Sore-footed camels and Unfocussed Thoughts: A New Year’s Resolution to Procrastinate More

DSC02921

I never managed to write a pre-Christmas post this year. You can probably see why. According to the New Year’s Resolutions I see anxiously discussed by friends and colleagues, I’m not alone. Christmas is a disorienting time to be a woman academic. Our analogues in the Biblical texts are the Magi: old men poring over the stars and consulting prophecies, who nevertheless manage to miss the deadline everyone else met, to blab angelic unpublished material to a rival research unit, and to bring the most impractical and tediously symbolic gifts ever to grace a newborn’s crib. T. S. Eliot’s Wise Men speak in an absurd echo of Four Yorkshiremen Do Christmas, moaning with would-be stoicism ‘A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year … And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory‘. Like pampered dwellers in the Ivory Tower, they soon let slip the perks of their lifestyle (‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ And the silken girls bringing sherbet‘).

I’d like to imagine it’s only Magi – or perhaps senior professors – who presume they deserve a research lifestyle smoothed around the edges by the silent attentions of feminine bringers of drinks (and, presumably, preparers of astrolabes and wrappers of boxes of myrrh). But there’s a wider academic culture that functions on these expectations. You see it at conferences, in senior common rooms, in libraries. Sitting in Newnham Senior Common Room the other week, I overheard the tail-end of a conversation between two (youngish) men. As one made to pick up his cup and return it to the tray, the other casually instructed him ‘you don’t need to do that’ – even though a female colleague was, just then, doing exactly that piece of clearing up. After all, some unobtrusive non-academic person would soon pop by, with fresh coffee, to tidy the papers and pick up cups left on various surfaces.

The entitlement of this little episode, which casually presumes that someone else will do the clearing so long as we do the hard thinking, makes me rather uncomfortable with the trappings of academia. It also makes me think again about the reasons why hard thinking has become synonymous with freeing oneself from distractions. I have seen several articles recently that claim, approvingly, that good researchers are those who stick at a problem longer than everyone else, who become single-minded in pursuit of an answer. This concentration is, obviously, an awful lot easier with a certain kind of freedom from other obligations. The pram in the hall is the enemy of promise, Cyril Connolly helpfully claimed; Virginia Woolf equally helpfully suggested that a women needs ‘a room of one’s own’. I would find these quotations less annoying had I heard them less frequently over the last few months.

I think that, especially for women writers and academics, the rhetoric of freedom from distractions has been internalised, and has turned in on itself as a means of self-flagellation. We express guilty regret for insufficient productivity and efficiency, for too many hours spent in procrastination, too many dead-end tasks, too few publications. We need to be more focussed, more single-minded, more concentrated, say my friends and (mostly female …) colleagues. As we balk at leaving the coffee cups on the table, we tell ourselves we need to stamp down on the day-dreaming and the wasted time. While we meet with upset students or respond to distressed colleagues or pick up crying babies, we resolve to be less easily distracted.

17992238_10102260978518090_3443583523041936341_n

Given the all clear from the midwives. May.

I kept telling myself these things too, as I wondered why I hadn’t written as many papers as I believe I ought to have done. I sat down to work out where the year went. In March this year, my daughter was born. I submitted and received the contract for my first book (forthcoming from Boydell and Brewer). I had my first article accepted (forthcoming in The Chaucer Review in April 2018). I wrote and submitted my second article (Postmedieval). I organised a series conference sessions with Emma Bérat for our project on Women’s Strategies of Memory at Leeds IMC 2018. I started a new job at Newnham College as affiliated lecturer and Director of Studies while my lovely colleague is off on maternity leave, and I found a home for a third paper in an edited collection put together by the fabulous Carissa Harris, Liza Strakhov and Sarah Baechle. Before we quite get to the end of 2017, I’d like to finish writing my paper for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in early January.

This past term, my partner went back to work 3.5 days a week. I had 12 hours teaching for my first and second-year medievalists at Newnham and Murray Edwards, which fitted into the remaining 1.5 days she was at home with the baby. My marking (22 essays, so around another 11 hours), teaching prep, admin, and all of my own writing and research, happened around the baby. She learned to stand up grabbing onto the chairs in my office, and babbled through a lot of phone meetings with the Senior Tutor in one especially fraught week. Midway through term, in November, I had surgery to remove a 20cm cyst in my ovary, and after term ended, I came back for another week of admissions interviews (and felt devoutly thankful that my colleague, the other Newnham DoS, was doing most of the admin!).

During this past term, I followed my friend Rachel Moss’s posts (here and here) as she movingly and thoughtfully discussed the ways in which our bodies and our physical circumstances shape our academic work. Her posts made me gratefully aware of how lucky I am, but also made me think about my own changing ways of being productive. In a sense, being very busy with a baby seems to be a highly concentrated state of thinking. You have no option but to focus on one strand of thought. You don’t have time to daydream. It looks awfully like what high-achieving scholars piously claim is the ideal … only, funnily enough, it doesn’t quite feel as stimulating and efficient as they suggest.

Big, speculative tangents that take you from Chaucer to the Heroides to the Middle English Dictionary to Bourdieu aren’t going to happen if the second priority in your mind is always ‘can I pin this paragraph down before the baby crawls off the edge of the sofa?’ Like the Dreamer in Pearl, more elusively rounded thoughts tended to slip through my fingers ‘from grass to ground,’ and get lost.

I thought, wistfully, about the way in which medieval dream-visions operate on multiple levels, constantly throwing up speculative possibilities and inviting us to fellow tangents and digress down unexpected paths. I thought about St Augustine, calmly dissecting the processes of his own memory as he ponders the experience of reciting a psalm, all the while conscious of the remarkable way the text winds itself through the reciting mind from anticipation to memory. I thought, and I began to doubt, somewhat, that what these ideal academics are doing when they free themselves from distractions really is single-minded, concentrated thinking.

I am not suggesting we should all equip ourselves with climbing babies, still less that we should be martyrishly positive in the face of unethically busy workloads or crises with student mental health, or (god forbid) our own health issues. But I would like to see a version of academia in which we could take the time to consider how these things shape our thoughts, where we could acknowledge that being single-minded and concentrated is, in fact, a poor way of thinking. Perhaps if the Magi had bothered to make the sherbet themselves, the break from star-charts might have stimulated a new approach to a problem. Perhaps they would have arrived on time. Perhaps if the men in Newnham Common Room had picked up their coffee cups for themselves, they would have found themselves chatting (as I have) with a chance-met colleague who offered a completely unexpected new perspective on a piece of work.

Speculative, open-ended, seemingly ‘trivial’ conversations led to some of the work I’m most excited to be settling down to for the next year. Many of these conversations were ‘distractions’ from work – chats about babies and health issues, jokes about fertility clinics or surgical wards. But they turned into serious thoughts about how the printing press changed the available ways for thinking about (queer) reproductivity, about how Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is interested in the sterility of inherited Classical narratives; about how the pardon Langland’s Piers Plowman rips in fury is, in a sense, also the textual body of the infant Christ, both mutilated and brought to birth.

My New Year’s Resolution won’t therefore be to be more productive or more driven – but to celebrate the speculative, thoughtful, unfocussed moments we need to value more in our own work and in each other.

DSC03165

Advertisements

‘Queerly Invisible’: Medieval and Modern Fictions of Lesbianism

Tomorrow – December 14th – I’m going to be giving a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London, for their new Queer History MA. It starts at 5pm, and there are more details here. The talk is open to everyone, so please come! I’ll talk for about 40 minutes, and then there’ll be lots of question time.

I’ll be talking about medieval lesbians and public history. There’ll be quotations from the delightfully censorious finger-wagging accounts of medieval clerics, speculating (in somewhat implausible detail) about the activities of deviant women, and details from a fabulously bizarre Middle English romance. But I’ve also been trying to think about how I approach the task of researching something as nebulous and personal as sexuality, something that leaves so little mark on the ‘historical record’ as it’s generally understood. It’s hard to find historical accounts of women’s desires for other women. It’s hard to find texts where women reflect on intimacies with other women. We end up piecing together narratives from the tiniest hints, or reading between the lines to catch a glimpse of something that looks familiar. And – so I believe – we end up exaggerating not only the silences of the medieval record, but also the certainties of our own contemporary ideas of sexual identity. In my paper, I make brief mention of a modern novelist whose work helps me to think about both those silences and those contemporary (un)certainties: Barbara Trapido.

Trapido’s first novel focuses on Katherine, a young woman growing up in the 1960s and 70s, who’s acutely conscious that her rather innocent suburban childhood makes her an outsider amongst her more confident, cultured peers. This novel isn’t overtly about lesbianism at all – in fact, you’d initially think it was far more about Katherine’s entanglement with a gorgeous and rather arch older man – but it has a lot to say about attitudes to sexuality at the time. Katherine tells us:

My mother coincided only once with John. … “He’s queer,” she said, priding herself on her instinct for nosing out sexual deviance. “The world is full of nice young men. Why do you go out with an old queer?”

In the mildest and most socially acceptable of teenage rebellions, Katherine ends up studying philosophy at a London university, under the guidance of the paternal and opinionated Jacob, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany who specialises in Marxist philosophy and who makes space for Katherine as a visitor in his chaotic family home. We learn that Jacob shares at least some of the conclusions previously drawn, as Katherine tells us:

I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling [him] an old faggot. For one thing he said it so loudly it filled the air without shame. It had none of the same prim moral censure. 

I love this, because I can relate to the way in which Katherine is industriously persuading herself that there’s a rhetorical – and ideological – distinction between her mother’s unabashed homophobia and the equally derogatory language of her newly-found father figure. I enjoy the way we recognise – via Katherine –  that despite his patina of intellectual respectability and his profoundly sobering history as a childhood escapee from Nazi Germany, Jacob is still something of an enfant terrible, indulging a juvenile enjoyment of flouting conventions. But I also love this exchange because it sets the scene for something much more interesting to me as a scholar of same-sex desire, and that’s the innuendo that Jacob (unwittingly) contributes. Warning Katherine away from John, Jacob advises:

“Tell him to use his own house, lovey, and don’t you venture into the bedroom without taking a spanner with you.” 

Obviously enough, Jacob has in mind nothing more subtle than a swift metallic thunk, to be applied to a more-than-desirably amorous suitor, but Katherine claims innocently:

“To this day I don’t really know what he meant by it, but he made me laugh a little, which was a gratifying release.”

As a fig-leaf for the violent implication, then, we’re given the assurance of humour, which neatly links this episode with Katherine’s own recycling of the same image, much later on in the novel. Arguing with her Petruchio-like Italian boyfriend, she is faced with a sudden (unfounded) accusation of lesbianism:

“You spend your evening with Janice,’ he said. ‘How does it feel to go to bed with a woman?”

“You should know,” I said.

“Is it that the woman is too ugly to find a man, that you do this for her? Or do you want to be a man, my Caterina?” he said, pityingly. “You are lacking in important respects.” I found this so absurd, not to say distasteful, that I could not take it seriously. … I said we used spanners, Janice and I. This was a mistake, because he believed me, I think.

In many ways, this is the most nebulous, most elusive evidence relating to female same-sex desire I could possibly cite. The text casts shadows around lesbianism rather than writing about lesbianism. Its lesbians are invisible – hypothetical, counterfactual – and they are mentioned only to construct the punchline of an innuendo-heavy joke directed against a paranoid man.

Later on, though, Trapido revisits the topic. Her novel Temples of Delight (1990) features Alice, a bright, isolated and mildly rebellious daughter of conservative and conventional parents, who falls under the spell of a brilliant, bohemian schoolfriend adept at quoting Mozart and skipping school. It’s clear enough that this is a ‘lesbian’ encounter – at least on Alice’s side – because later, in the sequel (Juggling, 1994), we meet a grown-up Alice who eventually leaves her husband and comes out. Despite this, the juvenile Alice’s inability to name her own feelings is convincing, that any suggestion this was a potentially lesbian relationship completely passed over my head when I first read it, aged about 14. All I noticed was that Alice expressed a perfectly rational and normal (so it seemed to me) reluctance to sleep with the handsome, thoroughly decent, but heartily and oppressively masculine young man who was keen to pressure her towards him. Certainly – and I like to think Trapido would appreciate the irony – it didn’t occur to me we were supposed to draw any conclusions about Alice’s sexuality from that unexpressed reluctance. Alice is an ‘invisible’ lesbian, a character who (in the first book) never names her sexuality or identifies herself unambiguously.

It’s a vital story that Trapido is telling, when she tells us about Alice. Yet it’s a narrative that never seeks to name Alice’s sexuality, never suggests she has a ‘self conscious’ understanding of that sexuality. It flies in the fact of popular understandings of what it means to be lesbian, in our sophisticated post-Foucault world. And what Trapido tells us about Katherine is even more elusive. We’re given to understand that sexuality is not a binary matter – else why include John, a ‘queer’ who is clearly not exclusively interested in same-sex relations? – but we’re also invited to understand sexuality in terms of innuendos that will rapidly slip beyond the understanding of historians (‘what is this word “spanner”‘? What did it mean in twentieth-century English?).

The very subtlety of these texts has a lot to tells about perceptions of sexuality. Much of what we communicate about sexuality – and especially ‘alternative’ sexualities – is conveyed through unspoken implications, through silences, through moments that need to be reinterpreted in the light of a later story, through innuendos and suppositions and hypothetical examples. Much of this won’t leave a mark on the historical record; much more of it might be hard to decode within a few hundred years. But, because these texts construct such fleeting, tacit and tangential images of same-sex desire, they maintain a space in which sexuality can be about unexpressed possibilities and unspecified impetuses. It’s a space in which we might be able to imagine a meeting with the distant past, and an understanding of a period that didn’t have a terminology to describe, much less name, same-sex desires. But it’s also a space that should remind us how fictional – how hypothetical, how tacit – our own certainties regarding sexuality can be. It’s a space to remind us how easily our own sure identities might be disrupted in a future historian’s interpretation, and how cautious – and generous – we need to be in reading between the lines of the past.

 

Women’s Strategies of Memory at Leeds IMC 2018

The Women’s Strategies of Memory project is coming to Leeds! I’m delighted to announce that the session proposals Emma Bérat and I put forward for Leeds next year have all been approved, and we’ll be fielding three brilliant panels of papers. Here’s a preview of our topic:

Memory, in the middle ages as now, was widely accessible to women as means of personal and political influence. Scholarship on the strategic and technical employment of memory in the middle ages has principally explored men’s practices. Our panels focus on representations of medieval women’s deliberate and strategic uses of memory in literature, art, and historical narrative. 

We are particularly interested in women who perform remembering, forgetting, or recounting past events as a means of public or political power; and who manipulate histories or identities to construct or reconstruct the past, or to influence the memories of other characters. We also hope to explore women’s less conscious strategies of memory, such as forgetting as a way of compartmentalising traumatic emotions. Reexaminations of women who are accused (by other characters or the narrator) of errors of memory, such as forgetting, deliberate ignorance or manipulation of record, are also welcome.

We read a lot of really fascinating and diverse proposals back in the summer and autumn, and we finally narrowed the list down to a great cohort of presenters. We were especially keen that our sessions should reflect geographic, national and linguistic diversity, both in terms of papers and presenters, and I hope you’ll agree we managed.

I include the full programme notes, which we’ve just received from the conference committee, so you can plan your Leeds itinerary.

Session 226

Women’s Strategies of Memory, I: Trauma and Reconstruction 
This panel focuses on literary representations of women’s tactics for managing and revising personal traumatic memory, as well as the place of these memories in broader memorial discourses. Examining Rabbinic literature to crusader romance and English cycle plays, speakers explore how female characters’ deliberate  reconstructions help to resist supersessionary retellings and to insert – in sensitive, healing, or aggressive ways – women’s perspectives into histories that seek to erase them.

Lucy Allen, ‘A Textile Habitus of Memory in Chaucer’s Legend of
                  Philomela’ 
Dvora Lederman Daniely, ‘Hanna the Maccabi: A Healing and Restorative Memory
                  from a Feminine Sexual Trauma in the Rabbinic Literature’
Daisy Black, ‘Re-Membering the Drowned: The Rebellious Recollection
                  of Noah’s Wife in the York, Chester, and Towneley
                  Flood Pageants’
Emma Bridget O’Loughlin Bérat, ‘Retelling Rape: Social Power and Historical
                  Perspective in La Fille Du Conte De Pontieu’

Session Time:     Mon. 02 July – 11.15-12.45

Session 226: Women’s Strategies of Memory, II: Visual Structures of Memory

This panel considers the ways in which women worked within established visual mnemonic systems and produced their own distinctive strategies of representation. Speakers explore how the creation and dissemination of material artefacts publicised connections between women, focusing on subjects from 4th-century sarcophagi to Swedish nuns’ books to the ordinatio of Cassandra’s prophecy in Troilus and Criseyde.
        
David Carrillo-Rangel, ‘Do not forget me if you live longer than me’: Strategies of Memory in the Construction of a Prayerbook from Vadstena Abbey

Ruen-chuan Ma, Cassandra’s Reconstructed Memory: Page Design and Fatalism in Troilus and Criseyde 

Catherine Gines Taylor, Lamenting Susanna: Iconography, Sarcophagi, and the Art of Memorial 

Session Time:     Mon. 02 July – 14.15-15.45

Session 326: Women’s Strategies of Memory, III: Shaping the Political Landscape 

This panel focuses on the tactics historical women used to construct, reconstruct, and manipulate the political memory of their communities and dynasties from Western Europe and across the Byzantine Empire. Speakers explore how women’s strategic forgetting, preservation, and selection help to shape shared transhistorical and transnational memory.

Lana Sloutsky, Women, Memory, Nostalgia, and the Translation of Byzantine Visual Culture after 1453

 Cynthia Turner Camp, Forgetting Ælfthryth at Wherwell Abbey

Juliana Amorim Goskes, Performing Dynastic Memory in 14th-Century France: Jeanne de Bourgogne (d. 1348) – Capetian Princess and Valois Queen 

Session Time:     Mon. 02 July – 16.30-18.00

Decolonising the Canon: Why Medieval Literature is the Place to Start

Memling Jan Floreins

Hans Memling, Triptych of Jan Floreins (detail). 1479. Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

In what’s become a disturbingly frequent event, yesterday someone emailed me apparently under the impression that, since I work on medieval English literature, I must also be a screaming racist and/or sympathetic to the cause of screaming racists. It’s not that these postcolonial scholars don’t have their place, the email continued: it’s that their tiny little minds can’t accept the truth you and I know, that all great writing was done and dusted by white people before they let the blacks loose on the English language. I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but this is a disconcertingly commonplace perspective – and one with implications for a debate that’s been unfolding over the past week about decolonising the Cambridge English Literature degree.

On Tuesday of this week, the Telegraph published an article headed by a large picture of a young woman, Lola Olufemi. Olufemi is the Women’s Officer at Cambridge University Student Union, and also the author of an open letter to Cambridge’s Faculty of English, which urged the faculty to include more black and minority ethnic authors on its curriculum. Throwing aside accuracy, the Telgraph chose to claim, instead, that university academics were being forced to remove white authors at the whim of an undergraduate’s demand. Just as the editors of the Telegraph must surely have anticipated, it took mere hours for Olufemi to be inundated by racist abuse, but the formal retraction of the inaccuracies in the article were delayed for a full two days. A lot of people have written (better than me) about what we can do, but here’s my take.

Students, it seems, are easy targets. But what bothers me is the assumption that students disagreeing with what they’re asked to read – let alone, students actively engaging with the people teaching them about it – is somehow newsworthy in a bad way. I want my students to make discoveries. I want them to hear a lecture at 10am, and go to a class at 2, and suddenly see a connection between texts they’d never thought about before. I want them to think about the way the medieval texts they’re reading with me might relate to the modern poetry they’re working on with someone else. If that process of discovery stops at the exact edge of the published reading list, I’m not sure what good it is.

The text I was teaching this week, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela, asks whether readers can be infected by the venom, the poisonous violence, of the stories they read. The question is not a modern one, dreamed up by students with a grudge against poor, victimised dead white men. It’s a question that reverberates through English Literature – and you can’t get more patriarchal or canonical than Chaucer, the great ‘father of English Literature’ himself. So why are we so scared of this question today? Why do we think that students interrogating what they read is such a bad thing?

Many of my students come to me from an education system where they’ve been taught to speak about the authors they study with deep, unquestioning respect. Why do we read Chaucer? Because he speaks to us about humanity. Because he’s ‘relatable’. Because literature is about learning more about ourselves. Because it teaches us how far we’ve come since the barbaric Middle Ages. Chaucer is held up, paradoxically, both as a miraculously modern voice, espousing the very morals and virtues we wish to see reflected, and as a relic of a dimly-known, superstitious and oppressive era, which should really make us feel good when we think how far we’ve come. I’m told, confidently, that the ‘modern reader’ wouldn’t agree with Chaucer when Chaucer seems to suggest rape might be funny, or anti-Semitism might be acceptable.

It’s a mode of thought that places both Chaucer and modern readers beyond the reach of interrogation, a mode of thought that begins from the assumption that the entire modern world professes the same, unspoken and untaught moral rectitude. In short, it’s a view that presumes structural inequalities aren’t really real, and if they once were (in the dim mists of time), then certainly they are safely banished from our enlightened modern world.

I find this very troubling.

I spent this summer reading more and more medievalist scholars explaining how the period we study has been misrepresented and twisted by white supremacists, who want to believe in a medieval past in which Europe was white and Christian and engaged in holy war to uphold its whiteness and Christianity. The motto of the medieval Crusaders, deus vult or ‘god wills it,’ has become a slogan amongst neo-Nazi groups, spray-painted onto vandalized mosques. The crusader cross was seen on banners during the Charlottesville riots in Virginia earlier this year, where peaceful protesters against racism were mown down by a speeding car. The medieval period has been, in Dorothy Kim’s memorable phrase, ‘weaponized‘ by these groups, and their example offers a frightening corrective to the belief that all ‘modern readers’ feel an enlightened and automatic aloofness from racial intolerance.

Medieval history also offers horrific, graphic bigotry, which we can be too keen to forget or excuse. Students with a passing knowledge of Chaucer might be familiar with his Prioress’s Tale, a nastily anti-Semitic fiction of child-murder. Those who read Middle English romances may know of The King of Tars, in which a white Christian princess marries a black Muslim Sultan, whose skin turns from black to white when she succeeds in converting him. But these stories aren’t just stories told by authors who are otherwise genial, laudable fathers of English Literature. They reflect histories of interracial violence and propaganda, of anti-Semitic pogroms and militant Holy War, which weren’t safely confined to ‘fiction’.

But medieval literature also offers a breathtaking diversity of writers, readers, and perspectives. Few people who email me realise that St Augustine – perhaps the most-cited authority in medieval England – was a North African theologian. They do not know that Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe locates itself within a cosmopolitan tradition of writing including Arabic and Hebrew as well as English, French and Latin. They might be shocked to see that people of colour were not just occasional, exoticised additions to medieval visual images of the world, but commonplace presences.

To read a properly decolonised curriculum, we’d need to read and study all of these things – and we don’t.

The past is not a neutral space. Its literature is not neutral. And we do not read literature in neutral ways. Should students feel entitled to question the composition of the canon they read? No: they should feel it’s part of their basic education in English Literature to do so.

 

Decolonising the Presses: Cambridge English Literature and More Lazy Journalism

I seem to be late to the most recent row in the media over Cambridge University’s English literature degree course, which centres on an open letter written by students to the head of the faculty, on the subject of decolonising the reading list and including more literature by BME authors. I knew about the letter, but didn’t see that the Telegraph had decided to run a predictably stupid story in response to it. I must’ve missed it while I was cowering under my desk cravenly begging my students to stop turning the thumbscrews, or possibly during the 30 hours I spent last week preparing, marking, and delivering supervisions on Chaucer’s Legend of Philomela and the romance The King of Tars.

My choice of texts here isn’t incidental. I teach Philomela because, although it’s a gory and graphic rape narrative, I’ve found it offers important and rigorous ways for students to think about misogyny, literature, and the aestheticisation of sexual violence. I teach Tars because the text depicts a romance between a black Muslim man and a white European woman, and forces us to confront the possibility that medieval authors were interested both in crass, sensationalist, anti-miscegenationist narratives, and in the possibility of sexual desire and intimacy between profoundly different religious and racial groups. And my students write and say things about these texts that challenge me, and (I hope and trust) challenge them. They come up with searching, probing close readings and they interrogate what’s been said already. They demonstrate the best of what an English literature degree should be about.

In the Guardian, Jason Okundaye dissects the ways in which the Telegraph misrepresented the Open Letter debate, and particularly represented its author, Lola Olufemi, whose picture they blazoned across the top of their article. Okundaye makes the point that this debate has been depicted as a zero-sum game, as if white authors must be booted out if black authors are to be included. Obviously, this is nonsensical, but let’s imagine what might happen if we included more diversity.

One of the proposals suggested in the Open Letter is that each paper taught should contain two or more postcolonial or BME authors. A (non-Cambridge) medievalist I vaguely know commented, sneeringly, that black medieval English authors were thin on the ground – and my heart sank. A major trend in recent scholarship on medieval literature reminds us that medieval readers in England were immensely more linguistically diverse than most English academics are now: they often read in French and Latin, as well as English, and the English writings they read might be informed by Italian, Dutch, Welsh, Scots, and even Arabic or Hebrew literatures. I would like to teach English literature in the context of other languages. I think it is peculiar and rather old-fashioned to teach medieval English literature in isolation from French or Latin – and there’s a case to be made that English history has treated French medieval literature as a colonised subject, a position from which it is still only slowly recovering.

But my issues aren’t limited to the (let’s admit) fairly low-stakes question of Englishness versus Frenchness, and the Brexit-tastic status of medieval England in the context of medieval Europe. If I could teach French literature, I could teach far more about Arabic literature that reached France. If I could teach Spanish literature, I could look at the transition of Moorish texts. If I could teach anything outside England (which expelled its Jewish population in a gruesome and terrifying manner in the twelfth century), I could teach medieval Jewish writings. I would like to teach these things, not because I have some box-ticking desire to ‘diversify’ my reading lists, but because they are worth teaching. They enrich the picture of medieval literature. They are important, in their own right.

A friend of mine, reading the Open Letter, made the fair comment that it’s sad to think that students feel they need to be given permission to read widely and diversely. I agree with this. I want to make my students feel they can interrogate and challenge what they’re being told to read. I want to make them feel they can push back against the parade of dead white men – and I want to make them feel they can demand more, and better, ways to change the way we read and study English literature. I keep trying to achieve this, and I keep feeling furious at the silencing, shaming pressure that comes from articles like the one in the Telegraph. As hard as we work to open up English Literature for students, these articles work hard to knock them back into place, to teach them that to question or challenge authority is wrong, to disagree with the status quo is lazy and entitled.

Who benefits from these articles? Clearly not the students who signed the letter, who’re being represented as snowflake censors, unable to accept that black literature just doesn’t belong in an illustrious Cambridge degree. Clearly not the students who read the letter, who now get the message that interrogating literary canonicity and its tacit bigotries is somehow beyond the scope of their degrees (rather than being an integral part of the work they should be doing). And clearly not me, as I spend yet another evening angrily writing a blog about why a decolonised medieval curriculum matters, instead of marking the eight student essays on my desk.

Lazy Journalism Never Dies: Safe Spaces and Censorship Yet Again

Yesterday, I received an email. I received dozens, actually – term started today, and a lot of students were checking in with questions about reading or deadlines or meetings – but this one stood out. It was from a journalist, and that journalist was asking (yet again) the question that makes my heart sink.

Can you talk to us about trigger warnings, censorship, and safe spaces? 

That’s the gist of the question. You might also paraphrase it: Dish the dirt on your students and tell us how precious they are! The articles that result are always pretty much the same: they insinuate that students of today are fragile, entitled little things, pampered by their parents and schools, and unable to cope wit the rigours of the full and meaningful education everyone over the age of 30 enjoyed. Students are demanding ‘trigger warnings’ because they cannot read any text containing violence. They are picketing lectures on Pope because one of his poems has ‘rape’ in the title. They are refusing to read Othello because it’s about violence against women and racism. And so on.

I have learned that journalists don’t want to hear me say that students I’ve taught don’t seem to want ‘safe’ approaches to literature, and certainly don’t want to read less about issues of violence or prejudice. I directed this particular journalist to the Faculty’s official channels of communication, only to receive redoubled questions in response:

Does the English Faculty put trigger warnings on its timetable? Do some lecturers give trigger warnings at the start of lectures? Do you? … Do you ever find yourself self-censoring for students? And what impact do you think this evolution on campus has?

This really put my back up. I particularly love the implication that I am a mere puppet in the hands of my students, helplessly ‘finding myself’ self-censoring without ever having intended to do so. It’s not as if teachers ever prepare lessons or lectures, is it? But then the line of questioning performs the oldest trick in the book, and presumes the responses it invites have already been given. I might reply ‘no,’ to many of these questions, but it doesn’t matter: by the end of the paragraph, it appears that ‘this evolution’ of censorship, trigger warnings and self-censoring has already been established from my as-yet-unformed replies.

This email, and the questions in it, came back into my mind again today, when I saw an article describing a recent event at a Cambridge college earlier this week. Apparently, a college dean – the Reverend Jeremy Caddick – decided to issue a programme welcoming students to a new year of work. With a picture of the gates of Auschwitz, and the famous slogan ‘arbeit macht frei’ (‘work sets you free’ on the front cover.

As any idiot can imagine, the implied parallel between Auschwitz and university did not pass many students by, and many of them were understandably disturbed. I could see why. Discussing this briefly with friends, we agreed this looked awfully like a deliberate attempt to provoke, dressed up as innocence.Given recent events, you’d imagine that most people would be hyper-alert to anti-Semitism. After all, a friend pointed out, if you know an image requires an explanation first thing in your sermon, then surely, you recognise that displaying it without that explanation is likely to raise questions. Others, more bluntly, merely made the point that a person of average intelligence really ought to be able to recognise that the image sets up profoundly crass parallels between university and a concentration camp. Yet the Dean’s response wasn’t apologetic. “Any suggestion we are making sick jokes about the Holocaust is infuriating,” he stated.

Infuriating? Really? Fury, it seems to me, is an odd response to the revelation that you have (inadvertently?) set up an extremely overt and obvious parallel between Auschwitz and the university life into which you are welcoming your students. ‘Infuriating’ is a nastily passive-aggressive term, a term that attempts to slide the blame onto the students who were angry about the use of the image. It’s not that the Dean states this suggestion is categorically wrong, or mortifying to him, or something he feels awful about. It’s just rubbed him up the wrong way, and he feels we should know that he’s definitely the wronged character here.

This episode made me think of other incidents in which I’ve seen people in positions of academic influence and status quite deliberately exploit the reputation of students and younger academics for being ‘overly sensitive’. If you buy into the idea that all young people are ‘snowflakes,’ then you can get away with being as provocative and unpleasant as you like – because the attention won’t be on what you say, but on yet another story of student outrage.

I’d be tempted to identify the Dean’s response to the Auschwitz image (and, indeed, the use of the image in the first place) as a form of trolling. Of course, I can’t be sure we’re right in thinking the image was intended to shock – but, if it wasn’t, then this was a pretty terrible excuse for an apology afterwards. And it does make me think that, amid all the much-publicised debates over universities as ‘safe spaces’ and the much-cited emotional fragility of students of today, we might do well to think how far those students are being deliberately provoked.

Racism at the Fitzwilliam: Helene Yellin’s ‘Heritage’

Hélène, by Jacob Epstein

The image above this post is a bust of Hélène Yellin, cast in bronze by Jacob Epstein in 1919, and currently on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. In the same room are several other works by Epstein, including his famous bust of Einstein, complete with the trademark wild hair. The captions to these works draw attention to Epstein’s distinctive techniques, or to the famous qualities of his subjects. The caption to the bust of Yellin, meanwhile, begins thus:

Hélène Yellin was the wife of musician W. Yellin and of mixed heritage.

As someone ignorant, I didn’t know who ‘musician W. Yellin’ was, and I certainly didn’t know – or, at least, I couldn’t quite believe I knew – what ‘mixed heritage’ meant in the context of a museum exhibit curated some time in the current millenium. So, I looked for more information about Hélène Yellin.

14048390721_6e47fde763_b

As is clear from the above image, Yellin was a black woman. The painting – dating to 1923 – is titled The Creole, aka Portrait of a Negress, and that title itself simultaneously draws attention to Yellin’s white as well as black ancestry, and suggests that the difference between ‘creole’ and ‘negress’ is negligible.

The painting was titled – and finished – in 1923. Whether or not this makes its title more excusable is up for others to debate. But the bust, with its caption, stand in an exhibition in a museum in 2017. I stood in that room for some time. I looked carefully at the bust of Einstein, and could see no mention of his marital status (despite the relative notoriety of his divorce). I could certainly see no mention of his ‘heritage’.

This caption badly needs to be changed, and it is a sign of what is wrong with representations of history.