Monday, July 21, 2008

Let Knowledge Grow

I was in conversation recently with one of our faculty who observed that "medieval studies is a difficult field." The context concerned the chances of a particular student "making it" through exams, and I began wondering whether a mediocre pass might be reason to counsel against continuation in the program. This train of thought got me making connections to a couple of other random comments I've noted. A visitor bemoaned the fact that as the only medievalist in the department, it was difficult to impress non-medievalists with a tenure dossier when much of the evidence offered would fail to elicit the oohs and ahhs that ought rightly to accrue to work produced through intense manuscript research in several languages. Colleagues used to working on a text in a language they speak every day and reading secondary sources in the same language (albeit with postmodern meta-language incursions), were unlikely to grasp the inherently more difficult process of accurately transcribing and translating, much less analyzing, a single sentence in Middle English and comparing it to versions of the same thought in Anglo-Norman French, Latin, or Middle High German.

I also recall discussing the importance of overseas archival research for our medieval history students with the departmental graduate studies director (a specialist in colonial America) and finding him astonished by the odd opening hours, strange usage limitations, and general technological intransigence of some European document repositories. He opined as how it was probable that such peculiarities might, indeed, make it more difficult for a medievalist to complete a dissertation on the local economy of the Loire Valley in the same amount of time allotted to a graduate student using 20th century newspaper and magazine accounts to demonstrate a shift in the political sentiments of the urban middle-class.

One more point that fell into my mental melange was the notorious article about the Kalamazoo Congress, written by Charlotte Allen, that appeared in the 6-2-08 installment of the Weekly Standard. Postmodernism and waste studies came in for some serious satiric stabs in the story. In among the jibes is the reasonable question of whether the world needs 3,000 medievalists with varying degrees of academic erudition. At what point is "good enough," indeed, good enough?

And my last bit of cogitational stew focuses on the amount of effort required to maintain a flourishing undergraduate medieval studies major. My fellow discussant and I agreed that, even in an arts-and-letters-friendly environment, it was harder to make the classic liberal arts case for medieval studies click in the minds of prospective majors, than to do so for English or History. (Those who teach a medieval field at schools with weighty science programs may feel free to laugh at the "degree of difficulty" to be found in a liberal arts institution, but I still think my statement holds its subjective truth.)

So, what IS the point (or points) I'm trying to make? I guess it's something like this. Medieval studies IS a difficult field and you have to like it very much in order to do all the things that you must in order to be a first-rate medievalist. As with most endeavors, everyone is not going to be a superb practitioner, but perhaps enthusiasm does count for quite a bit in stimulating the interest of students who may have what it takes to surpass the academic accomplishments of their teachers.

This gets back to the beginning issue: does one encourage an "average" student to pursue a degree in a demanding field of study where excellence is both hard to achieve and often overlooked. As an ABD with an M.A. in medieval history, my conclusion may be a reflection of my own desire for self-worth, but nonetheless, I would argue that the likelihood of future career success as a medievalist should not be the primary benchmark in determining a student's worthiness to pursue a course of study in which he or she may never becoming a leading light. Rather, the stick-to-it-iveness of the average student should be rewarded by the chance to do the thing he/she loves. In no way do I advocate lowering standards or cutting more slack to the eager but inept, or in some other way decreasing the value of the degree earned. What I do advocate is setting the bar of "good enough" at a level that shows reasonable competence, without the added demand of brilliance.

I would add that all students need good counsel about their career aspirations and the odds for or against achieving the goals they set for themselves. The actual likelihood of success must be clearly (and compassionately) spelled out, so that with mature reflection, students can make their life choice based on a realistic assessment of their skills and with full knowledge of the challenges their career path is likely to hold.

My final answer is: yes, there is room for 3,000 medievalists in the world, even those with a "B" or two on their transcripts or a passion for waste studies. Crescat scientia vita excolatur. ("Let knowledge grow from more to more, and thus be human life enriched." Motto of the University of Chicago)

1 comment:

Darryl said...

I agree that nowadays it's becoming harder to make a case for medieval studies in general, or even doing medieval topics in other fields. Not only are liberal arts disciplines criticized for anything from frivolity or a perceived lack of rigor, but people also see the historical, literary, and cultural legacies of Europe as something mostly negative and/or irrelevant, for a variety of reasons. I certainly do think that po-mo esotericism is a continuing problem for academia. Academics are, to paraphrase Ferry and Renaut's "La pensée '68," sometimes too ready to equate incomprehensibility with greatness. This seems to me more
conducive to indifference than interest, and indifference is probably the scholar's worst enemy!

Like you said, enthusiasm counts for something, too. Leaving aside the potential fringe benefits of a liberal arts education (critical thinking, writing skills, and so on), it has none of the real-world value of, say, a knowledge of economics, foreign languages, or chemistry. So it seems to me that the highest good that a scholar
of medieval studies can do is to stimulate other people's interests. Competence is nothing without enthusiasm, and I don't think that scholars can sustain scholarship if they are only talking to each other anymore (if that ever was the case).

To put it another way--enthusiasm as well as competence can create interest, and the scholars who have both are the ones I usually respect the most.