Monday, January 22, 2007

Gatekeeping?

A while back I posted about the difficulty of obtaining essential research tools for Anglo-Saxonists, and that led to an interesting exchange with Tiruncula and Scott Nokes about the state of the field.

I just discovered this post by Eileen Joy. Don't skip reading the comments, because that's where Eileen expands a bit more.

Unfortunately I'm pressed for time right now (and will be for the next few days, as the semester starts on Wednesday), but did want to respond to a few things.

First, I wasn't trying to be a "gatekeeper" for who is and who isn't an Anglo-Saxonist. If you can read Anglo-Saxon, you are, as far as I'm concerned an Anglo-Saxonist. I have no interest in telling people what they should be interested in: my idea of a healthy field is not a whole bunch of scholars beavering away on projects they hate but which are considered "important."

However, as the origin of this discussion in a post about the danger of losing research tools might indicate, I am very concerned with the continued viability of the field, particularly in terms of tenure lines for people who study Old English literature and history and culture. Now that it looks like I cannot get out of taking my turn as Chair of my department, I am even more focused on such matters and on problems like budgets (for libraries as well as for tenure lines), research support and, most importantly, course offerings.

I definitely do see "us" (i.e., people who can read Old English and want to study the culture and literature of Anglo-Saxon England, or more broadly, people who study literature and culture from before the year 1500) as having to compete for resources with other sub-specialities in our disciplines. If you want to construct this in terms of "identities," then the "them" is made up of people who want those resources for other things. I don't think these people are bad--they're my colleagues and friends. But they (and their discourses) do not put as much value on the study of the Middle Ages as I do. Therefore they want to direct finite resources elsewhere (i.e., if the English or History department gets a new tenure line, they would like it to be in rhetoric, or Asian studies, or film culture, or anything). I'd love to add a person in rhetoric, or one in Asian studies, but if History wants to replace the only medievalist tenure line with something else, then I will be making the argument that this is not a optimal use of resources.

In making that point, one has to make an argument. I believe it would be easier to make that argument, and to win that argument, along the lines that I laid out in my previous posts: medievalists do certain things particularly well (yes, better than scholars of other eras). Therefore, if you make those particular things the criteria on which one defends a tenure line or arranges for a new one or competes for resources, you are more likely to win your argument. If you accept other terms, you are less likely to win (that's the "seemingly neutral rules pre-determine the outcome" argument that is one of my big takeaways from Foucault).

I think that people in English in general and in medieval studies in specific will, on the balance, lose out to people in sociology, political science, anthropology, as well as history, if we define the "important" things in the field to be politics. Because we also have to learn multiple languages and because what we work on has the enormous challenge of being in the past, these other disciplines, on the whole, are going to out-compete us for resources (they already have over the past 75 years). But it might be possible to re-acquire some of those resources if we change the ground rules of the argument. The point being not to get rid of the analysis of politics or culture, but to augment that analysis with the deep understanding of language that all of us who work in English (actually any literary/linguistic study, but I know English best) already have.

(This is where I was unclear in my previous post, and I apologize: I don't think anyone needs to go out and jettison their own work and become a linguist. I'm not--though I would like to be, and I'd like to be a better philologist and better Latinist and be good enough at Old Norse to do Skaldic poetry the way Roberta Frank does. The very fact that one is a student of language and literature means that he or she already knows an awful lot about language and the way it works. I am arguing for foregrounding that particular expertise as a way of winning arguments and thus retaining resources in a very, very competitive environment).

Running out of time, and children need to be picked up, so I'll end this post on a quick bit that I wanted to work in, but couldn't:

One of the commenters on Eileen's post, John Walter, writes: "And we need to remember that the discipline of philology, and the greater Grimmian Revolution, as Shippey calls it, developed for nationalistic purposes."

Question: Is there some specific passage in Deutsche Grammatik that you were thinking of here? I admit I get bogged down in some of Grimm's German, but, while I can see an important analytical nexus between the Fairy Tale collection and the nationalist project (i.e., selection bias, etc.), I can't remember anything about the substance of the laws of consonant sound change that I would be able to tie in to the nationalist project.
I guess I'm really just asking for more specificity, as I've been reading a lot of 19th-century philology lately: where were you going with the "we need to remember..."?

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