Blogging with Tenure

Well, that was an exciting past several days! I hope for those that were following the thread on the Medieval Feminist Scholarship Facebook page that Dorothy Kim so generously started this past Sunday about last summer's post, that at least some of what I have said in my "footnotes" on chivalry this week has been helpful in clarifying where I was coming from in suggesting my original "talking points." I still have several more, perhaps indeed, many more posts that I think need writing in order to develop properly my critique of our current scholarly and public conversation on the role of the European Christian tradition, including its ideas about women and what it means to be fully human, but I want to pause for a moment here and address something else.


When I wrote that post last summer and uploaded it with its intentionally provocative title, I knew very well what I was doing. I was issuing a challenge, throwing down a gauntlet, declaring to the world at large that I believe the tradition that I study and the people who created it are worth celebrating for the good that they have given to the world, including the ideas which I highlighted in the post:
  • a respect for women buttressed by the conviction that rape is as serious a crime as murder, arguably even worse;
  • marriage defined not as a contract between families or as a man's taking sexual possession of a woman, but as a bond made willingly by two individuals, both of whom have freely given their consent; and
  • women's full inclusion in the political sphere by way of the right to vote.
None of these things, I venture, would have been at all controversial if I had simply stated them as above: universal values to which we presumably all subscribe (but, given the reception that my post has received, perhaps, after all, we don't--thoughts?). The problem is that they are not universal, or at least have not been, most certainly not for the greater part of human history which we have the sources to observe. Rather, these are convictions that have a very specific genealogy and which we can trace quite clearly. And that trace leads us somewhere that many of our contemporaries would not like it to go: to a tradition which they have been taught has done more to deny than to accord women and other members of the society the respect that they deserve as fellow human beings and which tradition they now see as still coercively operative in our current world.

Dr. Kim is herself writing a book now on this very subject. According to her Facebook post, her working title is Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies, the purpose of which (if I have read her descriptions correctly) is to call out those of us in the field who continue to support the "white heteropatriarchal system" by persisting in making such positivist statements as I have on my blog. For example (she cited this one back at me, to be clear how problematic she found it): "Because I believe that ideas matter and that it is above all ideas developed in the Middle Ages that have given shape to the values of our modern Western world, including our own critiques of ourselves for not living up to our own ideals."

The Battle for European Civilization, Chicago Style

Now, I confess that this post ("My WHY, HOW, WHAT") in the context of my "Three Cheers for White Men" might seem to suggest that all I want to be is a cheerleader for the "West." The irony of course is that fourteen years ago, just after I had gotten tenure, I was blasted in the national media for being precisely the reverse. At that time, the faculty at the University of Chicago had been having a long conversation (I think the committee met over the course of several years) about how to structure our undergraduate curriculum, during which time I was serving as the chair of one of our core sequences in Civilizations.

This core sequence, provocatively titled (of course) "The History of Western Civilization," had a very checkered history, which I will not detail here. Suffice it to say, it had never been some of the things that it was often assumed to be, most particularly, a "great books" course (our Humanities and Social Science core courses are closer to that). Rather, it had always been a HISTORY course, introduced in a previous curricular reform precisely so as to counter the ahistorical "great books" quality of the older core sequences. The whole point of the course was to put the ideas and texts that the other core sequences concentrated on into their historical context--to problematize them as developments of particular moments in history, rather than champion them as free-floating values to which all of humanity should subscribe.

At the time of the controversy, I had been teaching at Chicago for just over eight years. The previous autumn I had been awarded tenure in the department as an Associate Professor of History, after a fairly nerve-wracking review. (I had only just finished my book manuscript, and although it was under contract, it had not yet been published. I had published only two articles and a handful of reviews. I was at no time certain that things would turn out as well as they did, particularly given some of the arguments I was making in my book and which my colleagues told me had been serious concerns in their deliberations. I am still convinced that it was writing the book that turned my hair white. And just to make things feel even more apocalyptic--it was the ideas about the fears of the apocalypse around the year 1000 that got me into such trouble--the country was in a state of shock. I had been writing the acknowledgements for my book in preparation for sending it to my publisher the day the Twin Towers came down.)

So perhaps I may be forgiven for having said something a little intemperately about "having just gotten tenure" when a reporter from the Chicago Tribune came to interview me about why, thanks to the curricular reforms which my university colleagues had agreed (and about which I, not having been on the committee, had had nothing to say), I and my other colleagues in Civ were changing the title of the course from "The History of Western Civilization" to "The History of European Civilization" to better reflect what we thought we were going to teach.

Mr. Grossman pounced. He suggested that we had been irked by having to teach in the shadow of our colleague (one of my staunchest supporters and dear friends) Karl "Jock" Weintraub, who had been teaching WesternCiv at Chicago for almost fifty years. Grossman claimed we "defected" and suggested we were simply following fashion. He lumped us in with the problems bedeviling American higher education (junior faculty these days!), implied that we did not want to "frighten and enlighten" our students in the way that Jock had, and that we had only deferred to Jock because we felt like we were "serving time," until tenure could free us from the lordship of the "grand old man."

The problem was, of course, that timing--not my tenure clock anyway--had nothing to do with it. The further irony was that I was the only newly tenured member of the staff regularly teaching in the sequence; everyone else had been there longer than I. I simply happened to be chair--precisely because I was the most junior of the regular faculty on the staff and everyone else had served his or her time shepherding the sequence already. But this was not the story that Grossman wanted to tell. In his view, Jock was retiring, and we, tenured faculty all, felt it was finally safe to do, in fact, what we had been hired to do, this being a world-ranked research university and all: design our courses, including those in our core general education sequences, to reflect what we had learned in our research. And that this did not include telling our students anything about the great tradition of Plato, St. Paul, Erasmus, Descartes, Rousseau (don't get me started), and John Stuart Mill with which Jock Weintraub had been in love.

Out of the West

There were yet further ironies, which are important for putting my "Three Cheers" in context. It was not our choice, that is, not the EuroCiv faculty's choice, to change the requirement for the students to take only two quarters of Civ, so we were just as unhappy with the loss of the Ancient part of the sequence as Jock and Grossman were. Nor was it my choice (and never has been) to teach only to my research specialty. One of the things I always loved about teaching in the sequence when it was "WesternCiv" and continue to love now that it is "EuroCiv" is that it forces me out of my research speciality into the larger arguments about what the tradition which I study means.

In this sense, I am not and have never been simply a "medievalist," although that is the field in which I have done my research. Perhaps this is why my statements about where some of the ideals by which we hope our present society might be at long last able to live struck so many of my medievalist colleagues as coming out of the blue. They assumed I was speaking solely as a medievalist, whereas I was actually speaking as an American Christian woman who has studied enough history to appreciate how lucky she is to be alive today and to have the support and respect that she does from both the men and the women in her life as a woman and creature of God. Including the support that my male colleagues voted me the day they voted me tenure. (There were only seven senior women in the department at the time, hardly enough to have won over the vote without the men.)

Which brings me to the thing that I found hardest about the whole exchange this past week on the Facebook thread. Yes, it was hard reading about how my colleagues found it chilling (ironically, given that we were at 1 degree Fahrenheit here in Chicago) that I should actually think it worth pointing out that there were men--white men even--who supported women in the past and that, yes, they lived in Europe (as one of my colleagues put it: "The Eurocentricism is strong with this blogger. There was [and is] a whole wonderful and complicated world out there"--ahem, I know, I have taught courses on it.) And it was hard reading how they assume that if I said something positive, this must mean I had no clue about how many men did not live up to the ideals that other men of their own day or, indeed, our own have expressed ("Oh for god's sake, this post is such incredible bullshit. Chivalry was 'invented' and no one raped anymore?"--ahem, no, God is still waiting for us to get a grip on the commandments, but does that mean that we should not acknowledge, even celebrate, the fact that the ancient Hebrews introduced ideals into the human story by which we are now still struggling to live? "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor").

No, what was hardest was what they said about my status as a professor. A: "It scares me that this person is in charge of teaching medieval history somewhere." B: "Not just any somewhere: U of Chicago." A: "*shivers*." Me (entering the room and finding everyone talking about me): "We are at 6 degrees F here today--truly chilling." A: "Rachel, I'd like to apologize for this comment. Even though I disagree with the blog post, this is an ad hominem attack and it was rude. Please accept my apologies for suggesting that you are not qualified to hold a university position simply because our readings on this topic differ." Me: "No worries, happy to meet you!" (How's that for being a Happy Warrior?)

Not every exchange ended so well. Another colleague suggested that the thread should remove the back link because otherwise my blog post ("this white feminismnonsense [sic]") would get too many hits and be among the first things "a student or researcher sees when googling... For people who have yet to hone their critical thinking skills, this not-linking helps to mitigate the misguided perspectives those people would otherwise have easy/easier access to." Which is a very good point about how browser algorithms shape our online conversations, but the irony for me of course is that my blog has been up for years and nobody noticed. (Well, almost nobody: thanks, faithful readers, for hanging in here with me all these years! I love you all!) And yet, now that they have (see, I knew what I was doing putting up that blog post under that title), I am somehow taking advantage, "leveraging my status as a medieval historian" all the while "protected by every possible form of privilege and hierarchical advantage."

Professorial Privilege

Which is, of course, exactly what Ron Grossman would say. How dare I, having tenure, hold ideas that others disagree with? How dare I speak, even on a private blog which, although linked if you look hard enough back to my university homepage (actually, my individual homepage which is hosted on the university server), nowhere announces itself as a work of scholarship, quite the reverse?* This is the blog on which I have wrestled with my greatest demons--my envy, my pride, my greed, my gluttony, my lust, my anger, my sloth. This is the blog on which I have laid my soul bare in all its most embarrassing moments for all the world to see. Stripped myself naked in my humiliations and doubts. Shared with my friends and my enemies my anxieties over the one thing that can earn me that professional status my colleagues suggest I am abusing--my writing. Declared to the public and professional world that I have suffered from writer's block, doubted myself, found myself falling into the pit of despair. Over. And over. And over again.

And now I am being accused of abusing my privilege? What privilege would that be? The privilege to be envied because I have humiliated myself? (Really, follow that back link: you will love what PapaFreeak had to say about me.) Or is it the privilege that comes with the enormous responsibility of having been given this job, yes, no doubt about it, one of the top in my field, to seek only the truth and speak it, whatever the costs? To my reputation, to my Likeability on Facebook, to my colleagues' willingness even to speak with me? There is a reason that ostracism and excommunication were effective as punishments: social animals that we are, we all fear above all being excluded from the group.

Try it, I dare you. Say something out loud, maybe even in your Facebook feed, even more daringly, out on a public blog, that you know your friends will disagree with, but that you know to be true. No hurry, I'll wait. Is your heart pounding? Do you feel a bit sick? Do you tell yourself it is better to stay silent because you don't want to offend anybody? Do you worry about someone getting so angry at what you say that you fear, even just a little bit, for your physical safety? Are you afraid you might lose your job, however irrational that thought might be? Good. Now you know how I felt when I published that post. How I have felt now for the past several years ever since I was foolish enough (I never said I was an angel) to start reading widely outside of my field, outside even of academia, and started to learn what the rest of the world thinks of us.

About how privileged we are with our tenure (in Grossman's words, "the academic world's equivalent of a lifetime job guarantee"), and yet how we abuse it by turning the students we teach against the values of their own tradition. About how we in the ivory tower know nothing about what it takes to earn a living, start a business, feed a family, and yet spit on the very skills that we would need in order actually to do anything to create wealth in the world. About how we have become so out of touch with the celebration of beauty and art and love for the good things that we enjoy in the world that we can do nothing but tear down the very sources of joy that our ancestors (all our ancestors, throughout the world, but most especially those in the now hated "West") took centuries to build because despite their great beauty and value they still had flaws. About why nobody wants to study the humanities anymore: because we have poisoned them.

What, then, was I to do with my (say it with a sneer, maybe even spit), privilege? I'll tell you: take the risk. Take the risk of being hated, shunned, sneered at, derided by all of my colleagues, ostracized by my peers, excommunicated from polite society, yes, even cursed. Because that, my friends, is surely the point of tenure, otherwise I am dirt.

*Also, just by the by, this is surely the whole point of keeping a blog, the single most democratic form of publishing ever: IT IS NOT PEER REVIEWED. I started it because I wanted to be able to say the things that I could not say as a scholar, but needed to say as a Christian, a fencer, a writer, and (as I now see it) a citizen. I describe myself (now, again, not in the original edition of the blog) on the banner as a "medievalist" simply to signal where I am coming from with my observations about "the postmodern West."

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