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Bio from the author: The writer is a woman of color and contingent faculty at a research institution.
In addition to completing coursework, preparing for qualifying exams, teaching, composing a prospectus and the dissertation, I spent nearly seven years in my Ph.D. program justifying my presence in medieval studies. My interest in medieval literature was often a surprise to faculty members and graduate students I encountered at department functions and conferences: How did you end up in medieval studies? What brings you to this talk? I didn’t expect to see you here! Gradually, I realized that those questions were not so much about what drew me to the field, but more about why I was not studying something else. The repetition of those interactions signaled that I did not belong; this was not my place.
At first, I attributed the alienation I experienced to my own failure. Maybe I didn’t attend enough department and graduate student events, didn’t know enough about the field to begin with, didn’t talk about my research enough or when I did, maybe I did not do it well. Although, at the start of the Ph.D. program, I was already attending conferences and working on an essay for publication. In fact, I helped one fellow graduate student, well-known within the program, white and male, to apply to his first conference. That graduate student would later go on to refer to me as the “token medievalist.” When I accepted a teaching position at another university after completing my Ph.D., I saw it as an opportunity to correct the mistakes I might have made in graduate school, to be better at my research, and to feel part of a scholarly community. Despite a demanding teaching load and service commitments, I attended more lectures, lunch talks, and conferences in the first year than I ever did in graduate school. But for as visible as I tried to make myself, no one was interested in talking to me about my scholarship. They were either too busy or dismissive of my work. They were however, very interested in hearing about my experience of teaching issues around race. There was an immediate presumption that I was an expert on theories of race and difference, but no willingness to hear from me on other aspects of medieval literature and culture.
The field’s resistance to engaging critical theories of race and its open hostility towards medievalists of color is well-known and has been the subject of recent controversies. A typical response is to attribute these hostilities to white supremacists who misappropriate medieval iconography and are clueless about the diversity of the Middle Ages. That is partly true, but a rush to defend the period rather than to interrogate the whiteness of the field allows medievalists to avoid addressing the field’s complicity in exclusionary practices, the marginalization of medievalists of color as well as the work that they do, which is sometimes— but not always— on theories of race. It is the proverbial rafter in the eye. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and protests against police brutality, universities and graduate programs affirm the need to address anti-blackness and racism within the academy. But the solution is not simply to invite a few leading scholars on race to share their research, adding a couple writers of color to the syllabus, or worse, emailing the one person of color in the department for resources on race. Because more than signaling indifference to issues that should concern all of us—if we are truly committed to ideals of inclusion, equity, and access— those gestures reveal that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scholars only get to enter the field to do the work that white scholars would prefer not to do themselves. This is not to underestimate the significance and urgency of work on race, but if the only time that departments seek to include “other” voices is in these moments of historical crisis, they underscore the temporariness of the presence of people of color within their departments and in the academy. It says that you’re willing to grant a temporary resident alien visa perhaps, but we are not expected to feel quite at home.
It is time that we start normalizing the idea that fields like medieval studies, classics, and others known to be historically white and male should be studied by anyone. It is not just about populating the field with a few representative black and brown faces. Representation matters, but this isn’t Hollywood. We need more BIPOC academics within pre-modern fields because we bring new methodologies, practices of reading, knowledge, and skills to these disciplines.
Alienation and marginalization are not unique to medieval studies though, and they can affect both the research and teaching done by BIPOC scholars. Graduate programs and universities need to do a better job of supporting and advising students of color. It should go without saying that graduate advisors and program directors should not tell advisees, as one person said to me, that universities would be lined up to hire me because I am a woman of color, and they want to make up for historic wrongs. It is a false narrative that belies the challenges specific to our racial, gender, and other social identities; acknowledging and providing good resources, including mentorship and opportunities to discuss tried and proven strategies for dealing with these problems are crucial to the success of racialized people within the academy. Graduate programs show their support by investing in resources that help their students learn how to build networks and thrive beyond the Ph.D. Had I a mentor to help me unpack those moments of surprise (that continue even now, year after year), or to understand that my scholarship would be received differently from that of my white advisors, or to offer advice on responding to challenges to my authority in the classroom, I would have been spared some discouragement and delays in the progress of my work.
If you are a graduate student, it is important that you seek out good mentors and build scholarly networks beyond your own institution. If you can, advocate for training, coaching, workshops, and curricula that explicitly address the challenges of being an underrepresented minority within the academy. There is increased attention to the importance of providing additional resources, including creating a sense of community for first generation, low income college students, some of whom are also students of color. In these conversations, the focus is usually on undergraduate students, but graduate students also need resources to address the ways in which race affects their teaching and research, especially if they hope to join the professoriate.
Finally, I encourage graduate students of color to practice celebrating their accomplishments. When it was announced at a department event that I had gotten a job, instead of congratulating me, a fellow student expressed disappointment that she had not seen the job posting because she would have applied. It was disheartening, and given the scarcity of jobs, I reasoned that this was an understandable response to my accomplishment. Yet, I see them celebrate each other’s professional milestones. So I am learning to celebrate myself. Instead of agonizing over microaggressions, spend that time strategizing, researching, writing, and improving your teaching.
I think if I had read this before going to graduate school it may have changed the decisions I made. I’m glad that there are Black medievalists. That’s exciting to me.