primarily because I often would look back and realize I didn't know what I was talking about. I was afraid I was becoming a kind of bush-league Noam Chomsky, only writing about that which I didn't understand fully. First, I started cutting back to literature & philosophy, and then eventually just to medieval stuff.
Each time I decided to narrow the focus of the Wordhoard, I consciously thought, "well, it'll reduce readership, but I'd rather have fewer readers and good content than a lot of readers and stupid content." It didn't work out that way, though. The more I focused on the medieval, the more people visited the site. I was able to have the best of both worlds -- lots of readers and content more in my specialty.
As the Wordhoard grew in popularity, I started to sense a very real hunger
out there for smart-but-accessible writing about the medieval. I've got to confess, it surprised me. I mean, I
like the medieval, but I'm weird, right? I wasn't surprised about the other scholars chatting each other up here -- it was the Tolkienistas, the SCAers, the fantasy film fans, the comic book guys, and the amateur historians I wasn't expecting, not to mention the hundred-or-so Google searches I get every day for people looking for medieval topics.
I started really using the Wordhoard as a platform to promote medievalism for several different reasons, but I'll start with the most personal: I can't help myself. I felt that hunger, too, and was so fortunate to find others who fed my appetite that I feel the need to share with everyone else. I could be doing a lot of other things that would be a lot less work and make a lot more money -- so why do I spend about $1000-$2000 of my own money every year going to conferences and conventions and public events to learn more and share what I've learned? Because I can't help myself.
I still remember the first time I was in a university library. Looking back, it was a tiny little thing, and pre-internet, so what I could access there was relatively little. Still, I was so excited to be there, I couldn't stop myself from gushing with joy; the campus tour guide looked at me like I was the dorkiest dork to ever dork his way on campus. My freshman year, I picked a shelf nearly at random and decided to read everything on it -- which is why I know so much about Greek drama without ever having had a single class on it. Bernard Knox
was my invisible professor.
So, in truth, I fell into the promotion of medievalism almost by accident, and now I cannot stop myself from promoting it, any more than I can stop myself from talking about medieval literature when a student asks me a question. As one of my colleagues likes to say, "They pay me to grade; I teach for free."PROFESSIONAL
What are my professional reasons for promoting medievalism**? One reason is simply that I can when others cannot. Many people have testified online (and many more in private) that writing for popular audiences (whether in blogs or other fora) would be professionally damaging to them at their schools. My own school seems very happy about my writing, and even has promoted it to the alumni. My research, service, and teaching are already well beyond what this school normally requires for tenure & promotion, so I'm not risking my career here. In his post, Jeff Sypeck recommends examining your own temperment to see if you're suited for working with the general public -- and I would add to that, examine your professional situation. If your career might be jeopardized, don't do it ... or, perhaps, don't do it until after
you've got tenure.
Outside of the individual's professional situation, what have we to gain from all this? Sypeck offers a few things:
- More funding
- Greater respect from administrators
- Increased enrollment in your undergraduate courses
- Social, political, or religious change
I would suggest that all of the above are possible goals. In my own case, the professional reason that has developed is my desire to change the academic field. If I'm the only guy out here doing this, I'm just a crackpot. If, however, we create an academic culture in which at least some of the writing of every scholar is expected to be accessible to non-scholars, and in which at least some of the writing is expected to apply to non-academic topics (such as the latest medieval-themed film), then all of the above will follow.*** I also think that if we create such a culture, much poor scholarship hidden by overwrought prose will find itself pushed out of the professional discourse, which is good news for scholars.****
There are, however, very real potential drawbacks to "applied medievalism." Sypeck mentioned a few, but let me just add:
- Schools, libraries, and civic organizations have very limited budgets, so (like me) you might find yourself sometimes choosing between paying your own way and not do it at all.
- Unsympathetic colleagues may try to portray you as a dilettante.
- You may use popular writing as a mechanism to avoid scholarly writing.
- You may find yourself on panels with self-described "experts" who have no clue what they're talking about, but the audience does not have the background for discernment.
- It's easy to confuse enthusiasm audiences have for your subject matter for enthusiasm about you.
- You'll find yourself expected to be the "expert" on medieval topics that are not really your sub-specialty, no matter how vigorously you point this out.
Of course, there are others, but you get the point. It's not all beer & skittles. As Jeff obliquely points out with his question "Why?", if you want to promote popular medievalism because you think it's your route to fame & fortune, you'd better travel a different route.
Popular medievalism can be divided into two different categories: Popular presentation of scholarly material, and application of scholarly expertise to popular subjects. Sypeck's phrase, "applied medievalism," seems to be more about the latter than the former.
How, then, can we apply medievalism? As Sypeck points out, popular medievalism is all around us, from the obits of Gary Gygax to the big profits in Ren Faires. Applying medievalism means offering a context beyond popular culture -- whether it be about how faithful the latest Beowulf
movie is to the poem, or how George RR Martin's fiction captures the complexity of the War of the Roses, or even how the life of Charlemagne tells us something about the relationship between Iraq and the West.
That's the difference between fanboy medievalism and applied medievalism. Fanboy medievalism just says, "Oh my gosh, that sword is so awesome!" Applied medievalism acknowledges the kick-butt awesomeness of the sword, but offers a broader context, like thinking about how the ceremonial swords Marines carry suggest the chivalric virtues
they are still expected to continue as part of their warrior ethos
. In that way, applied medievalism ideally inspires fanboys to explore further. After all, none of us emerged from the womb fully-developed thinkers about medievalism. We all started as fans, but through our explorations became more.*I've written about that issue before, but it's not really relevant here except as a point of genesis.**In the word "medievalism," I'm conflating literature, history, etc. here for the purpose of simplicity.***All this ties into the reason I leave the comments on the front page of the Wordhoard -- in an effort to build community and give both scholars and the general public a voice.****Except for incompetant ones, I guess.