International Society of ??

[Update 17 September: Both ballot measures, concerning a name change and adding the word “demographic” to a sentence referring to the constitution of the Board, passed. Nonetheless, I have resigned as Webmaster of IS[??]. The Executive Director, Robin Norris, has also resigned.]

The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, of which I am Webmaster, is voting on whether to change its name to avoid the term Anglo-Saxon, which has racist connotations. (In our field, the term is meant to refer neutrally to the people and culture of England before the Norman Conquest of 1066.) I think a change is long overdue. The vote was agreed upon at the 2019 meeting of ISAS and accelerated in the wake of the resignation-in-protest of Second Vice-President Mary Rambaran-Olm on 7 September. There is a years-long backstory to this vote. See the bibliography attached to this blog post.

Here is an open letter to the Board and Officers of ISAS that I helped compose and signed on 10 September:

As members and friends of ISAS, we should like to acknowledge the major problems faced by the Society, in which we have been complicit to this point. We ask for immediate action on the part of the Advisory Board and Officers to create a better future for all colleagues interested in researching the post-Roman to pre-1200 period in England and the North Atlantic Archipelago.

First, we echo the Medievalists of Color collective’s statement in support of Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm [read the statement here], and we thank Mary for the energy, leadership, commitment, and vision she has brought to the role of Second Vice-President. We recognize that ISAS has not created a welcoming environment for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), nor for women, queer, trans, disabled, early-career, contingent, precarious, and independent scholars. For that environment–and for our silence that has allowed it to continue for so long–we are sorry, and we commit to the work that will be needed to change this. We call upon ISAS members everywhere to affirm that the Society ensures its “work must take place in environments free from prejudice, racism, inequity or harassment, or related unethical behavior” and to affirm “its ongoing commitment to helping fashion an academic culture that fosters professional courtesy, respect, equity, diversity, tolerance and inclusion for all of its members, and for all people working in our related disciplines.” These phrases were agreed upon at the ISAS meeting in 2017, and the constitution was amended to that effect. However, words and intentions are meaningless without action. We and all ISAS members–led by its Officers and Board (whose labour on behalf of ISAS we absolutely acknowledge)–must work harder, more swiftly, and publicly to ensure that all colleagues are welcomed, supported and included in a community of scholars in this early period.

There are three ways to begin with to demonstrate such a commitment from ISAS:

1. The Advisory Board and Officers should act immediately and openly to change the name of the society. Considering the new name should not delay the announcement of the desire for change. To cite the need for regulations or constitutional process that prolong the issue is unhelpful at this point; urgent action is required. We consider that the case for a change of name has been made by our respected colleagues and by recent political developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

2. The Advisory Board and Officers must demonstrate with urgency that through its structure, processes, and actions ISAS has an obvious and clear commitment to policies and practices of inclusion. The Society as a whole must denounce harassment of any kind, and should strive at all times to make its meetings safe for colleagues, especially BIPOC, women and gender minorities. Known harassers have no place in our public spaces and no role in the leadership of this organization. All of ISAS’s work, in every aspect, should be anti-racist, anti-sexist, ethical, responsible, safe, and supportive of all colleagues interested in the field of study.

3. Other concrete and ongoing actions must be put in place now. A forum or discussion board for suggestions to improve the organization, which will be reviewed regularly, might be a small, but useful, start.

And here is an email I sent to the ISAS listserv on my own behalf on 15 September:

I’ve already shared my views on this topic in a recent book review and in the open letter to the Board and Officers. I’m writing to reiterate that I stand with those calling for change. Some of our colleagues, particularly medievalists of color and early career scholars, have been speaking on this for years now. I’m ashamed that it has taken so long for a formal response. I no longer feel I can use, or be associated with an organization that uses in its name, the historical sense of the term Anglo-Saxon, given the prevalent racist usage, which our field historically helped produce. I avoid the term in my current scholarly writings.

I am aware of differences of usage according to geography and discipline, but these minor differences do not somehow vindicate the innocence of the technical meaning. I am weary of implications that racism is a US “thing”–especially in the present context, where the quite active connections between medieval English studies, racism, and imperialism on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond are plain for all to read in institutional history. In 2019, we are living this legacy. Can it have escaped anyone’s notice how overwhelmingly white our field (still) is? Our colleagues, our students, and our public audiences certainly do notice. That is why I’d also like to record my support for the other ballot measure, explicitly providing for demographic diversity on the Board.

Finally, the lack of a sexual harassment policy is an embarrassment that seems not unrelated to the reluctance to change the organization’s name. Many of you will know that sexual harassment is not a hypothetical problem for our field. Institutional inertia on the part of the society, I’m sure, has exacerbated the problem. A written policy is a minimal first step toward a community that, as a community, does something to change that.

Further reading

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily 3 May 2017.

Lomuto, Sierra. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle 5 December 2016.

Miyashiro, Adam. “Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu.” In the Middle 29 July 2017.

Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Anglo-Saxon Studies, Academia and White Supremacy.” Medium 27 July 2018.

Remein, Daniel C. “ISAS Should Probably Change its Name.” Paper read at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 2017.

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