>One of my students recently asked me if I have a favorite TV show. I told her that I liked too many, past and present, to name a single favorite.
She seemed surprised and replied, “I just don’t associate a medievalist with television.” I replied, “Well, I *live* in the *21st* century.” She laughed and then we proceeded to talk about the police procedurals genre, which we both enjoy.
A few days later she was looking at me funny so I asked her what was on her mind. She said, “I just can’t get over what you must have to know to be a medievalist.” Since she’s one of my graduate students, I reminded her that no matter what one’s field is, one’s goal should be to know a lot. Then she clarified that I have to know other languages and skills like reading manuscripts. So I reminded her that all English Ph.D. programs have a foreign language requirement and that even specialists in the most contemporary literature have a body of specialized knowledge and skills.
So then she got to what was really her point, I think, and said, “But you just don’t seem like what I think of when I think ‘medievalist.'”
Huh. “What’s that suppose to mean?” I asked.
“I just don’t see you when I think ‘medievalist,'” she responded.
“Well, I am one.” I said, getting a little bothered by where this was going.
She realized she hit a nerve and tried to back-peddle, “Well, let’s put it this way: when I first started college, the medievalists in the department didn’t look like you.” [Note: this student has children older than I am.]
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re basing your idea of what a medievalist should look like on the single example of Rust Belt University in the year I was born?”
“Well, now, did you have to go there? All I’m saying is they fit the stereotype.” [Note: OK, maybe I shouldn’t have made her feel old, but I was trying to point out that in that time, I had grown up, gone to college and graduate school, and gotten tenure. Just sayin’ — that’s a long time and the world has indeed changed in that time.]
“I didn’t know there was a stereotype for ‘medievalist.'”
“You know what I mean.”
“Old? Male? Or both?”
“See, you *do* know what I mean.”
Instead of taking her to task directly for the sexism of her assumptions, I said, “Aren’t you glad times have changed, then? Because now I look a lot more like the medievalists I know than I don’t!”
“Yes, I am glad. And now when I think of ‘medievalist’ I’ll think of you.”
So we managed to end the conversation on a good point, but man, was I starting to get testy there in the middle. It was really depressing me to hear a woman so completely internalize sexist assumptions that even when I was gently trying to point them out she wasn’t seeing them. I know age has something to do with it, but still, it was bumming me out.
And her other underlying assumptions were also pushing some of my other buttons that she couldn’t have known about. I know that one thing that was probably underpinning her idea of what a medievalist looks like is the assumption that some students have that you should study what you identify with in the most obvious ways, coupled with the corollary that old stuff is only for old white men. The first point seems to defeat the broadest ideas of education, and the second point makes me want to say, “Well, even our oldest old guy in the department isn’t even as old as the heyday of Modernism! So should we *start* there?” And later something came up about her vague idea of medieval lit being all about dungeons and torture. And that idea probably wasn’t helped by my having used the 1137 entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to lead off a conversation about what is literature and what is literary study (this was in my research methods class), since that entry is all about the torture methods used by Stephen and his supporters in their war against Maud for the throne. [Note to self: next medieval text I use in this class should be a pretty one or a funny one!] But I’m a little annoyed with myself for having missed this teaching moment, for having missed an opportunity to say, “You don’t to have to be what you study!” That’s something more students in the humanities need to hear — especially the women and students of color — because I think sometimes they think the only avenues open to them are ones that include what they already know. It’s important for the vitality of any field to attract students from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences, but I think fields in earlier periods of literature, history, art, etc., will especially suffer if too many students think those are fields appropriate only for old white guys. I think it’s also a broader problem for the liberal arts at a university like mine, where too many working class students think arts and sciences majors aren’t for them — a topic eloquently addressed by Dr. Crazy recently.
I used to think that merely my presence in the room cut through many such assumptions, but clearly not! But how do you convince students that they might like something they know nothing about before they get in your classroom? I don’t mean, how do I convince all my grad students to become medievalists — because that would be kind of nutty! — but rather, how do even begin to say to all students, about whatever subject that they assume is too esoteric for them, “Try it! You’ll like it!”