Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Applied Medievalism and Me

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.


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."


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.


  1. Anonymous1:26 AM

    One of my friends (the same one who asked me lots of questions during the filming of the latest Beowulf while looking at the roughs) and I got into a conversation a while back about the Humanities in general that follows some of the same themes. His take seems to be that in order for the Humanities to be useful there has to be a way to monetize it on the the entrepenurial, Silicon Valley model instead of the academy. I had, and still have, a very hard time explaining to him why you can't really create a startup for medievalism...what would the product be?

  2. 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.

    Don't forget the fangirl population while you're at it... Not that we don't appreciate a good shiny sword when we see one (my approach to movie stars: does he have a sword? nope, not hot). The picture you draw of popular medievalism is very male-oriented, but like Sypeck said, Ren Fayres draw a predominately female crowd... When it comes to fantasy lit, most girls I know read all the same books the boys do, but in addition there are sizeable caches of fantasy lit, particularly teenage fantasy, specifically aimed at girls.

    If the 'shiny sword' handle will draw mostly fanboys, what about Marie de France as a drawcard for the female nerd? I had quite the historical crush on Marie, thanks to Horrible Histories, when I was about fourteen. The idea of this lady poet prefacing her works with snark about men trying to claim the credit for her poems... pretty awesome, really :D Also thanks to Horrible Histories, I was fond of Joan of Arc and of Jeanne de Montfort, who held off an invasion at home while her husband was away on Crusade.

    It's not just that I liked to hear stories about strong female characters in the medieval period. Strong female characters provided the handle for me to pick up historical context, to develop an interest in the politics of the period. Reading about Eleanor d'Aquitane, for example, taught me about the political system of medieval France, and I became fascinated with a country in which the King ruled less land than most of his subordinates.

    Even now, my knowledge of the twelfth century intellectual climate is pegged on what I know of Heloise and her boyfriend Abelard...

    There's a lot wrong with cherry-picking female characters from medieval history according to modern standards of strength (which are usually based on male models). Often historical studies which do that sort of thing really tick me off. But as an 'outreach' thing, a way of telling some rollicking stories and getting people of both genders interested in a world which is so different to our own, inhabited by people who are not so different to us, after all... I don't think you can beat it.

  3. Highly,

    Yeah, I intentionally avoided the word "fangirl" because the last time I used it, I was informed that the term was not simply the feminine counterpart to "fanboy," and had some sort of undesirable sexual connotation to it. I'm not really sure what the connotation is, exactly, but I got the vague impression it was like a geeky slut groupie.

    Now, mind you, I've never heard "fangirl" used in that way, but I guess somewhere it is, so I just avoid the issue by only referring to men and men's stuff, hoping people extend the term "fanboy" to return to fans of all kinds. Maybe I should coin the term "fankind?"

  4. oho, I see... I think you're right, 'fanboy' doesn't get used in the same derogatory sense as 'fangirl' does. Either there are less men out there obsessed with celebrities, or teenage girls are far more prone to delusions like OMG ELIJAH WOOD IS MY HUSBAND 4EVAR.

    By the looks of Urbandictionary, fanboy has a meaning similar to that of fandom, although at its broadest, fandom can also include the hyperactive teenage girls. Heaven knows there were enough of *those* around in LOTR fandom back when I was a regular...

  5. Great thoughts. I've posted some comments over on Jeff's blog that seem to intersect with the things you've brought up here--primarily, that we should see ourselves as cultural educators (not merely educators within the walls of an institution), and we should bring our knowledge to anyone interested, free for the taking. I think this may be very central to your ideas and the philosophy underlying your reasoning for outreach.

  6. "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."

    Wow! WOW!

    I didn't do that, but I spent an awful lot of time in my grad school years reading things like Crane Brinton's life of Tallyrand, just because I didn't know who Tallyrand was.

  7. I don't have much to add here, except "here, here!"

  8. Anonymous12:27 PM

    One other way to spread the word as it where, is to "mentor" or encourage some one who shows a inclination for history. A good friend of my daughter (high school age) is a "fan" of ancient and medieval history. My wife suggested that I loan him one of my Folio books that he was admiring. With some trepidation, I did, and the look of gratitude on his was worth the risk, in terms of the value of the book.
    I don't know if this will inspire him to pursue a career or just seek a higher level of knowledge in the subject.
    But at least, I may now have some one to talk about it with. :)

  9. Anonymous3:10 PM

    This conversation really points out the lack of proper terms to describe non-scholars who are interested in the medieval or the quasi-medieval. "Buff," "fan," and "amateur" don't really work, and I wouldn't fault anyone who found them condescending. Maybe no single can include include both the self-taught linguist who wants to read Beowulf and the fellow who makes his own armor for Renaissance festivals?

  10. The linguist and the armorer may both may be accomplished scholars. There may be plenty of "fans" who enjoy history but never get very deep into any single subject.

  11. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I still drool over the thought of accessing a university library. Dorkishness evidently has no expiration date.

    Can I be a Dr. Nokes fangirl? I really appreciate your efforts in promoting medievalism. I think there are different yet equally valid contexts: blogging for the masses, writing papers for the academics. You're like the center of a little Venn diagram!

    I recently copy edited a manuscript on the relation between contemporary German literature and German culture. One thing that really struck me was the discussion of "public intellectuals" and how the US just doesn't have them.

    Unlike Germany, intellectuals in this country don't typically write essays outside of their fields (or outside of their field's scholarly journals), and if they do, they aren't necessarily met with respect and they certainly aren't published in major newspapers as are our Teutonic friends. Even fiction writers in Germany are taken seriously when they expound on politics, for example. I guess we'd rather give our time and money to those hunks with swords up on the big screen.

  12. Anonymous8:17 PM

    Steve: You're right, and I have friends whom I'd describe just that way. I should have said non-professionals.

  13. Anonymous3:38 AM

    Although first and foremost to me it conjures the spirit of portly be-sweatered men travelling behind steam engines, I think the word we may want is `enthusiasts', which covers most groups without being offensive, no?

  14. I protest. Although the usage of fanboy to describe the gender-ambivalent is perhaps not typical (boy vs. girl vs. kid), it is still typical of Indo-European languages, and Semitic languages too as such, to use the male grammatical gender to mean the gender-ambivalent or collective. Observe for instance those who say "he who does medievalism is hip" indicating both the male and the female.

    Girl is the equivalent of boy, and kid is a neutral-collective. Therefore one should not use boys to mean girls. You point out that fangirl is not the equivalent of fanboy. Therefore one should be able to use fanboys to mean both boys and girls. Is this so different from the "women are men too" debate?