Monday, February 05, 2007

State of the Field

Not long ago Mike Drout on his blog mused on the state of the field in Anglo-Saxon studies at The point of the post, one in a series Mike plans over the year, is that the unavailability of key research tools (such as Ker's Catalogue) and the fact that there is no known plans to make these tools available is one indication that the field is not in good shape.

Tiruncula was the first to respond, Her viewpoint is one from the inside, with an emphasis on collegiality, interdisciplinarity, fluidity of field borders, and the like and resports that from that interior perspective, the field is healthy.

Scott Nokes,, responded by making some observations: we suffer when we get away from doing literature and into doing philosophy-lite and history-lite.

Responding to Mike and Scott is Eileen Joy at who takes both to task for various comments, though in a way doesn't address the question of the state of the field, but does touch on many of the issues that addressing the state of the field essay should.

So how does one assess the State of Anglo-Saxon studies? 1) tools available 2) positions that are open and filled each year 3) numbers of graduate students finding employment 4) number of good materials being published 5) list servs/discussion boards

There are other measures too. I have to agree with Tiruncula though. Overall, the field measured from the inside is in a pretty good state. There is a great deal of good discussion going on, journals dedicated specifically to Anglo-Saxon studies, many of the tools we use are still available or are currently being redone. The exceptions are the lexical tools (pace the Dictionary of Old English) and manuscript tool--but let's face facts. In this age of the bottom line, there is increasingly little room for scholarly works at all, much less those works whose audience numbers some 200 in the world. I have to disagree here with Mike Drout: as much as I would love to have some of those tools readily available and in print yet, I'm not sure that it is an indication of ill health in the field.

So what does ail us? It isn't what's happening inside the field, because that right now is pretty exciting. It is our place within the academy as a whole that is wanting.

In part this is because Humanities in general are on the wane. There is a decided emphasis now on math and science and technology as where our future hope lies whether we're speaking of the US, the West, Europe, or the world, the solution to our problems are to be found in science and technology, not in asking questions about who we are, where we are, where we come from and so on. Anglo-Saxon studies certainly suffers from the same problems that the rest of the humanities do.

But there is more. As the "pie" shrinks, there is increasing competition for a slice. So why do medievalists generally, and specifically Anglo-Saxonists in English departments seem to be increasingly marginalized? Drout suggests that in part our linguistic skills/interests lie behind our difficulty here. I agree with Drout that our philology, the necessity of learning Latin, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old French, and talking about meter and grammar and all that sort of thing separates the medievalist in general and Anglo-Saxonist in particular from the rest of the English department. All these related fields suffer within the academy: the number of programs teaching Old Norse, or Old Irish, are few and far between. Even Medieval Latin is a bastard step child on the Classics departments in too many instances. Yet, wonderful and exciting things are happening in those fields as well, so that like Anglo-Saxon studies, the view from within is good, the view from the hilltop of the academy is not so rosy.

I could point to faculty lines not being filled when a medievalist retires, or that fewer and fewer graduate students are being hired to the tenure track, or to the lack of tools in our field, and what not and so on. But many of these problems are not Anglo-Saxonists alone but to some degree at least are spread across the academy, particularly on the Humanities side. But I think it safe to say that we are all aware that there is a problem out there.

I think that the root of the problem lies in a perception that generally Humanities are unimportant relative to other "harder" disciplines. By "harder" I mean both "hard" in the sense that a social scientist, historian, or chemist can point to quantifiable results and measurable results. That is seldom true for the Anglo-Saxonist, except those of us who deal in philology, and even then it isn't always as true as one would like. Likewise, the academy in general and students ask what value, meaning what practical value, is there in studying literature, and especially in studying dead languages and literature in dead languages. There are certainly exceptions to that attitude, but.....Related is the attitude that dismisses the ancient, classical, and medieval worlds as unimportant and having nothing to say to the present.

Ten years or so ago Victor David Hanson and a colleague whose name escapes and whom I'm too lazy to look up wrote a book, a wonderful rant really, entitled Who Killed Homer?. To some degree the rant was aimed at Classicists who engaged in theory, and so separated the wonderful texts and stories from the audiences who would hear them and benefit from them.

To some degree this is true. To another degree it isn't. Criticisms of how a scholar does her or his work are as old as the university (and actually older, but let me start somewhere). Along side the rise of the universities was the rise of scholasticism, and certainly this movement had its detractors using much the same vocabulary. Likewise doing philology and "just literature" have had their detractors as well and how these movements and practices have ruined literature for everyone. Just this past week Salon or Slate had an English professor write about how academia separates the pleasure of books from the study of literature.

I sympathize with this, I have to admit. Being a philologist who got into the field for love of language and love of the literature, it distresses me no end ot see students just not get into Beowulf or Sir Gawain, and I see some of my colleagues use the texts to champion a particular theoretical stance that in my view is a discussion best left out of the introductory course. And I agree too that often "theory" is badly practiced, just as philology was at times, and often can appear to have nothing to do with the literature at hand. But our problem in the academy does not stem from doing too much or too little theory, too much or too little literature, too much or too little philology. I love all these things, and may they continue to be practiced in health and in a healthy field, while we weed out those who practice those disciplines poorly (if I hear another MLA paper explain the basics of Focault to me one more time I swear I shall shoot the speaker--I have read him, thanks, I need not have a 16 min crash course in your paper!). Let me say to Eileen and more indirectly to Allen Franzen, that I think theory is important and more medievalists ought to consider various theoretical approaches. But contra Frantzen I do not believe that engaging in more theory or being more deeply involved in MLA and such is what will save Old English/Medieval studies. It might even hurt it, as we are perceived of trying to be like our fellows but not getting there. After all, a theorist who no longer practices in his literary period could care less about the queering of the middle ages or the societal fringes in literature in 12th century France. What the theorist qua theorist is interested in is not application to a period, author, or genre but rather in the theory; at its worst the theorist will make theory points by literally raping period, author, or genre while the accolytes nod in agreement. This doesn't make theory itself bad, but it does make much of the current practice of theory in its relationship to literature a negative one and it is not a road I wish to see medievalists go down.

BUT, that said, we do need to step up our theory in some ways. Presentism is certainly one means of doing so. It is a truism, but a profound one, that our modern Western society is not built on the Classical past as the Renaissance and a good public school education pre-1970 told us. Our modern Western culture is based on and rooted in the medieval world and the medieval and renaissance attempts to recover what they thought best about the classical past (and to some degree ignoring what they considered to be bad). Thus studying the Middle Ages has something to say to our current world and our situation. Beowulf's anti-war platform has as much to say about gangs in Chicago as it does the Mess in Iraq that his Shrubbery has gotten us into. Certainly when we take over the town in which Saladin was born, and people in the Middle East sit in their coffee shops and talk about the massacres of Richard III etc, and comparisons are made between bin Laden and the Old Man of the Mountains and his trained assasins, then we've entered the medieval world as much as the modern one and certainly we medievalists with a foot in both ought to have some good things to say about all this. And let us remember in talking about global warming that the Medieval Warm Period was followed by the Black Death, it bears some thinking on.

This doesn't mean that we should give up philology, literature, or even applying theory to literature. But it does mean that we should be more a public voice, a public scholar, than we have been heretofore. The more medievalists who are out there practicing this kind of theory, I think , the better our world will be but also the better off we'll be in the academy as a whole.

This has been 6 weeks in the making ,and I've prob. stepped on toes. But that's ok.

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