Thursday, March 05, 2009

Laying Down Markers

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. 


Vellum said...

It's refreshing to see someone prepared to fight the good fight over this one. Do keep us posted on any new arguments you make -- it's always nice to have a shiny new metaphorical dagger to bring to the battle.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Solidarity, brother.

theswain said...

YEAH!!! YAY!!! Give 'em hell, Drout!!! Seriously!

jslee said...

Dr. Drout I applaud your dedication to our field.

I study the transitionary period between the medieval and early modern worlds as a PhD student, and I fear the trend in scholarship towards largely theoretical and modernist studies in English departments across the US. As modern students become increasingly disconnected from their past, I see them struggle mightily to make sense of their present.

I wish you the best, and want you to know there is at least one scholar only now entering the field willing to fight the same fight.

Aethelflaed said...

Three cheers and all the best of luck to you! I think I'd pay money to sit in on that debate. Let us know how it goes.

Christian Lindke said...

"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."

I'm going to have to agree with you in general, while disagreeing with you in the particular.

To say that asserting what is done in Political Science is more important than what is done in medieval studies is indeed brain dead. But to state that medieval studies is more important that Political Science, I believe to be equally invalid.

Political Science, properly understood, is equal in value to medieval studies. The study of politics did not begin with Machiavelli and his "rational" analysis of practical political actions. Nor did the study of politics begin with Hegel, Weber, Marx, Woodrow Wilson, Anthony Downs, or (God forbid) Robert Putnam.

Robust study of politics should also include Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Spinoza, St. Augustine, Maimonides, Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, and numerous others.

The problem with "contemporary" Political Science is that it often has the same narrow view of what should be studied and what approaches should be used. The field needs allies from those in medieval studies, not detractors.

Certainly, from a certain perspective -- that of depth within a time period -- Political Science could be viewed as a subset of Medieval Studies. In fact, it is. But from another perspective, where the time period looked at is "history," medieval studies becomes a subset of Political Science.

As I wrote, I agree earnestly in the general, but must dissent in the particular.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

go, you!