Guest Post: Ruth Evans (University of Stirling):
My experience of Leeds this year was a rather skewed one – literally – as I had twisted my neck two days earlier and trapped a nerve at the top of my spinal column. Everything was fine as long as I kept upright, looked straight ahead and made no attempt to turn my neck. But I was in agony for most of the Congress and was only able to attend two sessions: the ones I was in. So this blog is a very partial view of events – but, I hasten to add, it was not written under the influence of pain or painkillers.
Tanked up with codeine and nurturing the optimistic belief that I would get better very soon, I headed off to Leeds to chair a roundtable discussion on ‘Feminism and the (Post)Graduate Student’, very ably organised by Liz McEvoy (Swansea). This was an IMC ‘first’: namely, the first time the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship has sponsored sessions at Leeds. This was a packed event. The speakers had been chosen to represent different generations (the trope of ‘generations’ is a powerful one for feminism) and to speak from British and US perspectives.
The panel opened with the contributions of two young researchers: Harriet Sayer, a History postgraduate at New College, Oxford and Robin Gilbank, also a postgraduate but also a TA (Teaching Assistant) in the English Department at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Then Zina Peterson (Brigham Young University) spoke of her experience as a recently appointed lecturer at a US university – and a university, moreover, in which the students are committed to their Mormonism and sometimes ignorant or fearful about feminism. Yet paradoxically (or not?) they came round to accepting it, precisely because there is something at stake for them. Elizabeth Robertson (University of Colorado at Boulder) then gave a brief account of the history of the Medieval Feminist Newsletter and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, of which she is of course one of the founders and prime movers. Finally, Clare Lees (King’s College London) offered three vignettes from her own experience of diverse institutions in both the US and UK: Oregon, where she has taught and which has the biggest US foundation for the study of women; King’s College London, which has no centre for gender studies (although it has the ‘Queer Matters’ group); and the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists, which at its most recent conference had not a single feminist or same-sex or queer paper.
The main issues raised by the speakers, and subsequently opened up for general discussion, were a mixture of the familiar and the intriguingly new. The question of who is now doing feminist research in medieval studies is clearly a hot topic for young researchers and for the older ones who supervise and mentor them. Generally, it seems that students in both the UK and the US not only don’t know about feminism but are suspicious of it. The critique of feminists as ‘manhaters’ is still alive and kicking. Many students regarded ‘patriarchy’ as static. Many panellists and audience members felt strongly that women still needed to be put back in to their disciplines, but Beth Robertson stressed the need to rethink the category of women. The tension between essentialism and theory is still marked. There is a marked difference between disciplines, especially between History and English Literature. Social studies is resistant to literature. Institutions are very important: much depends on which university you are at and who teaches you. Modularisation militates against in-depth study. Universities are often forced to be interdisciplinary but there is no real dialogue between disciplines. The drive towards presentism squeezes out early literature. Students love theory – but what about politics? And in History the face-off between empiricism and theory is still a problem. Beth Robertson emphasised the value of team teaching and the importance of ‘poetics’, by which I think she means aesthetics. It’s a pity that this topic wasn’t really taken up in discussion, because Beth’s insistence on bringing poetics into feminist criticism strikes me as one of the most important and least explored areas. I was particularly intrigued by her point that identity politics is destructive to feminism because it has taken us away from poetics. Clare Lees stressed the need for exploring intergenerational work, with older learning from younger as well as vice versa. She was also – rightly – emphatic about the need for cross-period work.
I do not for a minute think that people attended this event to mourn the dead body of feminism or to watch the corpse of feminist criticism twitching. But while there was much here that was heartening – especially from the younger scholars – I did have a sense from the general discussion that we were drifting and that the case for feminism was not being made or being made forcefully enough.
The other session I attended was the one that I gave my paper in, Session 1635 on ‘Medieval Roads’, organized by Valerie Allen (CUNY) and chaired by Michelle Sauer (Minot State University, North Dakota). The title of this session was deliberately tongue-in-cheek. It was intended ironically to evoke the kinds of doggedly empirical and narrowly focussed medieval papers that are pilloried by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim (the title of Jim’s article-in-progress is ‘The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450–1485’). But the idea behind it (sparked by a random remark by Stephen Knight at last year’s IMC that a suitable panel for Leeds might be one on ‘medieval road safety’) was to suggest that this is in fact a lively and theoretical topic. This was scheduled in the last-but-one slot of the last day of the Congress and was (therefore?) very sparsely attended. A pity (and I don’t say this just for myself but for all of us), but on the other hand this meant that everyone who was there really wanted to be there and that showed in the quality of engaged discussion that followed. There is some interest out there in the symbolic meanings of roads. Kate Crassons (Lehigh) spoke on the York Play’s ‘Entry into Jerusalem’; Valerie Allen gave a wide-ranging paper on roads in medieval law; and I spoke about Margery Kempe and roads – not about pilgrimage but about how roads impinge on her imagination. The topic as a whole is a promising one. As a result of this Allen and I are co-editing an anthology on the topic.
Professor Ruth Evans is a member of the Literature Compass Editorial Board.