This semester I am the Chair of yet another committee (yes, before we go further, department Chairs are not supposed to have to chair major committees, but, this committee didn't look so major when I agreed to chair it. Now we are meeting every single week and doing stuff. But somehow the Committee on Committees -- of course we have a Committee on Committees, doesn't everyone? -- hasn't noticed and pulled me off). We are having to make some potential hiring/searching decisions, and I've gotten into some debate with my colleagues. And I realized that one thing that we medievalists need to do, is to lay down some markers.
I'll explain. The quasi-searches we are doing are for interdisciplinary-type, short-term positions, meant to temporarily augment college teaching offerings. So we're looking at stuff we don't usually teach. One very good candidate is a medievalist. That is, he/she specializes in the medieval period of the non-traditional area we are looking for. One of my colleagues said, "given this [in the news a lot] subject area, I think we should have someone contemporary."
I decided not to let this go, as I'm sure everyone wanted me to. Instead, I laid down a marker: we are not going to make this decision without a debate about this idea on the merits of the argument and its philosophical structure. It will be a long, difficult, drawn-out debate, because I know my arguments very well and am happy to make them (and if they're not careful, I'll use rhetoric, I will...). But I am not going to do the typical thing, the medievalist thing (I'm sad to say), and make one gesture and then roll over. Instead, I'm going to be willing, as one of my colleagues put it in another circumstance "to die on this hill."
And I'm going to do that every single time someone asserts that the study of the present is more valuable than the study of the past, or that medieval culture is less important than contemporary culture. There won't be a motion on the floor of the faculty meeting or a discussion in a department meeting or a conversation in the Faculty Dining Room in which someone gets away with making the assertion that medieval studies isn't at the very minimum as valuable (we all know it's actually more valuable, but I'll throw them a bone) as any other discipline or sub-discipline at the colleage. Every single time people try to discount, denigrate or ignore the field, I am going to make them engage in a long debate from first principles.
I am certain that after a while this is going to get old to the people who have to have debate after debate after debate about the first principles of a liberal arts education and the value of the past and its relevance. And I am going to be relentless about this. And eventually, for many people, it will just be easier to take the study of the Middle Ages seriously so as not to have to lose 2/3 of a meeting on a long, tedious but impassioned rant from / debate with Drout.
[N.B.: I am not suggesting using these tactics if you are actually on the wrong side of your debate. But since the value of the Middle Ages is so easy to defend, and I am on the right side, eventually, the truth will prevail.]
The bigger point is that the way medievalists can "fight" for the value of what we do is challenge every single time the absolutely brain-dead idea that what's done in psychology or sociology or urban studies or political science is more important than medieval studies . It's not even as important as medieval studies, but we'll keep that amongst ourselves. If people make that assertion, you make them defend it with actual arguments as opposed to sighing, sneering, or going into full condescension mode. I'll bet they can't if they're actually challenged.
I'll keep you posted.