Saturday, September 6, 2008

Funny, you don't *look* like a medievalist

One of my students recently asked me if I have a favorite TV show. I told her that I liked too many, past and present, to name a single favorite.

She seemed surprised and replied, "I just don't associate a medievalist with television." I replied, "Well, I *live* in the *21st* century." She laughed and then we proceeded to talk about the police procedurals genre, which we both enjoy.

A few days later she was looking at me funny so I asked her what was on her mind. She said, "I just can't get over what you must have to know to be a medievalist." Since she's one of my graduate students, I reminded her that no matter what one's field is, one's goal should be to know a lot. Then she clarified that I have to know other languages and skills like reading manuscripts. So I reminded her that all English Ph.D. programs have a foreign language requirement and that even specialists in the most contemporary literature have a body of specialized knowledge and skills.

So then she got to what was really her point, I think, and said, "But you just don't seem like what I think of when I think 'medievalist.'"

Huh. "What's that suppose to mean?" I asked.

"I just don't see you when I think 'medievalist,'" she responded.

"Well, I am one." I said, getting a little bothered by where this was going.

She realized she hit a nerve and tried to back-peddle, "Well, let's put it this way: when I first started college, the medievalists in the department didn't look like you." [Note: this student has children older than I am.]

"So let me get this straight," I said. "You're basing your idea of what a medievalist should look like on the single example of Rust Belt University in the year I was born?"

"Well, now, did you have to go there? All I'm saying is they fit the stereotype." [Note: OK, maybe I shouldn't have made her feel old, but I was trying to point out that in that time, I had grown up, gone to college and graduate school, and gotten tenure. Just sayin' -- that's a long time and the world has indeed changed in that time.]

"I didn't know there was a stereotype for 'medievalist.'"

"You know what I mean."

"Old? Male? Or both?"

"See, you *do* know what I mean."

Instead of taking her to task directly for the sexism of her assumptions, I said, "Aren't you glad times have changed, then? Because now I look a lot more like the medievalists I know than I don't!"

"Yes, I am glad. And now when I think of 'medievalist' I'll think of you."

So we managed to end the conversation on a good point, but man, was I starting to get testy there in the middle. It was really depressing me to hear a woman so completely internalize sexist assumptions that even when I was gently trying to point them out she wasn't seeing them. I know age has something to do with it, but still, it was bumming me out.

And her other underlying assumptions were also pushing some of my other buttons that she couldn't have known about. I know that one thing that was probably underpinning her idea of what a medievalist looks like is the assumption that some students have that you should study what you identify with in the most obvious ways, coupled with the corollary that old stuff is only for old white men. The first point seems to defeat the broadest ideas of education, and the second point makes me want to say, "Well, even our oldest old guy in the department isn't even as old as the heyday of Modernism! So should we *start* there?" And later something came up about her vague idea of medieval lit being all about dungeons and torture. And that idea probably wasn't helped by my having used the 1137 entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to lead off a conversation about what is literature and what is literary study (this was in my research methods class), since that entry is all about the torture methods used by Stephen and his supporters in their war against Maud for the throne. [Note to self: next medieval text I use in this class should be a pretty one or a funny one!] But I'm a little annoyed with myself for having missed this teaching moment, for having missed an opportunity to say, "You don't to have to be what you study!" That's something more students in the humanities need to hear -- especially the women and students of color -- because I think sometimes they think the only avenues open to them are ones that include what they already know. It's important for the vitality of any field to attract students from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences, but I think fields in earlier periods of literature, history, art, etc., will especially suffer if too many students think those are fields appropriate only for old white guys. I think it's also a broader problem for the liberal arts at a university like mine, where too many working class students think arts and sciences majors aren't for them -- a topic eloquently addressed by Dr. Crazy recently.

I used to think that merely my presence in the room cut through many such assumptions, but clearly not! But how do you convince students that they might like something they know nothing about before they get in your classroom? I don't mean, how do I convince all my grad students to become medievalists -- because that would be kind of nutty! -- but rather, how do even begin to say to all students, about whatever subject that they assume is too esoteric for them, "Try it! You'll like it!"

15 comments:

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Me, on the other hand, I look exactly like the stereotypical medievalist.

Bow down before my fuddy-duddy image! Gape in amazement at my bow tie! Tremble in fear at the tweediness of my jacket! Stare in shock at my little round glasses! Experience my mind-bogglingly bald head!

Now all I have to do is live long enough to be about 60, and I'll have whole look down perfectly.

Dr. Virago said...

I dunno...the bow tie and glasses say "Victorianist" to me. Or 19th c. lawyer. :)

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I've also been told:

1. Black nationalist
2. Demented Vaudeville puppeteer
3. Evil ice cream man

tempestsarekind said...

"the assumption that some students have that you should study what you identify with in the most obvious ways, coupled with the corollary that old stuff is only for old white men..."

Yes, that! I get that occasionally--from the guy behind the library desk who assumed that when I said I was studying the Renaissance, I meant the *Harlem* Renaissance; to a classmate who suggested that I was "brave" for specializing in Shakespeare because I'd be going up against this mindset all the time. (She felt that she had to study postcolonial lit, for similar reasons.) And I wonder sometimes whether people are thinking it but not saying anything. I don't know what to do about it either, except to remind people that I'm not any more removed from Shakespeare's day than anyone else currently alive! And that "relevance" is not nearly so narrow a field as we seem to be defining it, more and more often, these days.

Dr. Virago said...

remind people that I'm not any more removed from Shakespeare's day than anyone else currently alive!

Yes, exactly! I mean, do old white dudes have a "Shakespeare gene" or something? I think a lot of this proceeds from popular post-Romantic notions of literature as some kind of expression of the inner self, so from that assumptions comes the idea you're going to "get" literature that closest to your own sense of self. There are multiple problems with this assumption, at least three of which are: 1) the idea of literature as an expression of the self is questionable to begin with; 2) it's an idea that's totally NOT operative for literature prior to the Romantics; 3) it assume history doesn't matter.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and Dr. Nokes -- "evil ice cream man" made me laugh! And it's kind of redundant -- the whole notion of the ice cream truck creeps me out even before you get to the creepy "Hel- LO!" the ones around here say. But then I can never think of them the same way after the movie "After Hours."

Bardiac said...

My mentor in grad school used to start his big GE Shakespeare classes by confronting what students expected in a Shakespeare prof: male, white, tweedy, straight, and so forth. At that level (undergrad, not English majors), the students really responded well to that. It was good because it let them see how they could study what they wanted, too.

But a grad student? Sort of scary!

Dr. Virago said...

Bardiac - Yeah, no kidding, kind of scary! Especially coming from a woman of color who was a women's studies major as an undergrad. But I think her experiences in the late 60s and early 70s -- when she was told she'd be "better off" majoring in education -- have shaped her assumptions about the fields that are open to non-male, non-tweedy types, and she just hasn't shaken them.

That said, lest you think this is an issue one might encounter only among MA students at a place like RBU, I've heard stories from my grad school alma mater about the folks in 20th c. fields saying stupid things to the other medievalists like, "Medievalists don't do theory" and asking questions of the female and minority students like, "Why on earth would you do *that* field?"

Bardiac said...

Yep, it's weird how some folks in later fields don't realize how cool and theoretical most medievalists these days are, isn't it?

I'm sure people of color get that attitude in my field, too, but we have a lot of great scholars they can point to and say, look, Kim Hall, Ania Loomba, Margo Hendriks, etc etc.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

I can see "Evil Ice Cream Man," especially after the After Hours connection.

Lisa said...

I bet some of it isn't just the image that they have to be old white men, but the image that they have to be so absorbed in their studies that they aren't present in the real world. That's an image a lot of people have of professors in general, from what I've seen, but it's weaker in fields that feel more approachable (like psychology instead of physics or modern rather than medieval literature). After all, if you spend all your time studying it, you must really love it and wish you'd lived back then, right...? You can't both like the medieval era AND be stylish in the modern one!

the rebel lettriste said...

I get this all the damn time. Neither you nor I "look like a medievalist," on account of being younger females who wear contemporary clothes. Shocking!

In fact, this is kinda why I like being a medievalist--it's a very big tent under which lots of people can find a home. There's no one "look."

And it is a shame that your (older) student had to buy in on the stereotype. Next time, tell her,"well! You don't look like a graduate student yourself!"

Dedalus said...

Re: the Shakespeare gene -- yes, it's true. We White Males don't mean to make the rest of you feel bad, but we really are digging Will S on a level that you cannot. Sorry. :)

My own entry-level undergrand Shakespeare experience was of course with Dr V's fine colleague Milton, who of course looks precisely like he's supposed to look. Good for him.

Dr. Virago said...

Dedalus - Yeah, Milton's really cultivating that Miltonist look, isn't he? Would you believe he's nearly a decade younger than I am. No, you wouldn't, would you?

L.C.McCabe said...

You mentioned that you enjoy watching police procedural shows.

You might want to check out my friend Lee Lofland's blog entitled "The Graveyard Shift." He's a retired detective and has many experts guest blog about all kinds of forensic related topics.

http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/

Here's a link to a guest post Lee had on literary agent Lucienne Diver's blog entitled:

C.S...I don't think so.

http://varkat.livejournal.com/35738.html

Enjoy!

Linda