Why do academic blogging?

Roberta Magnani just raised the question of how people use academic blogs over on twitter, and I am mainly writing this because it’s not a 140-character answer, but also because it’s a question I’ve been asked fairly regularly, so it might be useful.

I started blogging in the dead time between submitting my PhD thesis, and getting to my viva. I knew I wanted to change direction in my research, and I knew I wanted my new research to fit together more naturally with all the feminist reading and writing I’d been doing more and more of in my day-to-day life. I already knew, at this point, that I write best when I’ve been talking to people (or, realistically, writing to people) and translating my thoughts out of academic prose (or what I thought was academic prose back then) and into something everyone can read and understand. I knew a couple of people who blogged – not academic bloggers, though – and I followed their tips to start with. Some worked, and some didn’t, but here’s what I learned along the way. All of my tips are specific to the the kind of academic blogger I am (a medievalist feminist), but you could adapt to other disciplines easily.

  1. Justify your time blogging. It has to be useful or its wasted time. So, the first pieces you write (and the pieces you write when you’re stuck) should be pieces of thinking you need to do for your other work. Maybe you need to read a particular text and you’ve been putting it off? Write a review. Maybe you need to figure out why you keep coming back to a certain passage? Do a close reading. I am still incorporating bits of early blogging into work I’m submitting to publishers, because it was useful.
  2. Get your voice out. Get on twitter, get onto facebook. On twitter, follow lots of interesting people. Talk to them (nicely). Share their interesting posts. Respond to them. Share your posts. I share 3-4 times a day for the first 24hrs after posting (when I can remember). Twitter will even tell you which tweets get the biggest response, so you can figure out what times work best. For me, it’s around 8am (morning commute) and 10pm (US readers/UK night owls). Getting lots of clicks is nice, of course, but the point is that you get responses. I never get a lot of replies to blog posts – I’ve had well over 100,000 views on the blog, and a tiny handful of that number reply – but far more people will comment on a FB link or reply or twitter, or even just email me.
  3. Make connections that work both ways. People will respond to you, so respond to them. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog which a professor I’d never met read. She asked me to work it up into a conference paper proposal (that was NCS 2016). I wrote a couple of blogs for her. One of my students saw one of these blogs, and asked me about writing an essay on the topic. I read that essay, and it helped me push my work-in-progress book in a new direction. And so it goes on. I know a big circle of academics because I blog and they blog. It’s a conversation.
  4. Write regularly. I know people write blogs they pick up and drop at a whim, but I don’t think it works very well. If you’re going to be busy, take a blog break and say so! But then, come back and say if you’ve finished for good. It looks more professional, but it also organises your mind so you don’t keep thinking guiltily ‘hmm, I used to write stuff here’. Set yourself a target (mine used to be once every two weeks and is now once a month). Achieve it. Which takes me to the next point:
  5. Use the blog to break writers’ block. It isn’t an academic paper. You can just witter. And if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter. Just do it, share it, and get some responses to cheer you up. When you’re in the depths of block-jail, even a couple of nice kind people sharing a post on twitter will make you feel less inert. If you get into this habit, it will become second-nature. Get used to blogging right now, not as something you put in the calendar to do tomorrow.
  6. Vary the types of post you do. Try a long-read style one, where you really pay attention to the way you write. Try a rant. Try playing with images or quotations. See what feels most natural and what you want to do more of. A mix of short and long pieces will get different readers interested, but it’ll also help you sort out your own academic style (mine has changed a lot since I started blogging, and I am now delighted to say that I was able to work a cunnilingus pun into an academic paper with nary a blush. It’s these things that truly move the scholarship forward, don’t you feel?).
  7. Match the blog with teaching and lecturing. Test out a new idea for a lecture on the blog. Write up that lecture that didn’t quite work as a blog post. Answer those questions that were fascinating but too big to answer in five minutes at the end. Ask other people what they do – you can do a lot of reflecting on pedagogy in a blog, but:
  8. Be kind and be professional. You cannot whinge about students on your blog. Or really anywhere else they might read it. It’s unprofessional and rude and unnecessary. And it makes you look like a really, really bad teacher. Instead:
  9. Use your blog to defend your students. Students get a lot of bad press. That doesn’t mean you have to be uncritical, but you can be dispassionate and considered about it. Use your blog to defend colleagues (especially ones you don’t know whom you’ve seen get an unjustified kicking). Use it to defend other writers outside academia. Even if those people never read what you write (they probably won’t), it’ll help you articulate to yourself where you stand. It will make you a more politicised teacher and writer.
  10. Change your mind in print. Blogging’s great for that. Get used to changing your mind, linking to the old piece where you said one thing, and tearing it down. Because it’s going to happen in other, more scholarly forms of print media, so it might as well happen here first.

I really value my blog. It provided me with the raw drafts of about 40-60 lectures I didn’t have time to write (thank god for using that dead time pre-viva!), and almost every chapter of my new book has ancestors in blog posts. Every conference paper I’ve given since submitting my PhD has had its origins on here. And yes, I put my blog on my academic CV, too.


Number 11 on the list is: know when to stop. If you can’t write a blog post in 20 minutes, 30 tops, stop. You might very well come back to it, especially if it’s a long read type of post, but don’t spend ages blogging. This is something I have got much, much better at – my early posts took hours – and I am still bad at it when I’m writing for someone else.

A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

The other day, I read Rachel Moss’s post on the subject of academic work/life balance. She titles it ‘Choosing Not To Give,’ and it was timely for me, as she speaks about balancing the demands of having a baby with the demands of having an academic career, something I’m going to have to learn about in short order.

I’ve read a lot of Rachel’s posts on this broad theme of career expectations, and I remember finding her post about applying for jobs (which I came across when I really needed to read something reassuring!) really helpful. There, she pointed out that the common advice to early career academics, to stop being snobby about jobs and to look beyond Oxbridge, is based in a misconception about where the jobs are – and she noted, too, that when she got her own Oxbridge job, it wasn’t the most attractive option she was offered, it was the only option. It’s an awesome job, so her point is well made.

The two posts together got me thinking about the choices we make as early career academics. At the moment, career choices are on my mind, as I’ve just finished a 26 month postdoc as a Teaching Associate at Cambridge, and I’m currently freelance teaching on the same courses for a couple of Cambridge colleges. The transition from ’employed’ to the dreaded status of ‘Independent Scholar’ has been pretty gentle for me as a result of this freelancing. It’s let me stay in the same place, use the same libraries, teach the same courses (ish), and enjoy networking with the same lovely colleagues. I didn’t even have to ceremonially return all of my library books, though I have said goodbye to my office key. My situation is paradoxically both more and less scary because we’re also expecting our first baby in March. More scary, because – argh, a baby, what if I never write again and she screams all day and my brain dribbles out of my ears and I never get a job and we end up living in the gutter and busking with a repertoire of the more tuneful bits of Lydgate?

Less scary, because realistically, it gives me something to concentrate upon and a very good motivation for working hard. It’s made me prioritise. Yes, I could apply for exciting temporary jobs in the US, or starry visiting fellowships in European libraries. But it’s not really a good idea for me, in terms of that work/life balance. And, in the time I could have spent putting together applications for highly competitive, short-term posts, I have written two solid chapters of my book, which is now in much better shape than it was last October (aka, the end of the first trimester). I’m fairly confident that not applying for things was actually the right decision for me – so why do I feel a constant need to justify what I’m doing?

In academia at the moment, I think there is a pressure to be seen to be applying for every job, every grant, every opportunity – however time-consuming it might be, however unlikely it might be that you get it, and however much you might anticipate (deep down) a sinking cold feeling of dread at the prospect of actually having to do (relocate for, retrain for) said job if you got it. You can’t get the jobs you don’t apply for! people remind us. There’s an almost superstitious element to it: if you miss applying for one job, if you forget to salute one magpie, you might bring down the wrath of the Hiring Gods for next time.

At the moment, I’m trying to spend my time more carefully, applying for a smaller number of things. I worry that this can be seen, not just as the lazy option, but as the arrogant option. Some academics (ECR and senior) give the impression that you’re not doing every single thing you can (including, frankly, unrealistic things that waste other people’s time as well as your own), then you must be complacently assuming a permanent job will fall into your lap. So, we write defensively (as I do) about changing priorities, about the demands of our families, about the importance of self-care and health. All of these things matter, of course. But I think it also matters to acknowledge that sometimes, we apply for things because of this pressure to be seen to be applying, and that’s bad in itself, no matter what external work/life considerations we might be keeping in mind.

Trigger Warnings (Again), and a Weird Sense of Disconnection

New academic year, new spate of newspaper articles on ‘trigger warnings’. This time, it’s the Guardian‘s piece by Frank Furedi, blazing with the news Too Many Academics Are Now Censoring ThemselvesNow, with the revelation that the government is discounting the voices of non-British academics, and with the knowledge that we’re in the middle of a process that will, quite likely, make it impossible for many of us to continue meaningful research reaching outside Britain at all, you might expect that this article would express some sense of genuine concerns.

Instead, it reminded me of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness speeches you sometimes hear at conferences, where someone – cradling a half-empty glass of warmish Echo Falls – demonstrates why he (or possibly she) is in the wrong business for working with students. Furedi describes how – apparently – a colleague’s lecture on the Holocaust was interrupted by a student yelling out a self-righteous rant: “Stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised!” Strong stuff, eh? Notice how it’s always a friend or a colleague this sort of thing happens to – not the author himself. Sort of like those anecdotes that begin ‘well, my mate was actually at Woodstock when …’.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to cast doubts on the complete and utter veracity of this section of the article. Of course, some students are ruder than others about the content of lectures, but my brittle sense of self-esteem is not generally crushed beyond repair by the odd negative comment, especially when I can use my special powers of mature reflection to determine that it probably says more about the student than it does about me. On the other hand, when I get comments that suggest, hmm, maybe I didn’t introduce that particular element (the graphic rape, say, or the really anti-semitic bit) as well as I might have done, I am also capable of thinking about why that was, and how I might do it better. Not, how I might self-censor. But how I might, you know, learn something new from my students.

The problem with this article is that, for all it claims ‘too many’ academics are ‘censoring themselves’ (what would be the correct number of self-censoring academics, Prof Furedi?), it seems to be describing a remarkable lack of … censorship. Furedi describes courses that continued in their tracks, and lectures that were given, and classes that continued despite student complaints, and exam questions that made it onto the paper. So, I was left wondering, is this really a bit of a storm in a teacup?

I’ve written, and thought, about the trigger warnings controversy before. I do worry about it. I do dislike the implication that, if a student finds something upsetting, shocking, or offensive, he or she should feel entitled to have it stricken from the course. I have read the stories of universities where academics feel they can’t teach texts like Titus Andronicus, because it’s got rape in it. I have seen student petitions to ban certain speakers, and I’ve worried about the way these petitions often do seem to demonise second-wave feminism. I do think there is a worrying link between the research and teaching interests of women – and especially lesbian women – and the topics that regularly seem to require ‘trigger warnings’. There is, surely, something deeply, unfortunately ironic in the fact that we, as a society, need to be having conversations about rape, and yet, conversations about rape frequently fall into the category of ‘things too painful to talk about here’.

And yet, despite all of those concerns, I really do find Furedi’s view on trigger warnings and censorship almost impossible to take seriously. I do not find that my students regularly request more warnings. I certainly don’t find them queuing up to tell me they can’t read this text or that text because it’s violent or offensive. I regularly teach texts that depict graphic rapes. I regularly teach texts that are outrageously, phenomenally racist in their portrayals of the Middle East, of Jewish people, of people of colour. There is an entire lecture series (not by me!) in our medieval literature paper, titled simply ‘Violence’. And the thing is, these topics are extremely popular with students. Students see content warnings on my lectures – so they know that lectures on ‘romance’ (which they might expect to be about love and kittens) are actually going to be quite nasty. And they don’t seem to object to that. They come, they debate, they want to have a space to talk about these things. Last week, the first question after the first lecture was ‘can I write a feminist essay on to these texts, please?’

Students need spaces to discuss difficult subjects. Obviously, my students are a specific group, in a specific place – but I just do not recognise them in the popular portrayals of students that crop up in article’s like Furedi’s. And I don’t see myself in his portrayal of ‘us’ academics – as someone carefully picking my words and ruefully deciding to limit my searing intelligence to the narrow confines of a more boring lecture. This may be because my intelligence is just, well, rather run-of-the-mill compared to the academics he quotes in his article. But, it’s much easier to claim you would have written a brilliant lecture – if only you’d felt you were allowed to do it – than to actually write that brilliant lecture, isn’t it? So, I feel a weird sense of disconnection when I read Furedi’s piece (and other pieces like it). Yes, these students who yell out polemics in lectures, who force their lecturers to self-censor, sound like a worry. But … where are they, and why have I not met them yet?

New Chaucer Society 2016, Mile End Jewish Cemetery, and a ‘European’ England


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Novo Cemetery at QMU, Mile End

I’m writing this quickly, having just made it to the New Chaucer Society Conference at Queen Mary, University of London. NCS is a big conference by medievalists’ standards, and there is a huge number of talks I just won’t get to see, despite wanting to, because of the tight timetable. And there are a lot of people I want to see, many of whom are coming in from the US or parts of Europe or even Australia. We see each other rarely – only really at conferences like this. Of course, you can chat on facebook, and leave friendly comments, and even read each other’s work, comment on it and co-author to an extent, but there isn’t yet any technology that recreates what it’s like having everyone who works on the same topic in a room, talking together.

NCS is the first conference I’ve been to since the UK voted to leave the EU and – for many reasons – I was wondering how and whether this would feel different. And before I made it to the conference venue, I spent the day wandering around Hampton Court – which is probably one of the least diverse areas, racially, economically and in every other possible way, that you could hope to land up in. You can absolutely imagine that, were you to transport the current inhabitants back to 1515, they would be making sucked-lemon faces about the appalling things successful politicians do with new money and wincing at the look of red brick. We went round the flower show, which was lovely and gentle and also absolutely full of the sort of people who’ve taught their children not to double-take more than once, and who consequently give you anxious smiles before asking mummy why those ladies are holding hands.

The campus of Queen Mary is a contrast. Located in Mile End, it’s a collection of modern, concrete-and-glass buildings, on either side of a busy road, with an unexpectedly beautiful view of Regent’s Canal.

Even more unexpectedly, tucked into the middle of the campus between several concrete blocks, in an unpromising piece of concrete that had the look of unfinished building works, I came across the old Jewish cemetery that was here before the university. I knew that Mile End was a historically Jewish area of London, and that its roots go back centuries, but I did not know of the existence of this graveyard. The stones are intact, and though many are covered in lichen, some are readable – and more would be readable if I read Hebrew. I saw memorials for Esther, wife of Solomon Haim da Costa Andrade; to Isaac Cohen Belifante; to Moss Comes da Costa. Could you find more Jewish – and Portuguese – names?

The Sephardi Jewish community in Mile End – Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, who had come to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – found the need for a new cemetery in 1733, and secured the land for the so-called ‘Novo’ Cemetery in what is now the middle of the Queen Mary campus, a listed site for English Heritage. To find a site like this in the middle of a university is unusual: it disrupts your sense of past and present, of current purpose and former dedication. The stones, with their arresting names and dates, demand attention and reflection. Time is required, so that the fact of their continuing presence can be taken in. Looking at this cemetery, you are forced to remember a multi-cultural, multilingual past, which was so far from being on the fringes of society that it left its mark in stone and marble: a monument to centuries of community that puts modern ideas of ‘Englishness’ to shame.

Coming across this cemetery so unexpectedly, in the middle of a very modern university campus, made me think how Queen Mary proves the need for pan-European, cosmopolitan, wide-reaching interactions between people. I’m hugely looking forward to this conference – and to meeting all the colleagues who come from outside the UK – but, just as much, I plan to enjoy the idea of this conference taking place in sight of the shadows of a thriving community of England’s immigrants whose history dates back so many centuries.

On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again

First, a disclaimer. I have nothing against right-winger journalists. In fact, like everyone with a smidgeon of social conscience, I find them fascinating.

Oh, who am I kidding? I find them smug, self-interested curmudgeons who tend to have a worryingly shallow grasp on basic logic. As demonstrated in the Telegraph by one Jemima Lewis. I’m sure she’s generally a lovely warm-hearted woman, as her sneering column about students’ youth (some of my students are considerably older than she is) and their, erm, genderfluidity, suggests. But I read her piece on the Starkey controversy with my eyes more or less continually rolling.

All of this sneering at ‘the youth’ was in aid of Lewis’s bigger point, which was a half-baked defence of something called ‘free speech’. Apparently, we all have the god-and-Dave-given right to speak on promo videos for the University of Cambridge. Any attempt to prevent us from doing this is now to be known as ‘censorship. As my colleagues commented over on twitter, this is a delightful, surprisingly radical offering from the right-wing press: no doubt the same freedoms will shortly be rolled out, allowing me to write Lewis’s column, appropriate her salary, and throw my toys out of the pram if anyone objects. Not so?

Oh, shit, wait, do I need to undergo some kind of process, whereby the Telegraph would actually, like, decide whether or not to publish what I write? Do you think they might even, sometimes, commission me to write a piece and then decide not to publish it after all? Picture me making a Sadface (TM), in the manner of the Young People.

Teasing aside (and it is this truly ridiculously overblown definition of ‘censhorship’ and ‘free speech’ Lewis is working with), what got to me about Lewis’s piece was this claim. Acknowledging that Starkey has overcome obstacles to achieve his current position of considerable privilege, she notes in apparent shock:

“But being gay, disabled and working-class is no longer enough to appease the gods of intersectional correctness.”

It’s good to know the Telegraph is such a bastion of support for LGBT rights (bashing of genderfluidity aside, perhaps).

What Lewis fails to understand is that there is a distinction between a person who speaks as an individual – however rudely or ill-advisedly – and one who is speaking as a representative of a wider group. Starkey has perfect right to express his opinions as a private individual. He has the right to express his opinions as an academic, and I feel fairly strongly that he should be free to do this despite what he’s said in the past about race, gender and class. I’ve written about this issue before. What Starkey does not have is the automatic right to represent the whole university as their spokesman. Patently – and I’m gobsmacked a woman intelligent enough to write for the Telegraph can’t understand this – this is not a ‘right’ that can be interpreted as ‘free speech’, or we’d all have promo videos in our names floating around. If Starkey’s representation seems likely to alienate staff, students and potential students because of the racist and misogynistic views he’s put forward, then surely, we should choose to give that ‘voice’ to someone else?

Open Letter: David Starkey Does Not Speak for Cambridge University

Last week, I wrote about my shock and anger in finding that the current University of Cambridge campaign, ‘Dear World’, is presented by David Starkey. Starkey is portrayed as the official voice and face of Cambridge, representing students, faculty, and staff, as well as the research and teaching in which we participate. It is deeply disturbing that a man who has made numerous racist and misogynistic comments should represent us.

My colleague has now written an open letter, here.

If you are a Cambridge student, member of staff, or alumna/alumnus, please consider signing the letter. Anyone interested in signing can respond to us (notstarkey@gmail.com) with the email heading ‘Starkey’ and the body of their message containing their full name, departmental affiliation, and whether or not they’re staff or students (undergrads or postgrads) or alumni (who should include their year of graduation if possible).

I would be very grateful to anyone willing to share and promote this letter – we need signatures to demonstrate how utterly unacceptable this is, and how poorly Starkey represents our community. Feel free to retweet, share, and reblog.

‘Dear World’: David Starkey does not speak for Cambridge University on Race or Gender

A few weeks ago, I heard about the ‘Dear World’ campaign, a campaign by the University of Cambridge. I heard that it was designed to publicise the amazing research different academics and faculties pursue. It was designed to get people excited, to make them feel inspired, to show them why what we do matters. It would – so the person who told me about it, buzzing with excitement – give a voice to all of us junior researchers and all of the diffident senior academics who never quite managed to explain our work.

But then, I watched the video introducing it, and my heart sank. The opening few minutes will show you why. The video opens with a classic classroom scene; a voice – humming with vibrato like a badly-tuned cello – orates the words of the title: Dear World. And onto the screen paces David Starkey, in character as a crusty professor beside a dusty chalk board, frowning furiously at the viewer. He intones, as if it were a line of Hamlet, a question that is unblushing use of REF jargon: ‘How do you measure the impact of a university?’

We then cut to a breathy series of female voiceovers, tumbling over each other eagerly, one of which suggests we could look at ‘the number of students who have led countries’. I couldn’t help but think of Cambridge’s – and Britain’s – part in empire-building. I winced to hear Starkey talk of ‘friendships that span the globe’, still more to hear him approvingly label an image of black men and women ‘having bigger ideas in Africa’ … as if Africa were a single country, in need of salvation at the hands of a largely white university half a world away.

My image of Cambridge University doesn’t have much room for David Starkey. Starkey is notorious for his misogynistic belittling of women who work in my discipline, and it’s in that context I first noticed him. But he’s also pushed the boat out with gratuitously racist remarks, which are a matter of public record, and perfectly well known to Cambridge. Why on earth is he the spokesperson for any sort of campaign – still less one that claims to be altruistic?

In my lectures, I don’t talk as much about racism as I wish I could. I do lecture a course on Middle English romance, and in that course, I talk about the ways these popular medieval fictions generate and perpetuate bigoted stereotypes – misogynistic, racist, disablist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, amongst other things – in forms that have endured to the present day. I find this course hard to teach. The first time I delivered it, last year, I limited by topic to misogyny: there, I felt on firm enough ground to discuss these texts from a personal perspective, to bring in what had always been left out in my own experience of Cambridge English Literature, to open up space to recognise rape myths and victim-blaming, to identify the tropes of the Bad Mother and the deviant sexualised woman. But I also found that, more and more, I was looking at the ways these texts dealt with race. And, while I’m a white woman who has little business lecturing anyone about racism, I found I couldn’t ignore it. I had students in my lectures who were frowning or nodding, asking questions or emailing me, trying to get a grip on what this literature they were reading was telling them about the way European and British culture has represented men and women who looked like them.

And there were too few of these students in my lectures. There were too few of them at Cambridge.

I felt that I had to talk about the gaps in the course they study, about the biases that keep us looking at literature that smooths over Britain’s history of racism, and Europe’s medieval culture of racism, which leaves a legacy right up to 2015. I had to show that the same tired old images of blackness and Judaism, the same images of foreign ‘Others’ and violent invaders and benefit-grabbing immigrants, have been the stuff of popular fiction for centuries. So, this year, I came back wanting to find a way to talk more honestly about race. I came back, and pretty soon I read about a black Oxford Rhodes scholar who was repeatedly refused entry to his college by gate keepers who assumed he must be a workman or a tourist, not a student. I read about a student here at Cambridge who was mistaken for one of the few other black women students in her college. I read about the death threats issued to my colleague, simply for publicising academic research that demonstrates the importance of black cultures in medieval Europe. It’s not my issue, but I felt angry, and I feel more angry now.

Much of the ‘Dear World’ Campaign is wonderful, and could make us all so excited to be here. But Starkey’s voice is all over it. The video implies that Starkey’s racism and misogyny can be swept under the carpet. It implies that, so long as a carefully-selected group of women and of people from ethnic minorities are shown, smilingly delivering snippets of voiceover interwoven with Starkey’s patrician tones, it’s all ok.

It’s not ok.

This video perpetuates an image of educational hierarchy, with Starkey pinning us with his gaze, breathing professorial authority, speaking sonorous RP … teaching, for goodness’ sake, using a chalk blackboard, like a relic of the good old days when closed scholarships kept Cambridge for the better class of young gentleman. Women, and people from ethnic minorities, are allowed speaking parts – but all subsumed under Starkey’s authority, their words splinted up into quick quotations pressed into service of an image that’s as much about Starkey the revered academic, as it is about the Cambridge University I know and work in.

Starkey concludes the video with all the simplicity of a speaker who has never had to question his own profound privilege. As the montage of cutting-edge research intercut with enthusiastic young students comes to a close, he orates “… and that is how you measure the impact of a university”. I beg to differ. I doubt there’s any one way to measure the impact of a university – unless you’re interested in cheap metrics and gimmicky attempts to pre-empt REF 2020 – but certainly, one way would be to stand beside students and faculty who’ve been insulted by racist comments, and to respond to this video: Dear World, no, David Starkey does not speak for us here.

If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse

The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.

In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:

“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”

No. No, this is Not Right.

Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, living in a tiny cell and in a culture where you write things out longhand, rewrote her entire book in order to make it clearer. Judith Butler is the sort of person whose rewritten introduction to Gender Trouble is so obfuscatory it requires its own explanatory notes.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, if Margery Kempe applied to be her grad student, would leave you in no doubt of the power relationship. She’d have Margery meet her for coffee and she’d let Margery fangirl at her, and she’d write her a list of books to read. And Margery would go away thinking they’d had a real meeting of minds, but she would also instinctively know never to send Julian her rough drafts at 11pm with I just sorta wanted to know what you think of this emails. Julian would write quietly professional references for Margery.

Judith Butler is the sort of person who would take on Margery Kempe as a grad student and talk about her to you in your supervisions, so you ended up knowing more about Margery’s sex life than you wanted to know, and wouldn’t be able to look at Margery over coffee because Judith would have told you about that embarrassing time at the departmental party when John and Margery were having a bad time. Then you’d see her pop up on facebook telling Margery she’s questioning the practice of masculinist oppression with her new relationship status. She’d encourage Margery not to bother redrafting her thesis. Just hand it in! Tell them the letters are not shaped or formed like other letters, but self-constructed in a dialogic matrix of anti-universalising commentary on being and becoming! Margery would never get a postdoc and would languish on the fringes of academia wondering where it all went wrong and whether Judith really meant it that time they both got tipsy and Judith admitted yes, sometimes I think it might just be the patriarchy that’s the problem too.

But the main thing (as anyone who works on medieval religious culture knows) is that Julian, and Margery, and Richard Rolle, and pretty much anyone who was writing at all, makes Judith Butler look about 600 years out of date. Butler’s big issue is gender essentialism, by which she means, what does it mean to be a ‘woman’, who gets to be in that category, how is it socially constructed and why does it continue to be an important concept.

You might expect that Julian, writing in late medieval England, would think about gender as a binary thing, an innate and fundamental difference between men and women. You do find bits of her work where she associates femininity with the body and the emotions, with nurturing and caring. Christ, writes Julian, is mother-like in that Christ “ is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh”. Christ took on ‘sensuality’ – not the modern word, but the medieval word meaning senses, feelings, capacity to experience bodily and emotional life – and this act of mercy towards humanity is a maternal act.

But Julian doesn’t just imply that the loving and nurturing elements of life are innately feminine. In medieval interpretations of sexual reproduction, the female role is simply to carry and nourish the foetus – medieval science taught that the actual spark of human life, the soul itself – came from the man. This basic axiom gives rise to a web of misogynistic implications, from the idea that creative genius is innately male, to the idea that women are vessels for life rather than active participants in its creation. You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of it: it’s the idea that lies behind contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric and the pervasive belittling of intellectual women alike. And Julian utterly rejects it.

I … accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.

We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. The Father is enclosed in us.”

Here, Julian is trying to get at what Butler would call epistemology: the study of the truth of things. But her image of enclosure is maternal – she’s explaining the relationship of truth to human understanding in terms of pregnancy, of containment of one body within another enclosing body. And yet, you notice that while God is imagined as a maternal figure who encloses humanity and gives meaning to humanity’s understanding of ‘substance’, of human nature, humanity is also pregnant with God, enclosing God, sensing God as a woman feels the kicks and movements of a foetus in the womb.

This is part of Julian’s highly radical imagery of space, which famously includes her vision of the entirety of creation pictured as if it were a tiny thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. But, while her ideology of space is radical because it invites us to confront our ideas about magnitude, it’s also radical because it forces us to think about how somatic experience measures what we think about truth and gender. Julian’s experience is deeply rooted in her female body, and the language she uses to grapple with epistemology is something like a questioning version of écriture féminine, female writing. She imagines God as female and male, and human struggles to conceptualise God as a process that overspills the cultural boundaries of masculine and feminine activity. But she’s also incredibly simple and direct about the limits of understanding, and that’s where I think she and Judith Butler would never see eye to eye. Julian knows when something is too big a concept to reduce, and she doesn’t try to speak around the issues.

I’m not seriously trying to argue that Julian of Norwich can be separated from the profoundly misogynistic world of late-medieval England, or that she invented gender fluidity, the concept of performativity, or any other buzzwords of the Judith Butler fan club. The point, really, is that the idea of challenging a fixed, static, binary model of gender is, in itself, a piece of ahistorical arrogance on the part of scholars. Medieval interpretations of what we might call ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ or ‘gender identity’ are hugely varied, hugely nuanced, and hugely incomprehensible to us now. We can find ideas that seem to confirm our prejudices – stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ – and we can find ones that seem, excitingly, to suggest twenty-first-century sensibilities trapped in genderfluid, queer, non-binary medieval bodies. But we’re being wise after the fact. Before we start assuming it’s new and exciting to ‘trouble’ stable conceptions of gender, we need to question whether it’s already been done.

Women, the Vote, and Walter William Skeat


I’m currently looking out onto a street full of election posters (mostly Labour, a couple of Lib Dem and a few Greens, if you’re interested – we wanted to put up a poster for the Suffragettes in our window, because we’re more or less opposite what used to be the Cambridge Women’s Liberation Group headquarters. A couple of hours ago, I was teaching in King’s (where they seem to be voting Labour) and discussing, among other things, the form and structure of Piers Plowman, a poem written in the second half of the fourteenth century.

The election posters and the medieval text (not to mention the Women’s Lib) have more in common than you might think. Piers locates itself slap bang in the middle of medieval debates about social order and unrest, about who should have what rights. It’s a political poem (as well as lots of other things), and a poem about disenfranchisement of all types. And the key symbol, in my view, both of these rights and of this problematic social order, is the poem’s image of a document, a pardon, granted by the Pope and delivered by Truth herself to Piers the Plowman.

This scene is a difficult one to interpret, and people disagree about what it means. Piers – who is supposedly a humble ploughman, an uneducated person – reads over the document, finding how each person is granted their rights under (divine) law. Just as he’s finished, a priest leans over his elbow and, patronizingly, declares that he will translate the text into English. Piers – for reasons unclear – is furious at his translation, and (breaking into perfect Latin to show he can read just fine, thank you very much), he tears the pardon to pieces, invalidating it.

The words used to describe what Piers does here – ‘pure tene’ in the Middle English – suggest utter fury, anger that’s absurd because it is coupled with such a petty at of destruction. The same words sprang to my mind when I came across this extract from a letter, written by the grandfather of Piers Plowman studies, Walter William Skeat, a Cambridge academic who edited the text in 1886. Writing to his colleague (and co-founder of Newnham College), he argues angrily against the suggestion that the women of that newly-founded college should be allowed to graduate with the degrees for which they were studying:

“If given the BA, they must next have the MA and that would carry with it voting and perhaps a place on the Electoral Roll … Even the BA would enable them to take five books out of the University Library, countersigned by ‘their tutor’. I am entirely opposed to the admission of women to ‘privileges of this character. And I honestly believe they are better off as they are.”
(Letter, June 1887, from W. W. Skeat to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham College Archives)

I adore the bonkers logic in this, which reveals a mixture of institutional self-importance (no, a MA – even a Cambridge MA – would not have ‘carried with it’ voting) and utter pettiness. Skeat is concerned about women voting, yes … after all, votes affect the running of the country … but what’s really nagging at him is the possibility of disorder, nay even the temporary alienation of actual books, in the hallowed corridors of the University Library. To a late-Victorian scholar, clearly, the one thing more annoying that finding an empty space on a library shelf, would be knowing that the book you wanted was bouncing around Cambridge in a bag on the back of a woman’s bike.

I’m mentioning this partly because I enjoy quoting Victorian misogynists getting their unmentionables in a twist over the liberation of women, and partly because I can entirely picture Skeat, in a fit of ‘pure tene’, scrunching up papers rather than letting the women of Newnham or Girton read them. But I also think that Skeat’s segue from serious political issues to petty objections about institutional library policies is depressingly representative of the kinds of obstructions people still do put in the way of changing things for the better.

If time travel is a possibility, there’s one person I really, really want to introduce to Professor Skeat:


River Song, from Dr Who ‘Silence in the Library’ (NS 4:8). Sorry folks, it’s a geek joke.


A(nother) geek fact I found out while writing this, is that Hermione Granger’s much-mocked SPEW, which readers of popular culture more astute than I have speculated might be some kind of metaphor for feminist activism, shares its name with an actual example of feminist activism. In 1859, Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW), later the Society for Promoting the Training of Women. It still exists, and is now Futures for Women. I would love it if JKR knew this.

Safe Space and the University (Trigger Warning)

I’m turning over a lot of thoughts about safe spaces and triggers at the moment.

Next year, I’m going to go into a lecture hall, hopefully with about 50-70 undergraduates, and I’m going to talk to them about how a brutal rape becomes funny, and then, about how men use it as an excuse to act out violent homoerotic fantasies. I’m going to talk about how the rapist – like most rapists in this context – is an immigrant, a foreigner. Many of his co-rapists are black. They are all monstrous, probably by nature. But then, most women are natural liars, with no sense of loyalty. Even supposedly impartial observers are so disgusted with them (or so bored?) they’ll write whole accounts of this brutal rape narrative, without ever mentioning the word rape.

Well, ok. You know, if you’re reading this, that I’m talking about a fictional narrative, and a fictional narrative written over 500 years ago (though that ‘impartial observer’ I’m thinking of is a scholar, who deserves a ‘WTF were you thinking’ for his article on the Alliterative Morte). You probably know, if you read this blog regularly, that I won’t go into the lecture hall and say it all just as I’ve written it here. I will explain context; I will talk to my students about how insidiously damaging this narrative is, how it still influences us, how it lies to us. I will name the problems: I will call it misogynistic and racist. But, it will still upset a lot of those students.

I know that, statistically, in that class of 50-70 students, some will be survivors of rape or sexual assault. Some will be students of ethnic minorities. Well over half will be women. That lecture hall will not be a ‘safe space’ for them to learn about literature in. It’s really difficult to know what to do about that. Do I give these lectures – which I firmly believe are good literary criticism, and provide us with good tools to be wise to the ways in which literature perpetuates racism and misogyny? Or do I avoid saying anything that will have these students shrinking inside, and feeling personally exposed, and upset?

The context of this question is this letter, which I’ve signed, and which went out in the Observer today. The gist of it is that, at the moment, there’s a big debate about what ‘safe space’ should mean in a university. Should speakers who may be controversial – or worse, who may say profoundly upsetting things – be allowed to speak? Should students feel duty-bound to protest?

I want to be clear: this is not, for me, about ‘censorship’. That letter only mentions the word ‘censorship’ once – in the quoted title of an article providing context. I don’t think no-platforming any individual is censorship (I don’t like it, but that’s not what it amounts to). It seems reasonable enough to decide you don’t want someone to speak – and it’s certainly reasonable to demonstrate, or protest, against invitations to speakers with whose views you profoundly disagree. No. The problem is that, when you look at the bigger pattern, we are still much more willing to silence women than men, feminists than not. That’s a pattern that worries me.

It worries me because I would like to keep teaching in a context where I can talk about things that are profoundly upsetting, and triggering, and on which I do have an ideological perspective. I want to teach in a context where people feel able to disagree with me – absolutely, categorically, without reservations – but where they’ll talk to me about it. I don’t want to see a university where we never mention questions like the politics of rape, of heterosex, of prostitution, of race relations.