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.

what was periodization?

Davis Periodization and Sovereignty

I’m teaching a graduate seminar called Periodization. We have been reading critical and theoretical texts addressing the content, history, and politics of the periods in which English literature is conventionally studied. These include medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, antebellum American, post-1945, and so on.

Midway through the semester, one of my students pointed out that an awful lot of our texts are from the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Some highlights:

Ahead of the curve were David Aers’s “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists,” in Culture and History, 1350-1600 (1992); William A. Green’s very helpful overview essay, “Periodization in European and World History” (1992); the collection The Challenge of Periodization, edited by Lawrence Besserman (1996); and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000; reprinted 2007), which frames the problem of periodization within the paradox of the European specificity of the general concepts operant in historical scholarship. Green and Chakrabarty are historians like Le Goff, and historians have a longer history of discussing this topic. Green’s title echoes Dietrich Gerhard’s “Periodization in European History” (1956). Aers and Besserman, like Simpson, Davis, and Le Goff, represent medieval studies, which for obvious reasons has led the conversation on periodization.

This is also specifically a University of Pennsylvania phenomenon. David Wallace, Margreta de Grazia, and Ania Loomba, who teach in the English department there, were all involved in the JMEMS cluster. University of Pennsylvania Press published Davis’s book.

I was in graduate school in 2009-2014, so perhaps the chronological clumping in my syllabus is partly attributable to my formative reading during those years. But I think something more than that is going on. As a field, we appear to be exiting a phase of intense scrutiny of periodization. Not much literary scholarship worrying out loud about this topic had existed before 2000, and perhaps not much will appear after 2020. Somewhere in the late 2000s, periodization even became trendy, which is the only explanation for the English Institute’s decision to focus on it in 2008.

What’s surreal about this pattern of research production in literary studies is that “periodization” has come and gone without any appreciable effect on English department curricula or hiring practices–the intransigence of which has become a trope in our writing on periodization (as in this blog post itself). We have noticed the chronological boxes we’re working in, but we have largely stayed inside the boxes. There are two honorable exceptions: queer theory, and American studies insofar as it operates as an area studies.

What was “periodization” (2002-2015) about, if it wasn’t about revising our institutions or improving our scholarly practice? Underwood’s book can help. Writing at the tail end of the “periodization” phenomenon, Underwood argues that defenses of periodization aren’t really defenses of periodization. They are defenses of a social institution, of a particular attitude to the past that has been very prestigious in literary studies since (he claims) the 1840s, and for which the traditional periods have always felt like unusually suitable vehicles. This seems right to me. Evidently, in the 2000s and early 2010s literary scholars became a bit more comfortable publicly challenging these social institutions–but not comfortable enough to change them in any way!

Jameson writes, “We cannot not periodize” (29). But Davis writes, “In an important sense, we cannot periodize the past” (5).

I’m not sure where to go from here. I have always been interested in this topic, which strikes at the heart of historical study. There’s a contradiction inherent in our belatedness as readers, our desire for an encounter with a past that obviously did not understand itself to be past. My first book was on poetic meter and Old English/Middle English periodization. I’m writing a second book about meter and medieval/modern periodization. The political and institutional problems involved with traditional period categories haven’t gone anywhere, and so I’ll risk being the only person in the room still talking about periodization in the 2020s.

review of Underwood

I recently read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013) with my PhD seminar. The book never received a review in a medieval studies journal, as far as I know. However, the book seems to me as relevant as ever. So I wrote a review for medievalists, to appear in English Studies. Here’s how it begins:


Any medievalist who has read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can attest to a strange experience. The novel depicts a twelfth-century English society riven by the legacy of the Norman Conquest (1066). The old chestnuts of nineteenth-century medievalism–language as identity, history as racial conflict, oral poetry as political protest–are all already here, but expressed by characters named Wamba, Athelstane, Reginald Front-de-Bœuf. It is disorienting to encounter zombie ideas in a novel that predates the hiring of the first professor of English literature, in 1828.

Ted Underwood’s book is not on most medievalists’ radar. It is a literary and institutional history centered on the early nineteenth century. Yet its arguments about the formation of English studies return again and again to the teaching and literary representation of the Middle Ages. More even than its author indicates, this book demonstrates the foundational importance of medievalism to the discipline of English.

Scott is the hero, or villain, of the book. […]

on literary periodization

The graduate seminar I’m leading, Periodization, is currently finishing up Ted Underwood’s book Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013). The book argues that periodization (splitting history up into periods like ‘medieval,’ ‘Romantic,’ ‘Victorian,’ ‘antebellum American’) has dominated literary-historical research almost since the hiring of the first English professor, in 1828. Underwood sees periodization as fulfilling a social function, namely cultivating readers through an experience of historical discontinuity. In the 1990s, that social function was called into question, yet periodization survived institutionally, in hiring, in the curriculum, and in graduate training.

In the last chapter, Underwood considers more recent arguments about periodization (p. 161):

I think contemporary discussions of periodization usually go astray by conflating the intellectual and social dimensions of the problem–as if the disciplinary authority of historical contrast rested on the mathematical convenience of period boundaries. Against the drawing of temporal boundaries no one can raise serious objections. It is arbitrary but very useful to divide the day into twenty-four hours. Anthologies need to begin and end somewhere. We might occasionally need to be warned about reifying such boundaries, but if they were really arbitrary conveniences rather than social institutions, this would be roughly as dangerous as reifying “July.”

But the authority of periodization does not rest on the convenience of boundaries. It springs from a commitment to discontinuity that has long defined the cultural purpose of literary studies, and that contemporary scholars still feel as part of their disciplinary identity. This commitment to discontinuity goes far beyond the dates of anthologies and survey courses; it shapes critical discourse from top to bottom.

The preceding chapters of Why Literary Periods Mattered earn the big claim about discontinuity in the second paragraph here. This passage understands something about literary periodization that nearly all of periodization’s defenders, and many of its critics, leave out. Defenses of periodization either exaggerate moments of rapid cultural change at the beginning and end of a period, reifying the category, or else (and this is becoming the standard move, I think) they dismiss periodization as a “mathematical convenience,” inevitable and not worth squabbling over. Much criticism of periodization mirrors these two moves, either exaggerating continuity across period boundaries or proposing arbitrarily defined new periods. What either reaction fails to do is to face up to periods as “social institutions”–and, I’d add, institutions that are not thought to possess equal social value.

Underwood recommends quantitative methods as a counterbalance to periodization’s single-minded focus on discontinuity, a project he now pursues in Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago, 2019). The last chapter of Why Literary Periods Mattered appears in our syllabus in a unit on Language / method, featuring examples of work that moves beyond traditional periodization. Other scholars in Language / method are David Blackbourn, Seeta Chaganti, Joan DeJean, Barbara Fuchs, Reinhart Koselleck, and Kevin Ohi. Language / method fits into our Institutions movement. In the next movement of the course, Politics, we’ll address what periods-as-social-institutions have come to mean, politically.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Graff, Gerald. “How Periods Erase History.” In On Periodization: Selected Essays from the English Institute, ed. Virginia Jackson (2010), paras. 97-123.

Ohi, Kevin. Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Simpson, James. “Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies.” In Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England, ed. Gordon McMullan and David Matthews (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 17-30.

stop calling stuff you don’t like ‘medieval’

I have a new article in Vox today. It’s indebted to lots of previous public-facing work by medievalists, including: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

[response: “The Rise of the Pedantic Professor,” Chronicle of Higher Education 1 March 2019; response to response: “Getting the Right History vs. Getting the History Right,” S-USIH blog 10 March 2019; riposte: “A Response to L. D. Burnett,” S-USIH blog 11 March 2019]