The Massachusetts Medievalist on Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (Lesley University edition)

Like most university faculty in the world of the #CovidCampus, the Massachusetts Medievalist has been scrapping together the end of the semester in the virtual world, flustered and headachy and anxious.  Also like most faculty, I miss my students — we humans are social animals, and “interaction” in the Learning Management System is functional but not nearly as satisfying, intellectually or emotionally.

Last week, I had planned to walk with my seniors through the “Handmaid’s Tour,” a walking tour of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead described in her 1985 Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a dystopian version of Harvard Square and its environs, HT takes place in an evangelical, quasi-fundamentalist patriarchy that is frighteningly recognizable. The novel’s setting hits close to home quite literally for Lesley University, as our campus borders that of Harvard, where the Sons of Jacob and Gilead emerge to take power and conscript the few still-fertile women to reproduce for the regime.

The Boston Book Blog‘s Jessica A. Kent laid out the route of a Handmaid’s tour of Harvard Square; I had planned to merely crib from (but also cite!) Kent’s work to walk out of Lesley’s library, down Brattle St., into Harvard Square, and then into Harvard Yard to see versions of the places where HT characters shop, reminisce, and participate in public executions.  As Kent notes, “Atwood didn’t create a fantasy world for her novel” – instead, she built upon what is already here.

One Lesley-specific item that I want to add to Kent’s tour: I think Offred/June and Moira went to Lesley. The whole novel is very local; we get the sense that Offred has lived in the Boston/Cambridge area her entire life. Offred/June didn’t go to Harvard – that’s where the Gilead regime was hatched; all the Commanders are Harvard-connected; she doesn’t have enough insider access or prestige to have been a Harvard student. Offred worked at one of the Harvard libraries in her second (and final) job after college: “It was in a library, not the big one with Death and Victory, a smaller one” (173). Maybe she worked at Lamont or the Houghton? Her scattered, fleeting references to the Harvard libraries are those of a former employee, not a former employee who is also a former student.

It’s a good bet that Atwood knew there was a small, regional college right near Harvard that shared geographic space but little else with its behemoth neighbor. Offred’s college experience seems pretty generic, but I think there are enough hints throughout the text to add White Hall in the Lesley quad (bordering Everett St.) to the tour as the place where Offred remembers that “On the floor of the room there were books, open face down, this way and that, extravagantly” (37).

As we finish this very strange spring semester of 2020, I like to think of my students hunkered down off campus, writing their term papers, with books piled on the floor, extravagantly.

Lesley quadrangle
White Hall from Doble quad, Lesley University

The Massachusetts Medievalist on citation, scholarly erasure, and Signe Marie Carlson

Much recent discussion on #MedievalTwitter and in academia at large has focused on formal citation practice and more general acknowledgement of the ideas of others, especially less privileged groups. I’ve participated in numerous conversations at conferences that reinforce the fact that those in positions of academic power (senior scholars, usually white men, at elite institutions) tend not to cite the less privileged, even when their points are largely indebted to the work of graduate students, junior scholars, colleagues of color, or faculty at less prestigious institutions. Geography is in play here as well: I’ve heard US scholars accuse UK colleagues of citational neglect and vice versa.

Part of the recent discussion has focused on the Dating Beowulf collection (Manchester, 2019), about which I blogged last month, and the lack of citation in two of its essays to Adam Miyashiro’s 2017 blog post about decolonizing early English medieval studies; Adam also gave a paper on “Beowulf and Its Others: Sovereignty, Race, and Medieval Settler-Colonialism” at Kalamazoo in May of 2018 (full disclosure: I co-organized and chaired that session) and he plans to publish a version of that essay in postmedieval in the near future. Miyashiro’s work specifically analyzes Grendel “as an Indigenous person with a specific set of biopolitics” (phrase from his twitter thread of 30 Jan 2020, @adam_miya).

Probably the earliest iteration of an argument connecting Grendel to a form of indigeneity appeared in 1967 in the Journal of American Folklore. In “The Monsters of Beowulf: Creations of Literary Scholars,” Signe Marie Carlson argued for a “basis in fact” for the beings usually termed “monsters” in literary scholarship on the poem. Carlson’s work is very much a product of its time: she assumes an idealized, pagan ur-text for the poem with an added, later Christian veneer (that needs to be stripped away); she also equates “indigenous” with “primitive” in an iteration of the racist “noble savage” trope.  More usefully, Carlson also provides solid lexical analysis of the ways that scholars and translators have used certain OE words, including gaest and feond, to confirm the “monstrousness” of those characters. Finally, she suggests that Grendel and his mother are akin to “indigenous inhabitants” encountered by Germanic invaders in early medieval history, rather than supernatural or fictional beings invented by the poet.

Carlson earned her PhD in comparative literature from USC in 1966; her 1967 Beowulf article is a version of the last chapter of her dissertation. She edited a vanity press publication of a purported legend of the Sami people in 1985 (she is not listed as the author). She seems never to have worked in academia or education, although there is a small scholarship fund in her name at Rogue Community College in southern Oregon; her obituary does not mention her PhD or any academic work, focusing instead of her political activism.

Carlson is thus something of an early edition of those enduring today’s academic precariat. Early English medievalists need to acknowledge that with no academic position and no institutional support, more than fifty years ago Carlson introduced an important idea –indigeneity– into scholarly discourse about a canonical poem.


Thanks to Misty Schieberle, Kriszta Kotsis, and the MedFem e-list for crowdsourcing most of the information about Carlson’s life outside early medieval studies.

Carlson, Signe M. “The Monster of Beowulf: Creations of Literary Scholars.” Journal of American Folklore 80.318 (1967): 357-364.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on stepmothers and hangnails

Like many New Englanders, the Massachusetts medievalist struggles with dry skin as winter drags on, and with dry skin comes hangnails.  As I was emptying yet another tube of hand cream, I remembered that my mother always called them “stepmothers” (I didn’t learn the term “hangnail” until I went to college). And since it is much more fun to engage in historical linguistic detective work than to read undergraduate papers, off I went down the rabbit hole.

The phrase “stepmother’s blessing” is listed as a synonym for hangnail or “agnail” in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary as a dialect entry. The irony comes from the ill intent of the stepmother, since her “blessing” is nothing more than an irritated and surprisingly painful bit of torn skin.

screenshot of OED entry

But my mother never used the “blessing” part – just the noun, as in “you need to trim that stepmother” or “don’t pick at that stepmother.” The OED quotations place the dialectical usage in Leeds and Cheshire, both in the northern part of England.  I know basically nothing about the immigration story on my mother’s side of the family, but now I suspect northern England must be involved in some way.

Since I try to use a number of my mother’s odd usages and pronunciations as a way to keep her memory alive, I hereby add “stepmother” as a replacement for “hangnail” to my active vocabulary.

“stepmother, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press.


The Massachusetts Medievalist on Dating Beowulf and dating Beowulf

For the past three weeks #MedievalTwitter has largely criticized the new Dating Beowulf volume, released 26 December on the open-access portal of Manchester University Press and edited by Erica Weaver and Dan Remein. I’m a contributor to this volume, so obviously cannot be anything like an impartial part of this conversation; that said, I’d like to try to add my own thoughts and suggest some ways for the field to continue to develop.

One point reiterated on Twitter was that the editors did not respond to the social media critiques for almost two weeks; I suggest that ire should be redirected towards the press itself. Erica and Dan were obviously instructed not to make any statement at all until after the press’s legal team had looked at the allegations of plagiarism and lack of citation. Because of the calendar and the odd release date of the volume, the press was not at full staff until Monday 6 January, and the press’s eventual statement on Wednesday 8 January did not take responsibility for the delay. Manchester’s lack of support here should be termed “throwing the junior colleagues under the bus.”

Other parts of the criticism have focused on two related points: the absence of scholars of color in the contributors’ list and lack of citation/reference to Adam Miyashiro’s work in two essays focused on ethnicity and indigeneity.

In a statement issued by the Press, the editors “apologize for not creating a more inclusive contributorship and for not citing Adam Miyashiro’s blog post.” I would like to add to the first part of that apology – I’m sorry for not asking about diversity in the contributors’ list back when the volume was conceived, and as one of the more senior contributors I perhaps could have spurred Erica and Dan to prioritize diversity at that early point in the process. However, in 2015/2016, when they were commissioning the essays, it wasn’t on my radar to ask that question. Should it have been? Absolutely yes. But it wasn’t, and I regret that.

The monumental and necessary changes in medieval studies around racism and exclusion are happening much faster than the glacial pace of traditional academic publishing. In 2015, the conversation about inclusion tended to focus on gender, largely in pushback against “manels” and all-male essay collections, and of course we all know that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. In the past year or so, I have asked editors about diversity in contributors’ lists twice, and been assured that scholars of color are included in those forthcoming collections — baby steps, to be sure, but at least moving in the right direction.

The second focus of the social media critique – the lack of citation of Adam Miyashiro’s blog post– refers specifically to two essays by other colleagues; I trust they will respond to that allegation in some venue at some point in the near future.

Much of this critique has elided the important point that the Dating Beowulf volume (Manchester, 2019) is meant to be a riposte to the traditional medieval studies methodologies that produced The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, 1981) and The Dating of Beowulf: A Reassessment (Brewer, 2014), the latter frequently reprimanded in reviews and in conversations at conferences for its combative and insulting tone. Dating Beowulf seems (ironically) somewhat dated already, in its clumsy but well-intentioned acknowledgement of the whiteness of the essayists. Yet it also makes many thoughtful and interesting contributions to the critical conversation around this most iconic of Old English poems. As the internet often tells us, two things can be true.

I don’t want to date Beowulf — he’s definitely not my type. I’m not all that interested in dating Beowulf beyond the date of the manuscript. In Dating Beowulf, Erica Weaver and Dan Remein have provided a variety of new ways to think about the poem, ways that integrate discussion of emotional intimacy and personal relationship into understanding of this hyper-canonical text. I hope the twitter conversation about the book in the last few weeks has ensured that academic publishers will secure inclusive lists of contributors going forward.  I urge my colleagues throughout medieval studies to be both generous and productive: to accept Erica and Dan’s public apology as we continue to try to work together towards a more inclusive and more vibrant medieval studies for ourselves, for our students, and for our communities.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about the power dynamics of “Anglo-Saxon”

Like all medievalists who work in English studies, the Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the term “Anglo-Saxon” and its current usages in academic medieval studies and in culture more broadly defined. Two Medium columns chronologically bookend the current discussion:  Mary Rambaran-Olm‘s in June 2018 and Catherine Karkov‘s on 10 Dec 2019. Between the two, much has happened politically, culturally, and academically: other scholars have weighed in on various blogs and one group of largely UK medievalists has issued a public statement about the “responsible use of the term Anglo-Saxon.”  White supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic have continued their love affairs with medievalist imagery and a supposedly pure, white, patriarchal European past (a situation well summarized by Michael Wood). Throughout, I’ve been contributing to the online debate via email and twitter when I thought I could make a constructive point, and trying to support my colleagues.

I’ve also been musing about the linguistic power dynamics embedded in this call to move away from usage of “Anglo-Saxon” as a term for the language and cultures of England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 (no, it’s not a “ban,” as some UK scholars have called it – who would enforce it? how?).

Many of the generally acceptable terms used in professional discourse to describe race and ethnicity have changed dramatically over the last 100 or so years.  “Colored” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established 1909) gave way to “Negro” (United Negro College Fund, established 1944), which was superseded by “Black” (the Black Studies department at San Francisco State, founded in 1968), and then by “African-American” (National Museum of African-American History and Culture, established 2003). “Oriental” and “Asian” demonstrate a similar trajectory. There are multiple examples of this sort of linguistic change from other fields as well: disability studies, gender studies, etc.

Unlike these sorts of gradual and widely accepted linguistic changes, the debate about “Anglo-Saxon” centers on a term used to refer to a dominant rather than a marginalized group.  A change from “Anglo-Saxon” to “early English medieval” entails radical, linguistic de-centering of a form of whiteness constructed during British Imperialism and American Manifest Destiny in the second half of the nineteenth century.  A major and unacknowledged part of the resistance to retirement of the term “Anglo-Saxon” is opposition to a change advocated by the marginalized (scholars of color, early career researchers, graduate students) not just TO but also ABOUT the controlling group (who overwhelmingly are “Anglo-Saxon” in the way the term is used outside of medieval studies: i.e. white). Rather than seeking for change in the way a marginalized group is described in normative discourse (that’s “women,” not “girls”), this change challenges the self-identification and position of white scholars in the implicit linguistic hierarchy of the field.

Enactment of this change by white academics would then confirm momentum away from an entrenched, traditional academic power axis towards an expansive diversity of colleagues and of research interests. I’m urging my white colleagues to edit “Anglo-Saxon” out of course descriptions, course titles, lecture slides, research drafts, social media, and general conversation: those seemingly small, individual changes will accrue to move “Anglo-Saxon” firmly onto the list of outdated racial and ethnic terms as we move towards a more inclusive and global medieval studies  – and that, after all, is the ostensible goal of all parties in the debate over “Anglo-Saxon.”

The Massachusetts Medievalist on adjunct faculty and home renovation

The Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the vicious relationship between university reliance on adjunct faculty and the abysmal academic job market in this anxiety-producing season: the always terrible market for academic English jobs is now “cratering,” one of many apocalyptic yet appropriate adjectives I’ve seen on social media.

Like many universities across the country, my own institution uses an uncomfortably high number of adjunct faculty, especially in general education “service courses” like English Composition or Intro Psych. In this fall term 2019, for example, core faculty taught only 12% of our first-year writing courses (2 of 17 sections)(n.b.: since our unionized faculty does not have tenure, Lesley uses the term “core” rather than the more usual “tenured or tenure-track”). All parties involved- administrators, adjunct faculty, core faculty, pundit columnists in various media outlets, and the students themselves – agree that this is not an ideal situation. Financial exigency trumps idealism every time, however, and we continue to take advantage of the high number of under-employed academics in metro Boston to staff an uncomfortable number of our undergraduate class sections.

At the same time, the university is rolling out and investing in new programs: a Masters in Social Work, an all-online MBA, a Masters in Mindfulness, and others.  One announcement used the verb “build” to describe these programs and a home improvement analogy immediately occurred to me.

A new academic program is like the spiffy addition to the house: we’ve always wanted to turn that deck into an all-season “solarium” where we can have parties and scout meetings and quiet reading space.  It’ll be shiny and new and fun and we can invite all the neighbors over to admire it. Look at our new all-online MBA!!

Investing in core faculty to teach crucial undergraduate general education classes is like a window replacement project: it’s extremely expensive and at first glance there’s no noticeable difference. Sure, the old windows are single-pane items with no insulation; the casings would probably start to crack from overuse in the next few years. But the new ones look pretty much the same, even though they’re energy efficient: no parties for the neighbors to admire the windows, no shiny new solarium. Look at our first year writing classes that meet the same program requirements and have the same catalog descriptions as in past years!

The difference, however, is that eventually the heating bills go down. The house is less drafty. The faculty can invest in multi-year curriculum development projects, since they know they have a long-term stake in the enterprise.  First year students see their general education faculty in other courses in their majors and elsewhere. A favorite freshman English professor is around campus and easily found for academic and career advice in later years.  At Lesley, we would need to hire 2.5 core faculty to teach just this semester’s adjunct load in first year writing. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it should.

In an ideal world, we’d replace the windows AND get the new solarium. We don’t live in ideal world, and my university just bought the solarium. But for those playing a long game, the windows are the smarter choice.

The Massachusetts Medievalist calls out the Clark Art Institute: #TimesUp for Stieglitz

This past weekend, the Massachusetts Medievalist journeyed to the northwest corner of the state for the Clark Art Institute’s exhibit, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” The small, chronologically arranged exhibit includes numerous interesting and engaging works, most especially six of the seven paintings in O’Keeffe’s “Lighthouse” series that she painted in Provincetown MA 1931-1932.

Oil painting of lighthouse
Ida O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme VII, 1931/1932

I was also struck by the still lifes, especially the 1927 “Peach-blown vase,” with its intriguing mixture of techniques and composition. The paintings on display left me somewhat unsatisfied, wanting to see more of the work of this artist who seemed to experiment with a variety of styles and palettes without settling into one.

Oil painting of vase with pink flowers
Ida O’Keeffe, Peach-Blown Vase, 1927

The feminist historian in me, however, disagrees with the narrative presented by the exhibition. Signage and labels show Ida’s attempts to move away from “Georgia’s shadow,” note the varieties of paid employment she performed, and ultimately define her as a minor artist who never found her own style (conclusions drawn, somewhat more harshly, by Roxana Robinson in the New Yorker).

Most egregiously, the exhibit refers to the relationship of Ida and Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia’s husband and Ida’s brother-in-law, as “flirtatious” and full of “sexual innuendo.” Stieglitz’s photo of Crow’s Feather and Apple is included as a visual example of this “flirtation”:

Black and white photograph of a crow's feather inserted into an apple

With Stieglitz himself as the feather and Ida as the “Ida Red” apple. The photograph was made in 1924 when Ida was “visiting” Georgia and Alfred in the summer between teaching jobs.

So here’s my version of the narrative:
Like many unmarried, middle-class professional women of her era, Ida O’Keeffe participated in a sexist, impoverishing version of the gig economy, cobbling together teaching jobs, nursing positions, and editorial work to try to pay her basic expenses. In the summer of 1924, when she was between jobs and had no other place to live, a “visit” to her sister and brother-in-law entailed her endurance of Stieglitz’s deeply inappropriate and aggressive, predatory behavior. The split between the sisters – often discussed in terms of Georgia’s desire to be the only serous artist in the family — was exacerbated by Georgia’s willful ignorance about her husband’s harassment of her sister. Without hardly any financial and professional support, Ida was unable to focus on development of her artistic technique and style; she spent much of her adult life moving around the country to various teaching and nursing positions, fitting her painting and exhibiting around the non-artistic work that paid the bills.

Ida O’Keeffe is then indicative of probably thousands of women whose talent was stifled by masculinist culture in general and that of the art world in particular — #TimesUp for Stieglitz the entitled creepy predator, and time to celebrate Ida O’Keeffe, whose few remaining works, provocative and somewhat haunting, painfully remind us of her unrealized ambitions.

The Massachusetts Medievalist aspires to decolonize the curriculum

The Massachusetts Medievalist has had a tumultuous couple of weeks. Not only did the primary organization in my field, the society formerly known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, completely implode in what I hope is a productive and ultimately healthy way, but I ended up in the OR having major emergency surgery right as fall term classes were starting. (Personal side note: no cancer; multi-week, but manageable recovery; my dept.head amazing lining up substitute faculty for all classes).

My planned blog about decolonizing the curriculum seems ever more crucial now, in the wake of last week’s discussions about racism in pre-Conquest English studies (the members of no-longer-ISAS did indeed vote to change the name of the organization, but it’s not entirely clear what will happen next). As American universities as a whole grapple with the structural racism behind our bronzed gates and within our ivory towers, I want to think a bit about how Lesley’s new English major may help to make some changes to make the field of English overall more welcoming to students of color, at least at my own regional university.

Two years ago, Lesley’s Cultural Literacy and Curriculum institute got me thinking about the ways that our English major – a very standard set of requirements for surveys, seminars, and “electives in the major” — was set up to reinforce coverage and periodization, inadvertently making many students feel excluded and unwelcome. The sequence of coursework basically made students work chronologically through literary history, with a substantial majority of texts by white men, despite well-intentioned attempts throughout to diversify represented authors in classes like English Lit I or American Lit survey. Depending on the order she selected the core courses, a student could theoretically be a second semester junior before taking a class with even 50% of authors who were not white and male. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out why English is one of the least diverse undergraduate majors at Lesley, despite our quite good numbers of students of color overall (ranging around 40%).

The new major attempts to address these and other issues to provide a robust curriculum that will include and welcome all students from the first core course to senior seminar. Two guiding principles:

1. “Coverage” is impossible: while we use the phrase “expanded literary canon” in some descriptive materials, that canon is now so large that any attempt to “cover” it is doomed to failure. It’s more important – and more feasible – to study a variety of voices, cultures, genres, and time periods than to try to make sure that students have read a laundry list of “core texts” (mostly from the traditional western canon of white, male authors) previously defined as essential. Such “coverage” has often “included” authors of color as seeming add-ons at the end of a semester of chronologically presented texts (the Massachusetts Medievalist herself is a guilty party here).

2. Skills are more important than content: even more importantly, we are trying to teach students how to be strong critical readers and writers, to help them build a toolbox that they can use when engaging with ANY texts in any situation, formal or informal. Students will be ready to think and talk and write about literary structure, about character development, about symbol and theme and literary figures. They can hone those skills without Beowulf and Chaucer – but if they decide that they want to read Beowulf and Chaucer, in a class or on their own, they will have the skills to do so. We hope.

We are devising some assessment processes that will help us to gauge the success of the new requirements in the major. For me, one of the crucial metrics will be growth in the number of English majors overall, but especially in the numbers of students of color choosing to major in English. Stay tuned.

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about patriarchy, feminism, and definite articles

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent some of the last few days with the Google NGRAM tool and I feel like it could become a dangerously time-consuming relationship. Why finish fall term syllabi and lesson plans when I could generate hundreds of graphs about word usage trends in published books?

I had been wondering for a while about a potential change in usage I’ve seen in both spoken and written communication in the past twenty-odd years. In common discourse, is “patriarchy” or “the patriarchy” now more common? I feel like we have been adding the definite article more frequently, and I thought google NGRAM could tell me if that feeling is accurate.

Unfortunately, the core answer is that it can’t–  or at least, not in the ways I was using the tool. From 1970-2008, the most common word to appear before “patriarchy” was “of.” “The” was second or third, depending on capitalization and other parameters. Adding up the frequency of other words that appeared before “patriarchy” (these included and, to, under, by, and in) indicated that the usage of the definite article occurs only about one-sixth of the time (exact numbers vary by year).

The sample uses data only until 2008, with more to come as the google scanning project continues, but the time lag means that information from the last eleven years, when I think I’ve been hearing and reading “the patriarchy” much more than “patriarchy,” is not yet available. We don’t have real-time access to that sort of linguistic information, at least not yet.

That said, I did find some data that made sense with what we know about overall trends in American culture, especially feminism, up to 2008. Usage of “patriarchy” in American English, with and without the definite article, crested in the mid-1990s and was basically non-existent before the 1950s. First Wave feminists didn’t use the term, and as the Second Wave gained momentum, “patriarchy” became a part of discourse in an ever-growing way.

Usage of “patriarchy” and “the patriarchy” spiked in the mid- to late-1990s, with fewer iterations from 1998-2008 than in 1992-1998. Those mid-1990s years correspond to the increased attention in mainstream discourse to feminist issues in the wake of the Anita Hill testimony, the “year of the woman” in congressional elections, and the first national engagement with sexual harassment that eventually became the #MeToo movement.

I suspect the decrease in overall usage of “patriarchy” in published work in the first decade of the new millennium stems from the mistaken idea that the feminist project was complete, as well as from the also mistaken idea that the word “patriarchy” was somehow offensive or aggressive or impolitic — its usage could cause a woman to be described as “shrill.”  I hope that when data from 2008-2019 becomes available, it includes a rise in the number of usages of “patriarchy,” as the last three years especially have taught us that misogyny, sexism, and racism are by no means finished projects that we no longer need to discuss.

I also suspect that data will show a preponderance of the definite article before “patriarchy.” My students — mostly young women, a group widely acknowledged to be at the cutting edge of language change — use “the patriarchy,” the definite article indicating a monolithic and definitive system that we need to dismantle. Perhaps in a hundred years all references to “the patriarchy” will use past tense verbs. Google NGRAM might be able to tell us.