This Bugs Me

07 Nov

What a week! Spent it at a conference; in my field, not medieval. I gave an awesome presentation – and that’s not just coming from me but from the evals. Somehow I think I’m on a new national program committee, a new national collaborative writing team and I was already a member of another national initiative. Plus I’m in the hospitality room the last night with just 12 of us and the intern decides we can eat 10 large pizzas. Me and another guy walked to a liquor store a couple of blocks down the road to pick up some, er, root beer, so we didn’t catch the order being made. The pizza guy shows up, sets a case on the table and pulls out 5. I’m thinking, Man, that’s a lot of pizza for how many are here and he pulls out another 5. We worked that for humor value for the rest of that night and it still had legs the next day. You had to be there but trust me, it was funny. That was the night before my presentation so I was short one run-through (and full of salt) when I gave it but it turned out pretty well.

The one negative of the week was what I brought along to read. I recently bought Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies, edited by Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz. I started reading it Monday night and the first chapter, “Introduction: Early Medieval Studies in Twenty-First-Century America” is a discussion by the editors of, as the title implies, Early Medieval Studies in the US and also an explanation of why this book features only authors currently (at the time of publication anyway) working in the United States. The editors think the field of American early medieval studies is not getting the credit and recognition it deserves. They believe that American early medievalists are underrepresented in many publications, specifically mentioning Thomas Noble’s From Roman Provinces to Merovingian Kingdoms and the American Early Medieval Studies series. (p 4)

Interestingly, they spend some time discussing internationalism, a high degree of collaboration that cuts across national and continental boundaries and use Walter Goffart, Julia M. H. Smith and David Ganz as examples of scholars who have worked in both the US and Europe. They finish this section by stating, “Yet from the perspective of American academia, one cannot help but wonder whether this blending of the international professional community is not a reason the energy of early medieval studies in the United States is at times overlooked. One purpose of this collection, therefore, is to encourage renewed attention to the field as it is currently practiced here.” (p 5)

Huh? I know publishing’s a competitive deal. Is the solution to make the pond smaller so a species of fish can appear larger? This bugs me on several levels.

It bugs me because a perception I’m left with is that we (Americans – I’m not a historian) feel we can’t compete on the international stage so we should become parochial and limit contributors to those residing on our piece of real estate.

It bugs me because international cooperation, collaboration and, yes, competition is a great thing – in all fields – and should be embraced.

It bugs me because, of all people, historians should be aware of the dangers of inward-thinking, “us-against-the-world” viewpoints and should be working to avoid this, not promote it.

And finally, it bugs me because I paid $80 for a book which didn’t draw from the best minds in the field, but a subset of them.

Keep in mind that when I say “it bugs me,” that’s what I mean. I’m not mad, angry, pissed off, furious or any of that. I ended that chapter with a sense of unease, that this is not the right way to go about doing things. I understand when universities publish collections from their students. I could understand certain regions which suffer from a stigma of not having high quality work, despite evidence to the contrary, publishing English translations to expose the rest of the world to what they’ve been doing the past couple of decades. Eastern Europe and post-Franco Spain come to mind here. But for the United States?

There may be very sound reasons for this and I’d welcome any comments which might assuage my sense of unease. I know I come from “off the reservation” and maybe this is more of a usual way of doing business than I had believed. Maybe there are good reasons for this that I don’t see. And I’ll read the book and I expect I’ll learn a lot from it. I don’t expect a book with contributions from Bernard Bachrach, Lisa Bitel, Constance Brittain Bouchard, Charles Bowlus, Florin Curta, Genevra Kornbluth and Michael Kulikowski, among others, to be weak. But it still bugs me.

Chazelle, Celia and Lifshitz, Felice, eds., Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4039-6942-2

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Posted by on November 7, 2010 in Books


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