Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Am I Still A Medievalist?

I’m still a little bitter with Spivak for making me read through 20, 30, 50 pages of extremely dense prose to get to a one-word answer. I don’t claim to be able to create an essay like Spivak’s, mostly because I don’t like to be scoffed at openly. But I do know that I can also go on a bit. Anyway, I will spare you the discomfort of slogging through pedestrian meta-navel-gazing and assorted ickiness. She who spends many hours of her days thinking about, studying, and working with the medieval is a medievalist. The answer to the title’s question: dunno.

If you’re the busy sort, have a great holiday! If you, like me, have a snow day and time to kill before you travel, you are most welcome to stick around for the whole thing.

When I began this blog, lo these many years ago, I placed ‘medievalist’ first on the list of descriptors located below the title. It was hubris, likely, to claim that title for myself with just a few classes in medieval language and history at the undergraduate level, and a shot at a graduate school education that had not yet begun, but I did anyway. It was a ‘dress for the job you want’ decision, and I shrugged my self-consciousness off as a repeat of the resistance to adopting an authoritative voice I had experienced as an undergraduate. I lectured myself I fit the above description of a medievalist, and therefore I counted. I occasionally added a “damn it!” to that, for emphasis. In desperate moments, I even imagined my undergrad mentor shouting “Get over it!” at me, as Mentor was wont to do when anyone got neurotic.

Like most medieval bloggers, I considered and then quickly abandoned the idea of making the blog fully medieval. As a first year grad student, I didn’t have all that much to say. I also entered graduate school determined to follow in the footsteps of my female professors, who managed to be full PEOPLE who studied and wrote about medieval or even renaissance topics. I specify female professors because a great majority of my male professors in undergrad showed themselves to us as stereotypical ‘professors,’ the brain on a stick phenomenon. They were smart, certainly, but also very single-minded in their activities and seemed very alone in their lives. Given the choice between becoming a fussy, out-of-touch megalomaniac – the all medieval, all the time route – or a full person with a multiplicity of enthusiasms, the greatest of which is my job, I chose to try to become the latter.

And then I started the Grad school experience. Oy. Watching the really unseemly faculty wars in my department at that time, I began to think that perhaps academia was not the place for me. Though I maintained a love for my work, the people I worked with made me want to jump out of my own skin on a fairly regular basis. And then that life I was determined to have got unwieldy. Heomodor could not physically, financially or emotionally handle being alone. And so she came to Microburg with me, and I was responsible for an elderly and infirm relative who would have what I suspected were anxiety attacks, but could also have easily been cardiac issues, every day as I got ready to leave for class. Looking back now at Heomodor’s quadruple bypass and advanced PAD, I think they probably were cardiac, and I’m glad I risked censure and eye-rolling and a whole mess of aspersions cast on my character and intellect to attend to them.

Now, I don’t tell that story simply to feel sorry for myself in public. I recognize that the department I was in was far more dysfunctional than most. I know several of my professors would start classes by telling us not to let ourselves be scared off by what was going on at Microburg, because simply nobody behaves like that; not really. But I thought I saw something structural in the academy that wouldn’t work well with my personality and my responsibilities. I also saw myself becoming a neurotic mess who was convinced that my self-inflicted poverty was actively killing my mother.

I didn’t apply to the PhD program at Microburg or anywhere else, but took my ‘terminal MA’ and a deep breath, and moved on to teaching youngsters about gerunds. It’s more fun than you think, but it isn’t medieval studies.

Heomodor came with me here to the shadows of the capitol as well, and developed other health issues that required attending to, and the medieval, being far from an immediate need, fell to the wayside. And now, while I go through Heomodor’s things, and mine, and finally begin to think about who I am when I am not centrally a caregiver, I have to consider whether two and a half years is too many to catch up on. Or if I even want to catch up as a professional. I mean, I am looking middle age straight in the eye, and I am less patient now than ever before. Besides, penury sucks.

Though I have largely dropped out of the conversations that started so promisingly, with Ancrene Wiseass and Dr. Virago, and Karl and later Medieval Woman, and Bardiac, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Scott Nokes and others who were so helpful and supportive and funny and smart and generous, I love that blogging allows me to eavesdrop on the best parts of the academic experience, the parts where people who love the same stuff get together wherever they are to talk, think, share, and even just geek out about it. (Wlonk!) Sometimes I’ll even venture in to add my admittedly now naïve, dilettante voice to the conversation.

So, I really don’t know if I am a medievalist anymore. I mean, yeah, I do spend an awful lot of time drawing parallels between the modern and the medieval. Also, if you could see my bookcase, even after I thinned it out, you would see that a large percentage of my reading time is spent between, oh about 800AD and Caxton. I do know that I’m happy that this blog exists, lame as it often is, and that the blogs of others more active in the field continue to exist in significantly less lame form. And I also know, that now, thanks to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's recent, eloquent article about blogging and medievalism, I'm feeling a little pressure to be less lame about this blogging thing. Possibly the best inadvertent application of guilt by a non-Catholic this year! Well done, Jeffrey!


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I do what I can. And you are most certainly a medievalist. It is good to have you in the blogosphere!

medieval woman said...

I'll second that - I'm glad you're still blogging as well - my own blog has been shockingly light on the medieval for a while, but I'm happy when you chime in as always!

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for such a moving post, Heo Cwaeth. I often think graduate school is not the best place for cultivating a love of the academic profession--it can sometimes feel more like hazing, and if the professors around you are unhappy (and maybe also a little crazy), it isn't a good advertisement for the life you have to give up so much labor and psychic energy for. It sounds like you made some good choices, you are a great daughter, and you don't need an official university imprimatur to be a medievalist.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm late to this, but: what they said.

And you know what else? It wasn't until you got to the point of leaving with your MA that I realized that you weren't further along in your graduate studies. In other words, you always seemed very authoritative to me!