A Rumination on Memorial Day

In the United States, today is Memorial Day, ostensibly dedicated to honoring those who have died in military service to the United States, and more commonly observed as 1) the unofficial beginning of summer (summer in the sense of persistent high temperatures has generally already come to the Texas Hill Country in which I live by the time of Memorial Day, and the solstice is not for nearly a month yet), 2) an opportunity for stores to attract customers through sales, and 3) an almost-obligatory day of grill- and smoker-work. For me, as for many others, it is a day off from regular work (though that occasions its own challenges); for me, as for seemingly relatively few others, it is a day inviting reflection, as well.

Memorial Day 2010
Few, not none.
Public domain photo from Arlington National Cemetery

I am not a person who normally makes much of holidays, being of a decidedly secular bent and of a generally staid and curmudgeonly demeanor. But I understand that many other people, perhaps most, are, and I do not necessarily begrudge others their observances (though I do begrudge being bombarded with them, as is sometimes the case, as well as having my generally quiet and unobtrusive non-observance berated), and I remain committed to at least some notion of the life of the mind, to the service of Truth as something that might actually approach being an objective good. So I note that, despite the US-endemic hyper-commercialization attendant upon the holiday, and in addition to the (problematic in several ways, I know) family-reinforcing tendency towards grilling and outdoor togetherness that accompanies it, there are those who observe the memorial sincerely–even as it arises from the US Civil War and, in particular, those who were on the rightly losing side of that conflict. And I wonder why it is that only service under arms is valued, or valued so highly. For it is not the case that service under arms is the only service that works to the public good, nor is it the case that service under arms does the most public good. Nor yet is it the case that only those who serve under arms are like to die in that service–as has been too abundantly and too often proven in the past months.

I leave aside entirely whether or not those who have died in service under arms deserve commemoration. I do not leave, however, the question of what it says that only those who die in such a way seem to deserve it. The public priorities would seem to be suggested thereby, and I am not certain the suggestion is one of which the prevailing public ought to be proud, whether when it marks its fallen warriors or at any other time.

As ever, contributions are welcome–and appreciated!

In Another Response to Paul Sturtevant

A version of this review appears on Amazon.com.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to buy a copy of Paul B. Sturtevant’s The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalism (I.B. Tauris, 2018; ISBN 9781788311397).* After prefatory materials, the book offers an introduction to its field of study and the particulars of the study on which it reports before examining prevailing and study-participant-understandings of “medieval” and “the Middle Ages.” Sturtevant goes on to discuss historical films, generally, and medieval and medievalist films, more specifically, before reporting in some detail on participants’ reactions to three major medieval/ist films of the early 21st Century (Beowulf, Kingdom of Heaven, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and their articulated understandings of the medieval world. A conclusion outlining implications and potential uses of the study follows, with appendices treating methodological concerns, notes, references, and an index closing out the volume. At close to 320 pages, it is a substantial volume, not likely to be the reading of an afternoon, but it certainly rewards the time spent reading it.

Screenshot of Cover of _The_Middle_Ages_in_Popular_Imagination.png
I took a screenshot of the cover from the publisher’s website.
I use it here for purposes of reporting.

As with any work, there are concerns to be raised about it. Several receive attention from Sturtevant; for example, in the conclusion of his book, he notes that there are decided limitations on his study, including demographic selectivity (participants in the study that led to the book were drawn from undergraduates at the University of Leeds, among other factors) and the inherent challenges of qualitative research. Since they are explicitly noted, however, they do not present problems with the book itself so much as they serve to note how much work is yet to be done–but that is a good thing for scholars, as it helps to assure that they will always have more work to do.

A bit more annoying, perhaps, is the obvious legacy of dissertation work in the book. Sturtevant acknowledges that the volume is the (expected) outgrowth or refinement of his doctoral work (pg. XV), and that is not bad in itself; what comes across as less than optimal is the seemingly formulaic nature of several of the chapters, which exhibit a “tell ‘em what you’ll tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em” pattern that can grate. (Not all chapters do so; those that do not are likely the product of Sturtevant’s increasing knowledge and understanding–which are formidable even within the dissertation-esque portions and, it must be remarked, are decidedly impressive in his work on The Public Medievalist.) It joins the occasional intrusion of copy-editing error in getting in the way of what is otherwise an excellent read.

And the book is an excellent read. The central tenets of the work–the oft-decried youth do care about their collective past and do learn from what they see; popular media do much to teach them, so it is incumbent for makers of such media to handle well what they do; scholars who want to see better understandings of their fields need to reach out to the public in accessible ways, though change will be slow–are all things that bear consideration and repetition, and they all demand the best efforts that those who will do the work of the mind can exert. The details used to support those tenets are presented accessibly and do well to illustrate the points Sturtevant makes throughout his book. The repudiation of “conventional wisdom” that “kids don’t know anything” is decidedly welcome, as is the assertion that early exposures exercise outsized influence on people’s understandings (which makes curation of childhood media consumption all the more important). Too, the notion that media exposure often leaves information in the mind without connection to its sourcing has important pedagogical and sociological implications. And, in a more aesthetic light, much of Sturtevant’s prose is flatly enjoyable reading–which is rare in academic texts, and rarer still in the dissertation work from which the present volume emerges.

Sturtevant is right in that there is more work to do. He is better than that in offering a useful starting point for such work in The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it.

*In the interest of full disclosure, my access to the text was facilitated by the author.

Care to help facilitate my access to other texts?

Class Report: ENGL 216, 21 May 2018

After treating questions from last meeting and before, discussion turned to concerns of reports and proposals, as well as explicit and implicit structures. Examples were addressed, as well.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 28 May 2018
  • Week 4 Homework (p. 328, #6), due online as a Word document before 0059 on 28 May 2018
  • Course Project: Outline, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 28 May 2018

Students are also reminded that class will not meet on-site next week due to Memorial Day, but will instead meet online during the regularly scheduled office hour on Tuesday, 29 May 2018.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed eight students enrolled, unchanged from last session; five attended, assessed informally. Student participation was adequate. No students attended the most recent office hour.

In Response to Paul Sturtevant

On 11 May 2018, Paul Sturtevant‘s “What if Thanos’s Plan in Avengers: Infinity War Actually Happened? It Already Did (Sort Of)” appeared in the online Washington Post. In the article, which opens with an appropriate spoiler warning, Sturtevant connects the cinema-suggested effects of rapid depopulation to the historically observed effects of rapid depopulation in one of the most prominent occasions thereof: the Black Death. The article points out the spread and indiscrimination of the plague and traces some of the notable early reactions to the pestilential wave: self-flagellation, religious tensions, hedonistic fatalism, and disruption of preexisting social hierarchies due to sudden release of material wealth and collapse of systems of production. Sturtevant goes on to point out that Europe returned to stability soon after the wave of devastation occasioned by the disease, pointing to it as a seemingly paradoxical beacon of hope against similarly destructive events that many envision coming.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet Sturtevant (head of the excellent website, The Public Medievalist) and the even better fortune to read his 2018 book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination (my review of which is forthcoming here and in a couple of other places), and it is always a pleasure to read his work. Having the chance to do so again in the Post is therefore welcome, and it is good to see how he continues to link contemporary mainstream cinema to the medieval. It is also good to see accessible medieval scholarship in a far-reaching platform, and it is better to see that scholarship used to promote a positive message, rather than the denigration usually meant or implied by references to the medieval (by non-medievalists, of course; those of use who dedicate ourselves to medieval studies as a field tend to see it as no less wrong-headed than the current epoch–worse in some ways, true, but better in others).

One point at which I have some small issue with the article is in the fourth- and fifth-to-last paragraphs:

The old order was indeed undone. That was not necessarily a bad thing, in Gottfried’s telling. Old class boundaries crumbled as “cheap, abundant human labor” disappeared. New technologies and new equalities arose in its place. The shortage of cheap labor helped break the system of serfdom, and promoted the growth of the middle class.

But unlike what Thanos seems to expect of the universe, the new world that rose from the ashes of the Black Death was not a more ecologically sustainable one. It did not result in reduced consumption of natural resources long term, and notably, within a handful of generations, the population of Europe rebounded completely.

The latter paragraph implies that, post-Plague, things returned very much to the way they were pre-Plague. Such rapacity as had been in place was not set aside, such population pressures as had been in place returned. But while the European middle class did arise largely in the wake of the Plague in Europe, it did not do so through the elimination of the lower socioeconomic classes; there were still many poor, many downtrodden, and those in power still wielded arbitrary, terrible authority over others. The population returned to its earlier levels, so the labor supply did, as well, and the addition or enhancement of an intervening social stratum between the highest and the lowest likely only made for another group happy to keep others “in their places”–so I have to wonder if the “equalities” in the former paragraph should read “inequalities” instead.

That is a minor point, however, against the excellent springboard for thought and consideration Sturtevant offers in his article. He points to a potential for much medievalist work to be done with the movie that gives rise to the piece, and there is no small delight in following an idea forward, even one that is voiced in a work of fiction featuring purple people in awkward poses. Too, again, the idea that the medieval points toward hope rather than a dirty, dreadful despair is a welcome message to see. There seems to be a need for it, in any event.

Help me keep the past of penury from becoming the present?

In Response to David Graeber

On 6 May 2018, David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article–a longer one–opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor–especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on “Chloe, the nonexecutive dean” is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe–although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading up on and contributing to the study of bullshit–such as this piece and some panels I’ve chaired–the piece immediately attracted my attention. One of the things I have striven to do across several years is find joy and humor in the work I do, and getting to read about bullshit and to write about it–as well as to write the word itself, many, many times–helps me to do so. As with other words, the simple juxtaposition of a scholar writing with and about such language reads as humorous–and not only for outside readers, whom a Chronicle piece might well not reach, but for academics, as well; as I said, I have worked with such material before, presenting it at conferences, and even “stuffy” academics have been audibly titillated by the work. And having a working definition of bullshit labor–the performance by workers aware of its uselessness of useless work–offers a good rubric to apply elsewhere. So that much was good to see; additions to taurascatology as a field, even if at a middle-brow level, are decidedly welcome.

Similarly welcome was the core discussion of the piece; rather than being merely a chance to write the word bullshit or a variation of it 27 times in an article, Graeber’s piece offers a frank treatment of the often-unseen-by-those-outside-academe parts of academic labor that annoy and distract. As an academic expatriate–it’s the most accurate term I have to hand for my own status relative to academia–I’ve been in a position to see both the bullshit labor of the academy (whence my end-of-session reports, originally) and the bullshit labor of the outside world (a previous job abounded in it, and there are elements of it, to be sure, in my current work). What Graeber reports largely aligns with my experiences and the reports I have from others, and what does not can, in most cases, be put down to the differences among individual institutions and departments.

That does not mean, however, that all in Graeber’s piece is well with me. I’ll be taking up one major thread of it in another webspace (and please read the Tales after Tolkien Society blog!), but there are several issues that need to be addressed. One of them is that the piece makes several assumptions, overt and otherwise. An early example is the parenthetical assumption that “the provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated [by the excision of bullshit labor] continue to be supported,” which seems far less than likely in the increasingly profit-driven social environment in which Graeber writes, I read, and many others languish amid spreading manure. Similarly, the notion that “the easiest way to de-bullshitize academic life would be to do something about the current precarity of intellectual life” seems at odds with the experiences and attitudes I have seen reported; the tendency, so far as I have noticed, has been towards the large-scale elimination of academic life–and demolition is far easier than reconstruction.

Too, the sudden shift in the last two paragraphs to the idea of universal basic income is jarring. While the idea itself is attractive to me, since I have had times when an assured minimum income would have been a blessing (my job searches were not short, folks, although they were diligently pursued and far-reaching), the presentation of it as 1) a useful remedy to academic precarity and 2) briefly and at the end of an article on bullshit labor seems forced and tacked-on. Honestly, it reads as the kind of disjunctive organization for which students are often (rightly) criticized, and it weakens the rhetorical force of Graeber’s argument–as well as the idea, itself, which already labors under a broad onus. In the end, then, Graeber’s argument offers some disappointment; its central tenets, explicating what the bullshit labor is and the conditions of its emergence and spread, are good, but there is enough that falters in the presentation of those tenets that they are all too likely to be lost in the fray.

No bullshit; I could use your support.

Class Report: ENGL 216, 14 May 2018

After treating questions from last meeting and before, discussion turned to concerns of process writing, research and documentation, and ethics. Source types (primary, secondary, and tertiary/critical) and assessment of sources received particular attention, with recourse made to documents emailed to students previously.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 21 May 2018
  • Week 3 Homework (p. 238, #9), due online as a Word document before 0059 on 21 May 2018
  • Course Project: Annotated References, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 21 May 2018

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed eight students enrolled, a decline of two from last session; four attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. No students attended the most recent office hour.

A Reflection on #Kzoo2018 from an #Academicexpatriate

Over the weekend just past, I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, hosted by Western Michigan University. It was far from the first time I had attended, and it was a good thing for me, even if I was only there for part of the proceedings (rather than the whole event, as had been my previous practice). Reconnecting with friends and colleagues, conducting necessary business, immersing myself in emergent scholarship, and making some small contribution to that myself invigorated me, and I return to my “normal” life full again of energy and verve, ready to do the things I need to do (about which I have made some comments in recent posts).

There is an issue that sticks with me, though. In an iteration of a common practice at academic conferences, attendees at the Congress were issued name badges with their preferred names and institutional affiliations upon them. Mine appears below:

Photo originally posted to my Twitter feed, @GBElliottPhD.
I cannot take credit for the title; I saw it at an earlier Congress,
though I forget whose badge it was that bore the blazon.

It attracted no small amount of comment, all of which that reached me (so far) was approving. Those whose badges reported them as Independent Scholars seemed particularly happy to see the note, though I made no formal sampling and took no direct count; I simply enjoyed the smiles and thumbs up, and I told the story more than once of the circumstances that led me to make such a claim. And in my private moments at the Congress, waking time spent otherwise than seeking sleep or readiness for the day in the nearly penitential cells of dorm rooms (some of the many legends of trips to the Zoo), I thought upon what the title can mean.

For if I am an academic expatriate, it is because I still feel myself a citizen of that strange and strangely benighted country that is academe, one sent outside it not through any formal exile and not on some mission for its benefit, but through such circumstances as demand it for life and livelihood even as those circumstances permit and perhaps encourage a returning to that country some, at least, of my labor and its results. I have been grappling with the idea, of course, as no few of the pieces I have put in this place on the web have shown, and I continue to do so, as should be obvious. For I did attempt to immigrate into the country that academe is, despite its lack of flag and its incohesive, incoherent territory, and I had thought I had passed my naturalization exams, only to find that there was no work for me; it is not my native land, and I am not rejected by that natural home, so it is not as if I have no place to go, but I still am called to that place in which I so long sought citizenship but in which I cannot now claim even permanent residency. I am, after all, contingent faculty, given a temporary work permit at intervals and always anxious that another will not be forthcoming.

So I work outside my wonted country, looking in and returning to it when I may–such as at the International Congress on Medieval Studies–and renewing my connections, my personal affiliations with the many good people whom I am privileged to know (and they know who they are, I hope). I continue to send some small part of my labor to it, doing what I can do after my family is seen to to support that disaggregated nation to which I have hoped to belong and from outside the borders of which I still feel myself its part. There are at least some, I know, who value what they receive from me, and for them, even if I can only get back now and again, I mean to retain my tenuous ties to the incoherent country–although I think I will continue to claim the label of academic expatriate, as well. It is apt enough, and I think there are others whose own efforts fall better under such a heading than others that might be envisioned; they, no less than any other academics, deserve support.

Care to contribute to that support?

In Response to Eric Weiskott

On 5 July 2017, Eric Weiskott’s “Millennial Bashing in Medieval Times” appeared in The Conversation online. In the article, Weiskott situates himself and his students as the Millennials often focused upon by derogatory opinion pieces and contests the commonplace descriptions of Millennials as shiftless and feckless amid noting their major cultural touchstones before arriving at the crux of his piece: complaints about youth are nothing new. He then references a series of examples of medieval English authors’ complaints about the youths of their own times, moving from Chaucer through an anonymous poet to Langland and Malory. The article concludes with the comment that complaints about youth are symptomatic of continual underlying social change–and that they are not likely to end anytime soon.

I’ve been fortunate enough to read Weiskott’s work on occasion, as well as to hear him speak, and I know him for an excellent scholar. (I also confess to being jealous of him, since he got a position for which I had also applied–but that is another matter entirely.) And his scholarly predilection emerges in the article, wherein he makes several mentions of meter; Weiskott identifies as a metricist (among a few others), so it makes sense that comments about meter would attract his attention. Similarly, his focus on later Middle English literature is evident from the dates of his references; most are in the latter 14th century, with Malory the outlier at the “end” of Middle English. (Indeed, one of the things I could wish to see addressed in the piece, had space allowed, is older responses; what do the Anglo-Saxon scops, for example, make of the youths of their time?) Both were comforts, of course; seeing scholarly focus deployed for a broad audience is a hopeful thing, and my own formal studies tend to focus on Malory, so seeing other Malorian work is emboldening (even if I see it relatively late).

I am also gratified that a point I make often with my classes echoes one made by a more powerful scholar than I. Although I’ve not often been in a position to teach medieval English literature as a primary focus (and will likely never be so again), I work to integrate my medievalist tendencies into my teaching (as I discuss at some length in a chapter I have in the upcoming Ballad of the Lone Medievalist–if I may be forgiven for self-promotion). One of the ways in which I do so is to point out the continuity of language change–something Weiskott reports doing in his classes. And one of the ways I point out that continuity is by noting that the writers of the past complain about the youths of their time as certainly as do the writers of today–as Weiskott points out. So I am in good company, which is always a pleasure.

One of the reasons I feel compelled to point out the changes in language and the complaints of the past about the language of the slightly-more-recent past is that many of my students have internalized the idea that their “nonstandard” usage marks them as unintelligent and unworthy. (I’ve noted it at least obliquely before.) Since those I teach now are non-traditional, having been away from formal schooling for some time and, in many cases, underserved academically when they were in schooling before, they tend to be more convinced than traditional undergraduates that there is something wrong with them because they speak and write in particular ways that are not “what was taught in school.” I face more of a challenge to get them to the idea that the “standards” in place now are wholly arbitrary and reflect the soft power deployed by moneyed interests to keep those without as much money (and the access to resources represented by that money) in their place–and convincing people that they are stupid does much to keep them from looking to change things. The words of the past help me to do so, more than just acting as a salve for the wounds the words of many of my elders inflict. I expect that Weiskott’s students–or those who need it, since he works at Boston College, a situation far removed from my own and those of my students–benefit in such a way, as well.

Here’s some more, different self-promotion, if you didn’t like the other.

Class Report: ENGL 216, 7 May 2018

After treating questions from last meeting, discussion turned to concerns of theses in technical writing before addressing document design concerns. The focus was on paratext, including declension of headings, typeface, and page layout.

Students were reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions (four posts per graded thread), due online before 0059 on 14 May 2018
  • Week 2 Homework (p. 178, #7), due online as a Word document before 0059 on 14 May 2018
  • Course Project: Topic Selection, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 14 May 2018

Students are urged to be at work doing background reading to inform the course project.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 111 of the San Antonio campus. The class roster listed ten students enrolled, unchanged from last session; five attended, assessed informally. Student participation was good. The previous office hour was cancelled against instructor’s family needs.

On Resuming Reading

I have recently started trying to catch up on reading my academic journals–something I had let lapse late in my attempts to secure full-time work in academe and which I had not been diligent about doing since I lived in New York and had an hour-long commute that had someone else doing the driving. Now, though, while I am largely out of academe, I retain some affiliation with it, particularly as applies to my discipline of medieval studies, so I retain membership in a few organizations, and I take some of the journals they publish. In truth, I have missed grappling with developed ideas; the teaching work that I yet do does not afford me much chance to confer with my colleagues in the field, and I have felt myself stultifying as a result. It is not a pleasant thing, to be sure, and being as far behind in my reading as I am (there’re volumes from 2015 I’ve yet to read!) does not help matters. But I have the opportunity to address that much, at least, and I am please to be taking the chance.

That I would do so is something of an oddity, I know. I really should be working to extricate myself more fully from academe, to let the teaching I do be just a job–and not even so much more than that as a hobby. Erin Bartram, whose influential blog piece remains on my mind (as I’ve noted here and here), is not wrong to note that continuing to participate in the system that has rejected me–as academia largely has–is to contribute to the conditions that force others out and prompt such ideas as the zero-time faculty fracas at a university in southern Illinois. Maintaining society memberships and journal subscriptions, writing and presenting and trying for publication, all feed into a system that has both shat me out and shat on me.

The thing is, though, that it has not been my discipline that has treated me thus; a number of institutions have, to be sure, but I have to think that they are separate from and only loosely connected to the discipline of medieval studies as a body. The discipline itself has been largely hospitable to me–and to many outside traditional academe. I recall Richard Utz’s plenary address at Kalamazoo some years back (I forget which year), one in which he extolled the amateur medievalist and reminded those in attendance to value the non-traditional scholars among us–of whom there were and are many, and their lack of institutional constraint allows them to pursue projects from which we all benefit and which we ought to support. Many of us do; I know the Tales after Tolkien Society does, and it values the independent scholar no less than the affiliated one. And that is to the good.

Also, on a wholly personal level, many of those I call colleagues, I also call friends. And if it has not been the case that institutional realities have helped them to hire me, it has been the case that I have enjoyed their company and their collaboration across many years. Their work, I do not mind supporting–and from experience, I know they have not minded supporting mine. (There has been little enough of it, but still…) Thus, while I am sympathetic to Bartram’s argument, and much of what she writes resonates with me (clearly, else I’d not come back to it again and again), I find I cannot turn away from academe so completely as she looks to do. I cannot leave that part of myself fully behind.

How much of that reluctance comes from lingering camaraderie and how much from pathology and dysfunction are unclear to me–and I am not at all certain I want to figure it out. (I worry about the implications for my stability, and it needs no dissuasion as matters currently stand.) What is clear is that

  1. Because I do remain engaged in academe, if only peripherally, and
  2. Because I perceive myself as benefiting from doing so,

I will be continuing to read from my years of scholarly journals. I have the time to do it, now, and I feel the need. And even if I do not foresee a return to full-time academe, I see no reason I should not work to improve my understanding of the world, and so improve myself.

Contributions are always welcome!